What kind of PR works when a mystery illness strikes?

wbhsfull.gifResidents of Roanoke County, Virginia are waiting for answers after a mystery illness struck in a local high school. It’s reported that since September, one teacher and six students attending William Byrd High School have come down with a set of symptoms for an unknown illness. Although the school district stated it would not release the symptoms or any medical-related information about those ill, community members have described the symptoms to the media.

“They wave. It’s convulsing. They can’t stop it,” senior Layne Gulli said in an Associated Press story. “You don’t know how to avoid it. You don’t know if you’re next, or if your friend is next, or if it’s an epidemic.”

Parents have a natural instinct to protect their children and will stop at nothingwilliambyrd.gif to protect them. William Byrd High School parents have asked the school district to disclose symptom information and close the school. School system officials have stated that no environmental causes for the illness have been found after conducting tests and that there is no need to close the school.

After the recent cause for alarm at the school, parents received letters signed by the Assistant Superintendent of Administration Allen Journell. These letters stated that due to legal requirements, specific information about the individuals involved and their symptoms could not be released. This letter obviously did not go over well with worried parents.

Parents and students then attended a meeting run by school officials, the Virginia Department of Health and the companies that conducted the environmental testing done to the school facilities. Although the meeting was open to parents and students, those running the meeting again stated what these community members already knew. And nothing more.

Although the school district is keeping parents updated with developments as they happen, there is a line drawn as to how much information is really being released. Parents do not know much about the symptoms or means of preventing the illness, if there are any.

The school district is attempting to listen to concerned parents and students, but not really taking what they are saying to heart. Parents wants the school closed until the medical problem is solved and want other schooling facilities opened to accommodate the close to 1,200 students. The school system says it’s not going to happen.

Vague letters and stand-off type town meetings are not good practices of public relations. School systems have an obligation to protect their students and keep their best interests in mind. Who better to let you know what their best interests are than the parents directly involved with their lives? I think the school system needs to take a step back and rethink the public relations strategy here.

The school district needs to put the students at ease, which will then put the parents at ease. Staying in touch with the community, running tests and releasing updated information is key to keeping these students and parents at ease. School officials have to do it with tact and understanding though. Once a member of the public has to question the motive of the school system’s decisions, then there is a big problem. Especially when the well-being of someones child is at stake.

Photos courtesy of William Byrd High School.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “What kind of PR works when a mystery illness strikes?

  1. Kim Kerns

    As a teacher myself I understand the legal aspects behind giving any personal information about the individuals can cause even bigger problems. However, as a parent, I would want to know what symptoms these people have so I would know what to watch for! I can’t believe they won’t even give that information out. There might be some parents looking for another school for their child to attend (using open enrollment). That is one school that may need to replace their PR!

  2. Mark

    Budgetary responsibility supercedes common sense.

  3. I think the right kind of Public relations to use is to be honest and open. Let the parents know what is going on with their children. It might be hard for the school to give all the facts because they dont want to look bad or look like they arent doing anything to help the situation but the best answer is to have the parents be informed. While they did host a meeting they were very limited to the information given out. If they dont everyone exactly what was going on, I think there wouldnt be as many issues.

  4. Kati Campbell

    I think that the parents have a right to know what the symptoms of this mystery disease are, at the least. Who would want to send their kids to a school where there is a chance of getting an illness that no one knows what it is? It seems ridiculous to not be given the symptoms because how are you supposed to know if you have it? If this school wants to continue having students enrolled it should definately start giving up more information. P.R. needs to come at this crisis with a different angle because it doesn’t sound like anyone really knows what’s going on and many people are worried.

  5. Leah Campbell

    I feel after reading this article that, it’s not fair to the students and parents of this school system that they don’t have information on the symptoms of these infected students. The best kind of PR is to be open and honest with your public so it doesn’t cause any more havoc. By the school systems not releasing any of the health information it only does so. I feel that school administration should send letters to all the parents stating to them personally, so they feel they have been reached one-on-one instead of hearing new information on the news. The school should go through a series of tests and cleaning so it prevents an instant like this by happening again. They should let their community know, that although they aren’t sure of what caused this, they are doing everything in their power to cater to their needs and that this will never happen again.

  6. Kati Campbell

    I think that the parents should at least me notified what the symptoms are. It would be ridiculous to send your child to a school when there is a chance that they can get a mystery disease that no one knows what it is. Especially if they can’t even tell if they have it because they do not know what the symptoms are. If the school wants to keep students enrolled it needs to start giving up more information. P.R. needs to come at this crisis with a new angle because people are still worried and do not want the school opened.

  7. Sarah Blei

    Being truthful with the community about the illness at the school would be the most effective Public Relations solution. Even though this may infringe on the image of the school by having an illness that is affecting students and teachers, it would be more admirable if they would provide all information to the community even though some is negative. This way, people will have a better understanding of what symptoms to look for and what kind of precautions to impliment in order to protect their children since the school refuses to close until the medical issues are resolved. It makes them look worse by giving vague information repeatedly, which ultimately frustrates the community. They need to be more understanding of the community’s concerns and reduce their fear and anxiety about the medical crisis.

  8. Leah Betton

    The school should disclose some information about the situation to parents. I understand that they can not reveal any names associated, but they should at least inform worried portents about some of the symptoms. It is a serious problem and should be addressed as one. It seems to me the school is trying to make it seem as if everything is ok. But it’s not ok. And the school should do more to find out what exactly is going on and how to stop the problem from continuing.

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