Will ‘The Underground’ surface? A case study in dealing with online movements

Movements originating with “the people” are nothing new. As the world remains fixated on what’s happening in Libya, Egypt and other countries in the Middle East right now, uprisings and movements are actually happening in communities all over the world. Although small in scale and less intense, they’re fueled by emotion, passion and the same desire for change that motivated the Egyptian people to successfully remove a long-time dictator from power.

The important thing for organizations or individuals to realize is movements are manageable.  And above all else, listening is key.

At least one potential movement is occurring in Alexandria, Va., right now.  Alexandria is located just outside D.C. – a city that’s seen it’s share of movements and protests.  This particular situation has all the hallmarks of classic movements only in the era of the social web, which has taken movements to a 2.0 level.  In some cases today, Facebook, Twitter, blogs and other sites aren’t simply serving as communication tools for groups, they are the movement itself.  Twitter has become the modern-day Tiananmen Square.

The social web’s impact on physical movements has been so profound, it is now viewed as a major threat to governments and organizations around the world.  Shutting down the Internet is now on the list with “activate the military.” In short, the use of social media has become the norm for protest groups.  However, you’d never know that given the response to date from the Alexandria-based group in the crosshairs.

Digressing for a moment, it’s almost as if those who start movements all read “How to Start a Movement for Dummies.” As you read on, take note of the *s. They indicate the classic characteristics of movements as I see it. Also take note of the #s, which indicate classic characteristics of those being rebelled against. For those groups, it’s almost like they all read “How to Respond Poorly Publicly to Activists.” For PR practitioners, there’s much to be learned here.

Here’s what’s happening. A blog called ACPS Underground (Alexandria City Public Schools) gained much attention recently when the Alexandria Times covered it. The blog has become a popular space for teachers to criticize the school system administration and its policies and sling some mud of course. Simply put, we’re talking about teachers versus school officials, otherwise known as the people versus the government, otherwise known as the common man versus the establishment* (classic conflict). The blog creator and apparent group leader is another teacher (one of their own)* who goes by the pseudonym “Voltaire”* (identity protected) for fear of retribution* (leader protecting himself and defending against retaliation that not only could remove the leader but kill the movement entirely).

According to the Times, “‘Voltaire said the ACPS environment is not conducive to speaking out,” which is why they’ve gone “underground.”

In response to the blog and anonymity of it all, ACPS Superintendent Morton Sherman had this to say in the article. “I saw it when it first came out and chose to ignore it# (disregard for opposition group’s viewpoint). They should have the strength of conviction not to be anonymous# (imposing view of what’s proper on the group), so for me it’s underground yellow journalism# (discrediting viewpoint/opinions) and that’s not how we work# (again, imposing views of what’s proper and accepted).”

While the entire article is a great read for PR peeps, this is the quote that inspired this post. My PR alarm went off immediately upon reading this doozy.  Having many thoughts about how I would advise Sherman based on what I know, I wanted to get some other PR pros’ takes, as well. Here’s what Matt LaCasse and Lisa Brock had to say.

Matt LaCasse

Matt LaCasse

“The first thing Superintendent Morton needs to do is to stop insulting the teachers behind the blog. Whether or not he agrees with their methods of airing their grievances, calling them cowards in a roundabout way paints him as unwilling to listen to his employees. I’d recommend assuring Voltaire (who appears ready to reveal his identity) he won’t lose his job due to his beliefs, and encourage an open and honest dialogue in a public forum; perhaps even a debate.

“There’s little doubt in my mind, judging from the administration’s response to the blog, that it feels it is under attack. Rather than trying to solve problems, the situation is becoming an us vs. them quagmire which no one is going to win. If teachers feel change is being implemented too quickly, ask what an acceptable time frame would be. Explain that some issues will not have a happy ending for teachers, but it is what needs to be done. If Superintendent Morton can find that middle ground between his policy changes and what teachers feel needs to be done, he’ll go a long way in gaining the trust of his employees and community.”

Matt hits on some great points, in particular the “quagmire.” As PR pros preach routinely, getting stuck in the rut of “me” makes matters worse usually. Instead, why not figuratively and quite literally open the door to Voltaire and other teachers and at least chat? In my experience, whether dealing with a protest group or a customer bashing you on Twitter, engaging them is usually a much more sound tactic to take, but this is a leadership issue as much as it is a PR management issue. Enter Lisa Brock.

Lisa Brock

Lisa Brock

“For leadership to be effective, problems, issues, concerns and questions must be dealt with in a transparent manner in a transparent environment. Anonymous letters and hiding behind web tools is not transparent or credible – but neither is ignoring a problem. This is a crisis of leadership and the unwillingness of the leadership (Superintendent & Principal) to proactively seek solutions will cause a sort of meltdown that doesn’t have to happen.

“There are a number of ‘red flags’ and the first is that the Super chose to ‘ignore’ the situation. The fastest way to diffuse controversy is to expose it. Hold open town hall type meetings, go out of your way to be available and accessible. In time, the ‘Voltaires’ are exposed and when credible complaints, constructive comments and good dialogue happen, changes can start to happen, improving the system, credibility and the culture.

“The second is “They should have the strength of conviction not to be anonymous, so for me it’s underground yellow journalism and that’s not how we work.” But, this is not about him – it’s about a problem that needs wider discussion and the voice of different constituents.

“The third is that behaving like an ostrich does not solve problems, dissipate gossip or untruths. It does not improve your organization – which is the goal of inspired management and leaders. If as the Super says, there may be some validity to some complaints, start there. Yes, it will take time, energy and of course time is money. But the alternatives don’t work. Period.

As to the underground. Imagine if someone took the time to monitor or listen to what is being said. And then responded. Even when all the answers are not unanimously received or lauded, no one can say, ‘Leadership wasn’t listening.’ And again, those on the edge of the moderate, will be seen for just that – those with more extreme views. And if leadership is truly wise, they’ll welcome that too.”

Lisa nails it here. While I’m sure there are some who applaud the superintendent’s position, there are many who clearly don’t. However, would those who support his stance and what he said in the article also support him if he responded in a more receptive manner? Probably.  Again, being limited in knowledge, I can only wonder why he doesn’t take that route.

In my estimation, Sherman represents the stereotypical leader of a group under fire, especially a government group. He holds up himself and his organization and its policies as superior and proper while marginalizing and disregarding the opposition group. Personally, I’ve never seen that be an effective tactic when dealing with a large number of disgruntled people. But perhaps that’s part of his strategy.

Also, rather than recognizing the group as, just that, a group, he describes the blog as “yellow journalism.” That alone could explain why he chose “to ignore it.” I wonder if he recognized the Underground as a movement, or at minimum, an online rallying space for like-minded teachers, would his viewpoint and public commentary differ? I wonder if he’s missing the boat here by mis-perceiving what’s happening, thus causing him to respond in a way that stokes the fires and motivates the Underground to become more vocal and active? I’ve continued to monitor the blog, and I haven’t detected any let up.  But only time will tell.

Finally, while we don’t know as much as we would if we were “in the room,” I do know this.  Movements can be managed if you listen well.  Listening leads to actions that defuse situations, builds relationships and creates common understanding even if both sides don’t fully agree with each other. The opposite approach causes you to miss key information, incites anger and frustration, destroys relationships and leads to misunderstandings.  Which route do you think will best prevent the tipping point from occurring?


8 thoughts on “Will ‘The Underground’ surface? A case study in dealing with online movements

  1. Certainly we teach our young to respect there are two sides to each story. ACPS Underground is a worthy attempt to give a platform for teachers to share their personal side at ACPS without risk of retribution. Most relish the ability to do so in a more open environment, but for now this will do.

    In just two months, Alexandria Underground has raised the bar for our Superintendent and ACPS school board to hear and hopefully self-acknowledge that teachers object to being dictated to in the manner in which they have. Teammanship is also an attribute we teach to our children and our School Board and Superintendent would benefit in teacher engagement rather than the “our way or the high way” approach which has been openly, and from the very top, put out there for all to hear. Even those very far away, as I discovered in 2007 while visiting a large southern city and came to learn ACPS was legendary in school admin and teacher discussion circles.

    I see that ACPS Underground wishes to surface, and I thank you Joel, Matt and LIsa for your wise comments above. Alexandria, in addition to its public schools only stand to benefit by shedding brighter light on the ACPS teachers’ current plight and with rising of teacher morale in ACPS.

    Above all, I thank Voltaire and fellow teachers for your voice, your effort, your beneficence to ACPS.

  2. This is an excellent case study and the contributor’s comments are both articulate and germane. What is missing in their heartfelt advice is the recognition that we did attempt an open and honest dialogue with Sherman. His direct response was, “If you don’t like it here, here’s a quarter for a bus ride to Fairfax County!” Many of my colleagues took him up on his offer and left…sans the 25 cents.

    • Thanks for replying! To be fair, I’m basing my entire analysis of the situation off of one news article, so take that for what it’s worth. As a teacher’s son, as well as being married to a teacher, I sincerely hope both sides can come to a compromise and make a better school district. Best of luck in th at!

    • It’s good to know that was attempted. Sounds like it didn’t go so well to say the least. As outsiders, Matt, Lisa and I are limited in knowledge on what’s happened to date. That said, I chose to do this post to primarily highlight Sherman’s response in the Alexandria Times and get my fellow PR pros’ thoughts about how they would advice him, again, based on what we know. I think it’s safe to say we’d all advice him differently than how he’s doing things. Best of luck in trying to improve ACPS. And thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. Lisa is absolutely right. BOTH sides need to be listening more. When you have two sides sounding off, trying to paint themselves as a battle of good vs. evil (granted, that’s more on Voltaire’s part), productive dialogue rarely takes place. Both need to understand the answer to their problems lie somewhere in that middle ground and that both will have to compromise to achieve the goal of having a top notch school district.

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