Arik Hanson: Mpls. Public Schools fail communication test

I try not to vent a lot. I want this to be a productive space. But today, I just need to let it out.

For the last two days my wife and I have been home with our six-year-old son. The Minneapolis Public Schools deemed it was too dangerous for staff and students to attend school due to the extreme cold temperatures (Note: it was in the single-digits below zero in the morning hours with 20-30 below wind chills) and excessive snow (Note: We received 20-plus inches of snow on Saturday). But, this post isn’t about whether the kids should have been in school or not. It’s about the way in which the Minneapolis Public Schools communicated and shared the news that school was cancelled both days, because I believe there are some lessons we can all glean from how this scenario has played out to date.

First, let’s start with the timeline. As you may know, the Twin Cities was pulverized by a winter storm on Saturday dumping 17-plus inches of snow around the metro (want proof? Here’s video of the MetroDome collapsing as a result early Sun. morning). Most of us spent the better part of Sunday digging out.

As we wound down our day, my wife and I watched the 10 p.m. news Sunday night. We both noted (curiously) that St. Paul Public Schools had canceled classes for Monday. But, no word from Minneapolis Public Schools during that same broadcast (I believe we were watching KSTP-TV at the time; and my wife tells me there was no official word posted on the MPS Web site).

At 4:47 a.m. MPS officially canceled school for Monday–here’s the Facebook post alerting folks in case you were refreshing your browser in the middle of the night.

On Monday morning at 6:15 a.m. we get a call–it’s a broadcast voice mail from the director of communications from MPS. School has been canceled. It’s important to note that my son’s school BEGINS at 7:25 a.m.–just over an hour later.

Later, Monday evening, we get another call (can’t pinpoint time on this one). School has been canceled again for Tuesday. Same reasons as the first day. Again, broadcast voice mail from the director of communications. And, I noticed this post on the MPS Facebook page (BEFORE an official announcement from them).

Finally, we receive this email from someone (more on that in a moment) at MPS late Tuesday evening (it’s time-stamped 11 p.m.) explaining that school would be open Wed. and recognizing the staff for all their hard work over the weekend and Mon./Tues.

As you can imagine, as a dual-income family, neither my wife or I were thrilled with MPS’ decision to cancel school two days in a row. However, again, we were far less thrilled in the manner in which this was communicated to us (Note: We are first-time parents here–our son is in kindergarten; just for full disclosure). Allow me to elaborate–and share the lessons I think we can all learn from this experience:

* Think about the timing of your messages–down to the minute. Mainly, I’m talking about the first message here. You send me a message that school is canceled AN HOUR before classes begin! That leaves working parents like us a whole 60 minutes to formulate plan B. For a family in which both parents work (we’re not the only ones obviously), that’s a big problem. We all knew about the storm. We saw the results play out Sunday. Why not share a message late in the afternoon on Sunday? Clearly, people were clamoring for a decision–you saw that on the MPS Facebook page. By announcing it Sunday afternoon, you could have given parents a whole evening to plan our daycare options for their kid(s) the next day.

Also, note the fact that Monday’s announcement of Tuesday’s cancellation went to the general public (via mainstream media outlets) before it was communicated with parents (or, before MPS even communicated it directly with folks via Facebook and Twitter). Why not start with key audiences first (parents) and work out from there?

Finally, note the time of the “explanation” message on Tuesday evening–11 p.m. Who’s up at 11 p.m. to read that message)? Why not send that note at 8 p.m. when parents are just settling in the for the night and checking email after the kids go to bed? Again, think about timing (down to the minute thanks to real-time social networks like Twitter and Facebook) when communicating key messages during challenging circumstances.

* Think about who should relay the message. Both voice mails were from the director of communications for MPS. I have never met this person. However, I have met my son’s teacher. His principal. And a few other teachers at the school he attends. Wouldn’t it make more sense if a message like canceling school came from someone you knew? I realize their are efficiencies the District is trying to achieve by sending out the same message to all parents (and a consistency of message angle, too), but couldn’t you provide a simple template and send to the principals for them to record and send, just like the communications director did? Would it be more work? Yes. Would there be a chance one of the local principals might mess up the messaging? Sure. But, it would be more credible and relevant coming from someone I know and see almost every day.

My bigger concern here is the email. The subject line reads: “Message from the Principal.” But, the email address of the sender (Stever Norlin-Weaver) doesn’t match up with the principal from my son’s school. There’s no sign off. So, who is this message really from? I literally have no idea. That’s a bit of a problem, don’t you think?

* Think about your key audiences when composing the message. I’m looking squarely at the “explanation” message here. The lead is fine (basically, “we’re open tomorrow”). It’s the next paragraph that concerns me. Not one mention of “we’re sorry for the inconvenience this may have caused your family.” Or, “we hope this message finds you and your family well/safe.” But, instead the message immediately recognizes the MPS staff that worked so hard the last few days. Now, it’s fine to recognize your team–in fact, in many ways I applaud MPS for taking this tack. But, that’s really an internal message. I don’t necessarily care about how hard the staff worked as a parent. I care about my kid and me–in that order (sorry–harsh reality, and I think most people would agree if they were honest with themselves). And, oh, by the way, at my son’s school, I didn’t see one person working over the weekend or on Monday. The sidewalks and parking lots were not plowed until TUESDAY. So, for me, that “hard work” message fell on deaf ears. Know your audience when crafting your messages–and think about what’s top-of-mind for them and what they care about.

Again, sorry for the rant again today folks. And I don’t mean to come down hard on the MPS–I really don’t. But, as a parent (and a communicator), I’m a bit frustrated. And, maybe more importantly, I do think we can learn a few things from the scenario I’ve outlined above.

What do you think? Am I right in my assessment from a communications perspective? Or, am I a crazy parent of a kindergartner? (Note: I won’t fault you if you say I’m the latter–it’s OK, I know I’m a little nuts when it comes to my kids).

This post was written by Arik Hanson and originally published on Communications Conversations. Follow him on Twitter: @arikhanson.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Bob Stanke on 12/16/2010 - 08:35 am.

    As the son of a well-respected school administrator here in the Twin Cities, I can attest for how difficult a decision it is to cancel school for hundreds, thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands (depending on how big the school district is) of children. Sometimes, these cancellations are last minute, but often for good reasons…

    1. It costs school districts tens of thousands of dollars to close school and cancel even one day of education for children.

    2. It disrupts schedules like you would not believe.

    3. There is a top priority for the schedules of parents. School districts don’t want to have to inconvenience parents at all with having to take off of work, because that actually has an impact on vacation times, economic output and productivity. That is real – they truly think about those things.

    Finally, and most importantly (and most often forgotten…

    4. School bus companies. Most school districts contract out for busing service and are actually at the mercy of them. If a bus company deems it unsafe to have drivers out, they will contact school districts (sometimes at the last minute) and tell them, “sorry, no go today!”

    4a. Kids on bus stops. Did you know that most schools cancel classes due to cold temperatures just because of the fear of children waiting at bus stops for delayed buses in sub-zero weather? Sure, some good parents out there will make alternate accommodations to prevent this, but the harsh reality is that most parents don’t.

    With budgets, schedules, and the fear of children getting very sick, ill or even dying due to cold weather, administrators are often sleepless of weekends like the last one.

    Totally understand your points, but wanted to assure you that these are not easy decisions for schools, and are often last-second in nature.

    Awesome post!

    Bob Stanke

  2. Submitted by Rick Prescott on 12/16/2010 - 01:45 pm.

    As the parent of a kindergartner, I heartily agree with Arik on every point. This was communicated POORLY, regardless of how or when the decision was made. But the decisions also were made horribly late.

    With streets impassible and frigid cold and wind settling in, I started watching TV scrolls at about 9:00 PM on Sunday evening. Almost every event in sight had been canceled on Saturday and Sunday, school after school was listed as closed for Monday, and it seemed highly likely to me that Minneapolis schools would also be closed.

    No word. Nothing on the web site. It was as if the storm simply hadn’t happened in the Minneapolis Public School system.

    Monday morning came and my wife and son went to the bus stop as usual. They waited 12 minutes before a neighbor hollered out the window that school was closed. “Didn’t you get the call?”

    No, we had not gotten the call. We are apparently not on the robocall list. Nor did we get any emails, despite having given email addresses at every step of the registration process. Also, we knew nothing of a Facebook page (though we have since subscribed).

    So, we had no idea that school was closed, despite the obviousness of the decision. Despite following scrolls for long periods late into the previous night. Unacceptable.

    Monday night, I started watching TV crawls and checking the school web site even earlier. My wife went to bed at 9:30 assuming that school was on for Tuesday. There was no mention of anything (not even the previous day’s closure) on the web site.

    At about 9:45, word came down on the news I was watching that Minneapolis had canceled school for Tuesday. I wrote a big note to my wife and taped it to the bedroom door so she would know in the morning before heading out to the bus stop.

    Then I visited the school web site and found a pop-up window with the information — not even a news article on their news page, but a POP-UP WINDOW! That’s why I hadn’t seen mention of the previous day’s closure, because the previous pop-up window had apparently stopped appearing at some point.

    The school’s web site is terrible to begin with, but this is inexcusable.

    My “lessons learned” would go something like this:

    1. Closing school may have complex and expensive ramifications, but this should not have been a difficult decision to make. When it’s this obvious, just bite the bullet. And the rule should be: As soon as the question is asked, a decision is due.

    2. Decision-makers should set a minimum time beyond which it is too late to close school. Twelve hours seems appropriate. Modern weather forecasting is sophisticated enough to make this possible.

    3. Robocalls cannot be relied upon. Not everyone is in the database. I don’t know why, but that’s the way it is.

    4. Emails cannot be relied upon. Not everyone is in the database (for reasons still unknown).

    5. When schools are closed, the front page of the web site should be modified in its entirety to provide detailed information which will continue to be available for as long as people need it. A pop-up window is insufficient. (Some browsers will actually block it from appearing at all.)

    6. Social media notifications, though necessary and useful, must be considered secondary methods of communication. They cannot be guaranteed to reach people and represent simply a “nice to have” option.

    I’m not sure how I would have reacted if the notification came from someone I’d never heard of. It’s probably a good idea for the district to cultivate a spokesperson who would be recognizable in notifications to parents.

    But I have no real opinion on that because I received no notification whatsoever.

  3. Submitted by Ella Vold on 12/16/2010 - 01:54 pm.

    I really think you are nit-picking here. While the timing and some specifics of the announcements were not ideal, I’m glad that MPS used as many communications tools as they did to get the word out to as many people as possible. Facebook, email, voicemail, announcing to news and radio stations. A communications person was working at 4:30am to get word out. And it’s probably one person for all of MPS that has to talk to media, do the voicemail, emails, facebook etc.

    I have a two-income family as well, it is difficult to make arrangements. Early Sunday morning, when I saw the struggle to clear the streets, I thought that a snow day was possible.

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