Faced with criticism and detailed questions about a female dress code policy change, Dartford Grammar School’s comms strategy has, from a PR perspective, failed ….
It may be a storm in a tea-cup, but, as outlined in my previous blog post, a sudden change of policy implemented, with little apparent consultation, by Dartford Grammar School has irritated some students at the school and parents like me.
On Monday 11 May, my wife sent a detailed letter to the DGS deputy head teacher and head of sixth form, Mr Robert Tibbott, summarising our concerns about the abrupt, seemingly discriminatory, and expensive, changes to the sixth form female dress code (prescribing collared tops and skirts of knee-length or longer). In particular she highlighted DfE 2013 advice to governors to consider the impacts, timing and costs of uniform policy changes (and she included a link to my blog post).
Two days later, we received a response from Mr Tibbott.
- Did he respond to the specific points made regarding the DfE guidance? No.
- Were DGS school governors consulted on the policy change? Not saying.
- Were parents consulted about the changes? Not going to tell you.
- Did they consider they gave adequate notice of the change, enough time for parents to respond to the change, and make the changes at an appropriate time academically? Not listening.
- Did they deny apparent discrimination against their female students?. La, la, la….
OK, I jest a bit …. Make up your own mind….
Apart from a final sentence about extending the deadline for compliance for our daughter, this is the complete DGS response. It fails to address any detailed issues or admit any shortcoming. Their ‘strategy’, apparently, is:
- Seek to minimise (“minor revisions”) the changes to the code.
- Don’t answer detailed points. Better still: ignore them.
- Obfuscate: suggest “careful consideration” is somehow adequate.
- Present a fait accomplit: claim a “positive response” vindicates the change.
If challenged, engage
All organisations may find themselves the subject of complaints, and how organisations respond to complaints has an impact on their reputations. As a PR practitioner, I advise clients and employers on how to respond to disaffected stakeholders, and the school’s approach is unwise.
I advise clients to engage with complainants, and respond in detail to as many of the concerns raised or questions asked as possible. Failure to do so treats legitimate stakeholders with disdain and is arrogant; it suggests their views are clearly unworthy of any detailed response or any further discussion; it may also appear an organisation is trying to sweep an issue under the carpet . It can also increase the risk that complaints might be escalated to other authorities.
Moreover, if those concerns have been publicly aired (on Twitter, Facebook, in a blog, in a newspaper, etc), then the organisation should be particularly diligent in its response, aware that its reaction may be shared and judged by others.
Sorry Mr Tibbott, sorry Mr Oakes (head teacher), but you have not passed this communication test. Must try harder.