Monday, December 7, 2009

Strategic Communication and Schools

Peter Levine, a philosopher and researcher on civic engagement (he directs CIRCLE at Tufts), put up an interesting post today discussing the leaked emails from climate scientists. The emails reference statistical "tricks" used to present data to make it more convincing to the public, and refer to climate skeptics as "idiots." These emails have, of course, been fodder for people predisposed to disbelieve in human-caused global warming and to fight political-ecological efforts to slow it down or diminish its effects.

Levine argues that what these scientists were doing was engaging in strategic communication. Using Habermas, he states that climate scientists were trying to effectively communicate a very specific set of messages in order to convince the public of the truth and implications of climate change. Strategic communication simply is better for this purpose, and climate change is a scary proposition for the world's future.

But as Levine states, strategic communication is "unethical" because it uses the listener or reader as the means to an end. It tries to manipulate the reader for what the speaker considers to be justified ends. Manipulation violates trust; Levine writes that
"our views of matters like climate change depend fundamentally on trust. I cannot directly sense changes in the climate, let alone their causes. Neither can scientists--despite their fancy equipment. An account of how and why the climate is changing requires aggregating the research of many scientists and collaborative teams. To use the aggregated information, you must trust all the contributors. Then, to make matters even harder, people like me don't read any of the scientific literature on climate. We read what we regard as high-quality news coverage of the scientific literature, which means that we must trust some reporters, as well as the scientists they cover. And we must trust the reliability of the relationship between them."

Scientists, he says, are not supposed to try and manipulate us; they should "explore the truth in the company of their readers. To the extent that they communicate strategically, they are just interest groups, basically like all the others. They have goals; they may be willing to negotiate; but they cannot persuade on the basis of trust."

All this reminds me of the dilemma that public school leaders find themselves in today. A great many interest groups, pundits, think tanks, and organizations today are explicit in their anti-public-school views and agendas. Groups like the Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation conduct specious studies to forward their agenda. And have plenty of resources to play the media game to their full advantage. They are part of what Bracey called the “schools- are-awful bloc” that use “misinformation, distorted information, deliberate attempts at obfuscation, sloppy thinking” to break public support for government-run schools. I am not saying the public schools are always perfect, by a long shot, but typically the concerns of many of these groups are more based in ideology and politics than in actual balanced views based in evidence-based accounts.

In response, many public schools have tried to become experts at strategic communication. Most districts today have public relations experts on staff, whose job it is to boost the public image and perception of the district. Districts hire marketing experts whose job it is to "re-brand" the label of public education. They attempt to "get the truth out" about public schooling in the face of many unwarranted (and warranted) public attacks today.

This response is understandable, but it only serves to further erode public trust and the legitimacy of public schooling. School officials must have the trust of the citizens who fund, support, and attend their schools, but if they are viewed as strategically communicating with those citizens, trust is diminished. Nobody can sniff out marketing like Americans; we must be the world's experts, given the amount we are bombarded with today. And citizens of public schooling are no different. They can smell "re-branding" a mile off, and it smells like a used car salesman trying to sell a old Buick.

Levine contrasts strategic communication with Habermasian dialogic communication. In such communications, schools leaders and educators convene for dialogue and deliberation around school purposes, aims, and priorities. This doesn't mean that citizens tell teachers how to teach, or superintendents how to balance the budget, anymore than it means that citizens can tell climate scientists how their research should be done. But it would imply that school leaders are not marketers, nor simply managers, but public leaders whose job it is to listen to and speak with those publics to whom they are responsible. Yet the conditions for that kind of communication are exceedingly difficult, posing a challenging dilemma for any school leader who wishes start building public trust rather than simply playing public relations.