Edwin Flores said it a couple of weeks back: The Dallas Independent School District has a communications problem. Which is one way of putting it -- the nice way of putting it. And so, following months' worth of dust-ups and screw-ups involving school closures and longer teacher workdays and suspended teachers and bad-idea field trips funded with federal money already being closely scrutinized by Austin and D.C., not to mention the new battle taking shape at Dallas City Hall pitting charters against the district, the DISD board and a few 3700 Ross higher-ups retreated to a cramped side room Monday evening for a retreat dealing with ... communicating.
DISD board president Lew Blackburn said this scheduled "retreat" was going to about something else entirely. "But then I realize sometimes I don't say things the right way," Blackburn told the room. "In all of my 55 years, for some reason I still can't say things right the first go-round."
Before the night was through, Blackburn would introduce "one of my special buddies," Mayor Mike Rawlings, who asked to remove his "mayor's hat" before delivering a lengthy monologue on ways to polish DISD's rotten apple. But before that, Blackburn turned over the floor to Merrie Spaeth -- the same woman who captained the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's branding campaign and who served Craig James's accomplice, for lack of a better word, in getting Mike Leach fired at Texas Tech. Much of her presentation consisted of a series of ads and viral video clips intended to remind the board that "negative words" are bad because they're "memorable" and "positive words" are good because they're .... positive? Said Spaeth, if you use "positive words," well, then, "People will hear what want them to hear." (All of which sounded very, very familiar.)
After Spaeth's presentation Blackburn introduced former Texas Instruments director of public affairs-turned-consultant Gerald Borders, who's heading up the district's Community Relations Commission. That group's been working in private till now to "develop, enhance and improve effective methods of communicating positive news about the district, building trust with our stakeholders ... [and improving] student support and achievement," as he put it.
Borders said, look, the group's not done with its recommendations yet; it wasn't supposed to come before the board till next month. That said, he offered a handful of recommendations (and one curious one) that were more than just ways to put a positive spin on a bad situation.
First off, said Borders, the district needs to hold roundtables with "stakeholders from around the city, campus to campus." Said he: "Oftentimes we'll drink our own Kool-Aid ... and the customer's saying something we never hear about." When it came to the closing of those 11 campuses, he said, "maybe we could have gotten a pulse on that early if we'd have had a roundtable that was part of our community at different levels, I don't know. Maybe if we could have heard from some of the teachers, we could have made that press release that came out in a little better tone."
He spoke about using social media, focusing on feeder patterns, expanding the Principal for a Day program, bringing in folks to read to kids more than once or twice a year ... and sharing stories with juries (because, hey, they're "a captive audience"). "Somewhere DISD has some great stories," he said. But "right now," he said of teachers and parents and students, "what they're hearing and what's affecting them oftentimes takes the smile off their face."
Blackburn explained later that's because the best things about the district are "hidden under pages of information" buried ... well, exactly where he didn't say. "We need to get off the duff and make it well known Dallas ISD is the place to be for education," said the board president. "I think we have pockets of pride. We talk about or magnet program, certain students who do a great job, certain teachers who go a great job." He asked each trustee to list five good things about their respective districts. Then he asked for "five challenges we need to overcome." Because, you know, amongst those "pockets of pride" are those "corners of concern."
"We have what it takes at this table, we have what it takes to get to the next level," he said. "I have no doubt we can do it."
He noted, though: Enrollment is dropping, from a little more than 161,000 in 2006 to fewer than 157,000 this year. Hispanic enrollment is up, he said, while African-American and Anglo students are leaving "steadily." And why are they leaving, he asked.
"Do the suburbs offer something better?" he asked. "Do the charters often something better? I think not. Uplift has a little over 5,000 students. Life charter has a little over 3,700. A.W. Brown has almost 1,400 students. Dallas Can! has 1,700 students. Guess where those students could be, and for some reason they chose to go to a charter school. We have to polish our product and make sure what we offer is the best it could be."
Said Blackburn, the district need to market itself, needs to sell itself. It simply can't afford to sit back and let charters and neighboring districts snatch DISD's students.
"I think we need to develop a campaign, if you will, a marketing campaign to showcase Dallas and say, 'This is Dallas ISD,'" he said. "We need to do something drastic, and if we don't do something soon Uplift is going to get more of our students. Irving is going to get more of our students. Did you get that postcard from Grand Prairie? They warned me they're coming after our students. It was slick. They talked about all of their programs. And our response is ... what? We're gonna have to do something."
At which point he brought in Rawlings, who, only an hour earlier, had been in the Cedars pitching his GrowSouth campaign. And for the next long while, the former TracyLocke CEO gave the trustees an education in marketing.
"I think you're right on," he said in response to Blackburn's proposal to market the district. "I love that attitude -- that you have got to convince people to spend their life with you. There are other options out there, and if you don't believe in your product you might as well be a turtle and put your head back in the shell. The people reason don't like marketing is it has a connotation it's not authentic, you're making something our of nothing, and the truth is that's not true. Marketing is the oldest profession."
Big laughs. But he continued, on a roll.
"Because the thought is you've got something I somehow wanna spend money for, and that's marketing. That's fundamentally the basis of all commerce, of all politics, of all interaction -- to convince somebody to do something. That's different than marketing communications. Marketing communications is basically advertising, promotion -- 'new and improved,' 'buy one get one free,' gimmicks. There's community relations, a sense of how do you communicate to the community. And employee communications, which is also very important.
"Everything you do is marketing. Your people or your brand. Your product is your brand. Your bricks and mortar, your place, your books -- it's marketing. Your policies, it's marketing Your politics, it's marketing. So every time words come out of your mouth as an institution, whether it's teachers or the school board, you're marketing to people. When you think of it that way, it helps you understand the impact you can really make."
But, he warned: "What you're doing can't be seen as a public relations campaign. If it's seen as painting the fence a color that's hiding the frailties of it, people will not trust ya. It's gotta start from the inside and go out. That's the big insight I believe in: Marketing starts from the core."
He insisted: "The phrase 'DISD' has a brand value. It has some value. To some people it's very high, and to some people it's very low, but it has some value. The question you and we and parents and teachers have to determine is, is it going up in value or down in value. And then you have to realize every person who touches it should see their jobs as increasing it."
The mayor spoke of being a market leader and of how the truly successful only attain that success by thinking of themselves as being part of a team. He looked at the board president and said, "You're not representing Lew Blackburn, you're representing [the DISD], and are you doing the right things to represent that?"
Rawlings spoke of how DISD has a "perceptual gap" is has to breach, that canyon separating "the DISD brand assets and its current brand value." He said the board says one thing, and people hear something else: "You're saying, 'We have a good product,' [but] people aren't realizing it." In other words: "The food tastes a lot better than the packaging on the shelf." He told the board to gnaw on that for a while.
But an ad campaign, he says, is nothing without the research, without listening to "your customers" -- teachers, parents, business leaders and students. What are they saying about the DISD, he asked. "And you can't say, 'Well that's not how I feel,'" said Rawlings. "You have to be intellectually honest. And you have to prioritize key target audiences. There are a lot of audiences out there, but not all audiences are created the same." Pick the right audience, he said, which isn't easy. "Because the essence of strategy," he said, "is sacrifice. You can't be strategic and do everything. You can't attack the whole situation because it's not strategic. And you have to clarify the perceptual gap. What is really out there that people think is not out there. Understanding that perceptual gap allows you to decide key messaging, which is what needs to be communicated to close the gap."
He told them to think of DISD as a brand, because brands have personality, and "DISD needs to have a personality. You should be able to describe the brand as if it was a human being. Is it perceptive or wise or too fat like me?" He told them to be consistent. And he told them about the Pepsi Challenge.
"Remember the Pepsi Challenge? They were going to take on Coke at the store level all the way through people all the way through advertising. It was a simple taste challenge, but it energized the whole organization." But, he cautioned: "Be careful not to chase the next cool idea. And, he warned: This won't happen overnight. Perception changes slowly. "This is Chinese water torture," said the mayor. "You gotta keep on keeping on day after day, year after year. If you're gonna do it on the cheap, don't even waste your money now."
Not once did Rawlings speak directly to the fact the DISD board is presently operating without a superintendent; never once did he note that when the media's come to 3700 Ross to ask questions about misspending federal funds, for instance, the interim leader, Alan King, has retreated to his office and let DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander take the flak instead. Privately, the mayor has told district officials he's keeping a close eye on the superintendent search; he may not get a final say on the subject, but he's not going to keep quiet about it, at least behind the scenes.
But last night he did speak frequently about the need for a good "brand manager," about hiring a "CEO [who] owns the brand." He told the board that when a company hires someone to lead an organization, they have to ask: "Is that person good for the brand?" So, he reminded them, "look at this as brand management, not PR. Brand management means you realize your brand is your people, your place, your policy, your politics. ... Empower the brand manager within the organization and hold people accountable to getting on board with the brand and message. If someone says, 'I don't like the color red, I like green,' you have to say, 'We've had this discussion, we're doing red together.' And that's tough to do. You have to hold people accountable.
"As a marketing person who's been doing this for a few years, this is how I look at it: Everything you do is marketing. You have to understand your perceptual gap and enroll great people on your team and hold them accountable to make that happen."
And with that, he was done. The board didn't have many questions. Mike Morath did ask if the mayor saw "rebranding the logo as just a paintbrush," to which Rawlings said no, not at all. That might not be a bad idea. Because, after all, "it's all part of everything."
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