About 75 school board members and other members of the education community turned out for the New Jersey School Boards Association’s annual School Public Relations Forum, June 10.

Topics included how to be an effective leader, how to manage crisis communications, what words to say in specific situations, and communicating with the community about controversial curriculum decisions.

During “Crisis Communications: A Primer for School Officials” Chanta L. Jackson, an award-winning veteran journalist and editor, who now serves as Asbury Park School District’s communications officer and registrar, teamed up with Rosa Cirianni, also an award-winning journalist and NJSBA consultant.

“None of us are immune to tragedy,” Cirianni said. “One constant that you will hear when these things happen, people will say they are shocked — that these things don’t happen here. What we are here to do today is tell you to expect it, plan for it but hope it never happens.”

Cirianni and Jackson shared an array of tips for board members to communicate with the press and the community.

In “How to Become More Effective in Your Leadership Role,” Glenn Proctor, founder of REDDjobb, a crisis communications and public relations firm and a certified professional coach, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, retired newspaper editor, mental health advocate and instructor, author, former Marine Corps gunnery sergeant and Vietnam veteran, led a lively conversation on interacting with the press and communicating on social media.

He warned attendees about “gotcha journalism” and the challenges of walking back comments once they are out there. He also cautioned attendees to be careful with comments on social media.

Jackson, who attended Proctor’s session, noted that school districts that are active on social media must monitor what’s being said. “You can’t just make a post once a week – if you don’t engage with your audience, you will lose them.”

During “Words Matter: What to Say in Specific Situations,” Janet Bamford, chief public affairs officer at NJSBA; Gwen Thornton, an NJSBA field service representative; and Michael Kvidahl, manager of digital communications and marketing at NJSBA, quizzed attendees with various scenarios on what to do in specific situations – and they weren’t afraid to throw in a trick question or two to make it interesting.

Bamford noted that NJSBA has a number of webinars archived on its website on how to talk to the press. She provided the following advice, “When a reporter calls you, you are well within your rights to say, ‘Let me get some information, and I will call you back.’ That gives you a few minutes to collect your thoughts and think about what you are going to say.” She advised attendees that if you don’t know the answer to something, say so – and let them know you’ll get back to them.

The last session of the day, “Effectively Communicating Curriculum Decisions: A Panel Discussion,” featured Cherie Adams, a founding member of Adams Gutierrez & Lattiboudere, LLC and president of the Belmar Board of Education; John Mooney of NJ Spotlight News; Vince DeLucia, educator-in-residence at NJSBA; and Thornton.

“It has clearly been an unprecedented time on several levels, including a bunch of curriculum changes coming down the pike but also in the context of it being a very difficult time for families and educators around noncurricular issues as well,” Mooney said.

Topics such as health and physical education standards, the inclusion of critical race theory and systemic racism and other topics continue to pose challenges for boards, he said.

Adams observed that curriculum decisions tend to be politicized more than ever before. “A lot of people in the public have started to come to board of education meetings to express political views and tie those into curriculum,” she said.

When focusing on curriculum, it is important for boards to build a climate of partnership with families, DeLucia said. “We can’t just invite them in when we need them,” he said. “We need them all the time, and that means having parent academies. It means engaging the public to participate on district committees. It also means ensuring a wide range of views are represented on those task forces and committees – it is not about stacking them to get a specific answer.”

Doing those things will allow boards to build trust with the community. It doesn’t mean they will always support your decisions – but they will at least have a greater faith in how those decisions were made, he said.