Standing Tall?

After stewing on Friday’s Reading First hearings for the past 72 hours, there is so much I want to say.  So much I think I should say.  But at the end of the day, such ruminations should be left to the policywonks and the policymakers charged with fixing RF and improving the law.  

EdWeek has a good summary of Friday’s hearings —

Like usual, it got me thinking.  But one of my conversations today helped focus my thoughts onto the communications value of Friday’s testimony.  For those who had read the IG reports, consumed the media coverage, or lived on the front lines of reading for any of the past six years, there wasn’t a great deal of new information to consume.  But the rhetorical approach taken by former RF Director Chris Doherty is one that cannot pass without a closer look.

The setting for Congressman Miller’s RF investigation was nothing unique.  Such hearings have become typical on Capitol Hill.  Usually, a team of witnesses are brought up, with the expectation that someone will soon be singing mea culpa.  “I’m sorry.”  “I didn’t intend …”  “If I had it to do over …” are but some of the refrains we expect to hear.  The typical Potomac Two-Step is a quick apology, followed by absolution.  That act of contrition, it is believed, turns the page and allows witnesses to proceed with their lives.

The true effectiveness of the “I’m sorry” is still a study in progress.  It is said so much, it has lost its effectiveness.  In recent weeks, Don Imus and Alberto Gonzales and Paul Wolfowitz and even Pacman Jones have issued their apologies.  Were they heartfelt?  Did the public believe them?  Can they now move forward?

On the flip side, crisis communications guru Eric Dezenhall is a firm believer in never uttering that five-letter word, “sorry.”  Recently, he has said that Exxon was right (by not apologized for their Alaskan oil spill) and Johnson & Johnson wrong (for apologizing profusely for the Tylenol scare in the 1980s).  Dezenhall’s track record speaks for itself — no one is better of dealing with a crisis.  Period.

Chris Doherty has clearly studied from the book of Dezenhall.  In his congressional testimony, he spotlighted his pride in the law and his pride in the program.  He was unapologetic in his support for RF and his commitment to seeing NCLB succeed.  He embraced the work that was done.  At a time when many expected he would fall on his sword, instead Doherty stood tall.  He did not express sorrow; he had nothing to apologize for.  He firmly stood by his actions and his record.

It was a bold communications tactic that could serve Doherty quite well.  He didn’t go on the defensive.  He didn’t apologize.  He didn’t appear contrite or seek forgiveness.  Chris Doherty stood for what he believes in.  Even under scathing questions, he stood up.

I don’t mean to demean Friday’s testimony by referring to it simply as a communications tactic.  But at the end of the day, Eduflack’s goal is to look at how successfully we are communicating about education.  So that is the filter I apply.  Understand, though, that such an approach is not for the feint of heart.  For such a tactic to work, one must:
* Be A True Believer — You have to believe, 100% in what you are saying.  Any sense of waffling or second thoughts is a sign you may think you’ve done something wrong.  If you are thinking it, others will hear it in your words and see it in your actions.
Know the Facts — Sorry comes when we acknowledge errors.  If you are confident in the facts, and can speak without hesitation and caution, you can stand tall.  Speak strongly.  If you are unapologetic, you must be armed with the facts and transform them into strong, decisive, unquestioned words.  Declarative sentences.  No room for misinterpretation.  Statements that can be taken one way and one way only.
* Prepare to Accept the Concequences — When we stand up for what we believe in, we have to be prepared to take responsibility for our actions.  It is a hard fact of life.  But when we stand on a soapbox we have constructed of our principles, our beliefs, and our actions, we have be ready for that box to break under the strains of the situation.  If we have built it right, on words and deeds that can withstand the pressure, we will be OK.  But we need to be prepared for the worst, willing to suffer the punishments from doing or saying what we believe.

A little preachy, yes.  But an important lesson, and one that Doherty seems to have learned.  At the end of the day, Reading First has taught us a great numbers of lessons.  About policy.  About people.  And about communications.  Great teachers continue to teach well after the class is over, and RF may be one of those instructors.  Only time will tell.  

Friday’s hearings have clearly demonstrated, though, that potential scandal does not mandate pro forma apology.  It may not be the norm, but as Jefferson once said, “a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing.”  True for Jeffersonian governments then; true for communications today.

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