Better communication could have mitigated hard ball ban backlash

This past week, the news broke that a school in Toronto had contacted its parents to communicate an immediate ban on hard balls - basketball, soccer, baseball; the stuff that hurts if you get hit from a good throw. The ensuing backlash that was sparked prompted my friend, Alison, to write about the innappropriate response of the parents, media and people in general as they made judgments about the school - I was one of those people who reacted. I strongly disagree with what the school did, but I thought Alison made some salient points that we should all think about. Parents by-passed the appropriate people to contact and turned the situation into a media circus, but I think the school could have responded differently to mitigate this possibility.

So, I would like to play devil’s advocate a little bit and say, first of all, that any organization that is making what will always be a controversial decision like this needs to have their story straight in advance. Be ready for the media to catch wind of it, because you will never be able to rely on parents who passionately disagree to remain quiet about it. That’s simply not realistic in this age of information entitlement. The story, as presented, is inflammatory, probably lacking full details and ripe for the viral spread of negative views.

Assuming that it happened the way that the story described with no missing details, the school made a couple of missteps:

  1. They could have issued a letter stating that they were banning the balls until such time as they were able to have a full consultation with parents to see how widespread the concern is and come to a general consensus/compromise on what should happen.
  2. If a consultation had already taken place, they should have given a full accounting to parents.

Sure, administration has the right to make decisions based on what they believe is best for the children, but based on the coverage so far the principal’s only defense of the decision is that she has the right to make it. I recognize that could simply be quotes taken out of the context of a more thorough explanation, but the school’s site is silent on this and that seems counter productive. If this decision was made legitimately and not as a knee-jerk reaction then I have to wonder why the school doesn’t give more information to the parents and media rather than become a laughingstock. Even if it was a “knee-jerk reaction” to an angry parent or group, banning the balls temporarily until a solution is found makes more sense than an all out ban. It also likely wouldn’t have escalated to this point.

People are not going to stop spreading this kind of information because they know it has traction. The general public want to know because it is often relevant in their own lives - from personal experience as a child or because they have children themselves.

I have been watching the story because my own son is about to start school next year and I don’t want him coddled. I want him to learn how to address situations when he’s hit with balls like this and, conversely, that it is wrong to hit others with balls in a way that can hurt them.

The reality is that this story was going to get out. There was no stopping it happening. From a communications standpoint, I think that it has been handled horribly by the school. 

As bloggers and social media users, most of us think about what we’re putting out there before we hit send/publish. We draft, edit and consider the possible response (at least I do). Sometimes, we adjust the way our message is presented to provide better context or clarification and create a more open environment for discussion. Other times we want to express a hard line view and that can generate a completely different kind of discussion. There are pros and cons to both techniques. 

The school took a rigid approach and it went badly for them, but this is the official reality of the world we live in today. Right or wrong, it means that the traditional ways that organizations handle situations have to be adjusted to account for the possible response.

Should the expectation be for people to stop sharing out of turn or do organizations need to expect it? What are your thoughts?