The Seattle Times’ Joni Balter piles on the Seattle teachers union, describing their reaction to the district’s dissing of their collective bargaining rights as a “PR nightmare“…
But when it comes to exaggerated, ridiculous behavior about something so obvious as a loss of a single day of pay, I cannot side with the teachers. I can only say, “Who does your public relations?” This is hugely embarrassing to be so indignant and so inflexible! Holy cow!!
A PR nightmare for sure, but not for the reasons Balter implies, and a nightmare shared by unions, politicians, and advocacy groups across the Puget Sound region. For with Seattle reduced to a one editorial board town, and the number of full time political reporters having shrunk by about two-thirds statewide over recent years, the public relations profession has become nightmarish indeed.
It was, after all, the Times who initially characterized the teachers’ reaction as outrageous and inflexible, who chose to front-page an otherwise minor story, and who has mercilessly pummeled the union in a series of editorials and blog posts. But could the union’s public relations people really have expected any better treatment than this, at the hands (and fists and steel-toed boots) of an editorial board that has proven so consistently and vociferously anti-labor?
As I joked at the time of David Postman’s departure, if many more journalists leave the profession for media relations jobs, pretty soon there won’t be any media left to relate to… but this quip didn’t garner much of a laugh from longtime media relations professionals who were already struggling to push their message through a collapsing universe of reporters and editors. The region’s PR firms are now shrinking too, and those who survive the layoffs must reimagine their profession’s role in a post-modern-media world where the explosion in number of media sources combined with the implosion of traditional news and opinion gatekeepers has rendered the time-honored press release all but obsolete.
During last fall’s Sound Transit Phase 2 debate, Prop 1 spokesperson and former Seattle Times reporter Alex Fryer complained to me about the difficulty he faced pushing a conversation about the ballot measure’s many impacts on the Eastside suburbs. The Times had built up its suburban bureau during Fryer’s years at the paper, but now it was gone, along with the King County Journal, and there was nobody left at either the Times or the P-I who was tasked with covering the Eastside transportation beat. How frustrating must it have been for a man whose job was to talk to journalists to know that some of the only journalists providing in-depth coverage of his issues, sat on the editorial board of a paper historically hostile to any expansion of light rail?
Likewise, imagine the poor PR staff at the Seattle Education Association. Balter can berate them all she wants, but honestly, what can a union PR flack do when the only editorial board in town is so openly and vehemently anti-union? I mean, really, SEA president Olga Addae could have faxed a photocopy of her bare ass to Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson, and gotten no worse press from the Times than she did for the terse statement Balter alternately characterizes as “awful,” “tone-deaf,” “exaggerated,” “ridiculous,” “embarrassing,” “indignant,” “inflexible,” and “over-the-top”:
“Despite Seattle Public Schools’ earlier denials, the district has indeed sent contract nonrenewal letters to 3,300 Seattle teachers – effectively terminating their jobs. We encourage Supt. Maria Goodloe-Johnson to rescind those nonrenewals. If not, we are working with our attorneys to determine the next legal steps toward upholding the law and our collective bargaining agreement. In the meantime, we have asked Seattle teachers to have patience and to delay filing individual appeals. We want to give the superintendent time to fix her mistake. We look forward to continuing contract negotiations with the Seattle School District administration in a productive and positive way.”
Adding insult to injury, Balter blames the SEA for its own bad press, but how were they to anticipate that a statement so nonconfrontationally bland would be vilified with such an over-the-top string of adjectives? Tell me Joni… how much clearer could the SEA be than Addae was in a recent letter to members, publicly posted on the union’s web page, and distributed to you and other journalists at the Times and elsewhere?
“Let me be clear, the issue at hand is more than whether we should or should not keep a Learning Improvement Day in our calendar. The issue is the integrity of our Collective Bargaining Agreement and the process outlined by law to negotiate the terms and conditions of employment.”
That is the nightmare facing local PR professionals: a media landscape so barren of true opinion leaders that the few remaining now feel free to hold the public debate hostage to their own capricious whims.
In the same way that the Times’ brutal editorial bludgeoning effectively obfuscates the teachers’ primary grievance—it is not the 182nd day that is at issue, but rather the integrity of the union’s collective bargaining rights—Balter’s insistance on blaming this genuine PR nightmare on the union itself, only serves to distract from the very real obstacle facing advocates seeking to influence public discourse through traditional media channels: the dearth of competition has not only greatly diminished the opportunities to engage in effective PR, it has also left the few remaining opinionists free to distort the debate, intentionally or otherwise, without fear of comeuppence from a competitor of comparable status or circulation.
Especially for those of us advocating from the progressive side of public policy debates, the Nightmare on Fairview Avenue will remain palpable indeed, until we either manage to dream up a PR strategy that effectively bypasses the last remaining media gatekeepers, or we somehow establish a viable mass audience media alternative of our own.