Monday, June 16, 2014

A Brief Tutorial On Talking To The Media About Things That Matter

What some people don't know about me is that when I first graduated from college I worked in public relations, the business of lying to the public without lying. At least that's how I tried to do it, which may explain why I didn't last long in the profession. Part of my job was talking to the press, both fielding their inquiries and reaching out to persuade them that I had a story worth covering. Another part of my job was preparing my clients and bosses to speak with the media. That's the corporate side of PR: now I'm on the other side, the side that used to cause us to launch into what we called "crisis management."

These photos were taken back in 2009 at a rally calling for healthcare reform. A year later the ACA was signed into law. This is not the only thing we do, but it is part of what we need to do.

On Thursday, June 26, at 5 p.m. we are meeting at Westlake Center here in Seattle, then marching to the Gates Foundation headquarters with a united message of opposition to the corporate education "reform" movement that Bill Gates has spawned (here's the link to the Facebook page if that's better for you). We will be rallying against high stakes standardized testing; the standardization and narrowing of curricula via such Gates' projects as Common Core; the privatization of public schools, via such things as for-profit charters and vouchers; union busting and the de-professionalization of teaching; the developmentally inappropriate focus on academics, especially for young children; large class sizes; Race To the Top (Obama) and No Child Left Behind (Bush); Teach for America; value-added measures used to evaluate teachers; closing schools based upon test scores; a general pattern of ignoring and being antagonistic toward teacher, parent, and student voices . . .

The list goes on, as does the list of things we are for, such as developmentally appropriate and holistic student evaluation; fair teacher assessments; progressive taxation that benefits learning and teaching; smaller classes, better pay for teachers, and relevant teacher training; the restoration of music, arts, PE, recess, libraries, counseling, and civics education; increased parental involvement and shared decision-making; transparent, democratic school boards; responsive, developmentally appropriate curricula . . . Again, the list goes on.

I imagine there will be several hundred of us there, we'll make noise and probably disrupt some traffic. We'll take strength from being shoulder-to-shoulder, learn a few new things, and feel righteous as we chant slogans at the facade of the Gates Foundation. If that's all we were doing, however, we'd probably be better served just plugging away on our blogs and working to elect folks who agree with us, because, after all, the facade of the Gates Foundation is blind, deaf, and dumb, although it might echo a bit. The hope, the reason we are doing this, is to raise awareness about the current battle over the future of education in America and the only way actions like this support that is when we are effective in presenting our message through the media. That's how publicity works. As great as our blogs are, we can reach a much wider audience if we can convey our messages clearly and passionately without coming off as unhinged.

And our rally should attract all the major local press given that the Gates Foundation headquarters is located within walking distance of most of our major local TV and radio stations, as well as the headquarters of the Seattle Times. I'm not involved with the planning of this, but I assume we've already contacted all of them to let them know what's up, and if we're on the ball, we've provided a press release with a succinct summary of our main points, and the opportunity to interview our national keynoter, Anthony Cody, and others like our newly elected City Council member Kshama Sawant.

If that's all we're doing, however, it won't be enough. What good reporters will want to do as we gather in a large group to show our support for better, non-corporatized schools, is talk to us, the crowd, on-camera and for the record about why we are here. They won't be looking for full-on speeches -- we're already providing that -- but rather 10-15 second soundbites and 1-2 sentence quotes that they can use to fill-in their reports. That's what I'm going to be working on between now and Thursday: my soundbite, just in case they put a camera in my face. I will be calling for Congressional hearings into the possibly criminal, and probably unconstitutional involvement of Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation in the creation and promotion of the Common Core State Standards and the attendant regime of high stakes standardized testing.

And the smoking gun is on the ground at our feet. Last week, the Washington Post ran a remarkable piece by Lyndsey Layton, detailing the Machiavallian maneuverings of the world's richest man as he appears to have paved the way for his Dickensian schemes for our public schools by pretty much buying off everyone in his way, installing his cronies in high places, then leading an end-run around the US Constitution which explicitly forbids the federal government from meddling in public schools. This prompted Diane Ravitch, our nation's leading education historian, best-selling author, and notorious "enemy" of Bill Gates, to respond with a call for a Congressional investigation:

The idea that the richest man in America can purchase and -- working closely with the US Department of Education -- impose new and untested academic standards on the nation's public schools is a national scandal. A congressional investigation is warranted. The close involvement of Education Secretary Arne Duncan raises questions about whether the federal government overstepped its legal role in public education.

I might just memorize the above quote and render it into my own words, although I will make sure the phrase "high-stakes standardized testing" is in there because even the Gates Foundation and Arne Duncan have recognized that everyone hates that, even while it hasn't caused them to back down. 

And here's the other thing on which I'm going to be working: staying calm, concise and then shutting up. While on the one hand, the media are looking for cogent commentary on public issues in the name of journalism, they are also looking for over-the-top, emotional, "crazy" soundbites and quotes, in the name of viewership and readership, the kind of thing that is not conducive to persuading disinterested parties to listen to, let alone adopt, your point-of-view. What I used to tell clients is that they should practice their 10-15 seconds until they can deliver it authoritatively and passionately without appearing hysterical or unreasonable. Most of them were pretty good at that, but they weren't necessarily so good at the next part: shutting up. You see, everything you say after your prepared comments just gives reporters more material from which to chose. They're only going to use a few sentences: if you shut up, you get to control what sentences are used and you appear rational and reasonable. A good reporter will always leave a quiet space after you're done talking, and it's tempting to fill it, but when you do you water down your message, running the risk that your accidental cursing or spitting or nervous crazy laugh will be what hits the airwaves . . . In fact, you pretty much guarantee it.

I suspect, or at least I hope, that there will be more rallies like this one both here in Seattle and across the country, and I anticipate that some of my readers will take part. As I thought through my own role in Thursday's action, I wanted to share my process in case any of you found it helpful.

How does this sound?

Listen, the richest man in the world has more or less purchased education in America. He's used his wealth to circumvent democracy to impose developmentally inappropriate, untested academic standards and a regime of high-stakes testing, without the approval or input of parents, teachers or students. This is a real scandal. It raises serious questions about whether the federal government and the Gates Foundation have overstepped their legal role in public education. In fact, I think it's pretty clear they have.

Still a bit doughy, but I've got four days to work on it. Hope to see you there.

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Steph in BC said...

Good luck, Teacher Tom! Just north of the border, our provincial government are not treating our teachers well, and the teachers are striking. Suddenly, school is out for the summer 2 weeks early. How do we get the government to listen? Frustrating!

Anonymous said...

You've inspired me. Here's my rough draft:

The common core standards and the high stakes testing that supports it are designed to enrich the vendors while starving the schools, and to create the appearance of education failure, with the end goal of the total privatization of public education. He is not only the force behind Common Core - his people are behind teacher evaluation by test scores, he's partnered with Pearson on delivering tests and test prep on his computer tablets, and is funding unaccountable charter school chains. When parents find have to take out school loans to send their children to first grade, they're going to be wondering how this happened.