Courtesy: Badass Teachers Association

There may exist no greater third rail in Public Relations than business activities that lead to a perception of impropriety, no matter how tangential, in dealings with children.  This week, the media caught up with what groups like the “Badass Teachers Association” have been saying for weeks – that during this month’s administration of the already wildly controversial PARCC standardized test, Pearson Education, Inc., the for profit company that helps oversee the test, admittedly conducted mass monitoring of teenagers’ social media in an attempt to do the IMPOSSIBLE: to keep up with social media crazed teenagers to ensure they didn’t tweet about the test.

So far, many don’t think it’s so unreasonable. The story, as reported across the country, turns a combination of creepy and downright bizarre from there.

imrs.phpWhen a suspected “security breach” was detected, Pearson sent school districts a “Priority 1 Alert,” after which, in at least one case, administrators tracked down the tweeting teenager, had the tweet deleted, and notified the parent involved, who was less concerned about her child’s conduct than that of Pearson’s and the school’s.  Even worse, the student turned out not to have revealed any of Pearson’s precious test and had tweeted AFTER school–meaning AFTER the test booklets had been collected–meaning the tweet couldn’t have constituted cheating.

So, what do you do as a business when you get caught policing a test as if you are guarding the launch codes to a nuclear weapon?–Hopefully the exact opposite of what Pearson did.

  • Mistake #1 – the press release leads one to wonder whether teachers were handling standardized tests or hazardous materials (Paragraphs 3 and 4). FIX = Strike paragraph 4, and insert “Test booklets have unique bar codes and are delivered to schools shrink wrapped. We’ve also provided Principals a check list they use to train their teachers on best practices for handling the test booklets to ensure the integrity of the test.”
  • Mistake #2 – The language used in this entire program – “breach,” “Priority 1 Alert,” etc. – conjures an image of prison, or a highly secure institution with armed guards and possibly a moat.  Again, their audience is parents of TEENAGERS, none of whom want to hear about “breaches” or “Priority Alerts” of any kind while their kids are at school.  FIX = “instances where test questions and answers are made publicly available” and “Notify.”  
  • Mistake #3 – Word games.  Pearson denies “spying” on teenagers and instead attempts to substitute “monitor.”  Mass monitoring of social media belonging to minors without parental consent certainly fits the Webster’s definition of the word “spy.”  Certainly it is true that the word “monitUntitledor” has an overlapping definition and stings less than “spy,” but it appears someone did what I just did–went on the Webster’s website and picked a word that sounded less, well, creepy in connection to kids. “Spying on kids” = angry parents; while “monitoring kids” = keeping them safe from harm.  MY FIX = simply say “we use software to search for posts that contain specific keywords to alert us to potential cheating.  That software searches only that which is public already and at no time does it gain any access whatsoever to any accounts or their log in credentials.”
  • Mistake #4 Making the first justification for a monitoring program protecting the economic interests of the States who invested in test development.  Fix = It’s only fair to ensure that no student has an unfair advantage on the test and posting questions and answers to standardized tests on social media as a method of cheating is not unique to PARCC, nor is monitoring for the same on social media novel.

Here’s that they should have done:

  • Have schools send home with each student a FAQ sheet asking parents to remind their kids that posting questions and answers is considered cheating and detailing to parents that an automated program would be searching social media for posts that contain questions and answers during the test, that only publicly available information would be searched, and that no data on their children was being obtained much less retained.

Assuming they still found themselves in a firestorm – instead of a mechanical, almost robotic press release, how about something like this?:

“We regret that there has been so much confusion about some of the ways we ensure the integrity of the testing process and are committed to total transparency.  We employ a software program that automatically performs searches of publicly available social media postings to ensure that no test questions or answers are posted during the course of testing. At no time does the program have any access to any non-publicly available postings, and absolutely no data concerning any particular accounts are retained by us.  In the event we discover a posting that contains information that could compromise the integrity of the test, we notify the school district where the post originated so that they can work with the involved student and their parents to address the issue in the manner the district sees fit.  No data on any student is ever provided to anyone other than school district or school administrators. ”

“Again, we sincerely apologize that we didn’t do a better job of communicating the various methods we employ to ensure the integrity of the test.  We take our obligations to States, School Districts, Schools, Educators, Parents and Students very seriously, and we are in the process of reviewing options for a more streamlined process in the future.”

Conclusion: The governing theory of crisis management is to speak up quickly, tell the truth, identify areas for improvement, apologize for not meeting expectations, and set forth a process by which the issue will be resolved and not repeated.  Pearson may well need to comb social media to ensure the integrity of the test, and that may not be a bad thing, but when it comes to any sort of “monitoring” of children by a private business, it’s good business to communicate in advance so no one, especially not a critical constituency like the parents of said children, are caught off guard.

– Jonathan Franks is the CEO of LUCID Public Relations and a crisis management expert.