The Message and the Medium

edit: updated video link
edit: H/T to my brother, Paul Kraatz, for pointing to the one episode of The Office I had not seen for the video below.

I’ve been meaning to write this post for years now but it took the combined efforts of a thousand-person bureaucracy to shake it loose. That bureaucracy is the Oceanside Unified School District.

Now this isn’t a rant about the awful OUSD. On the contrary, they’re mostly nice folks who do a pretty decent job but they, like many other districts, are a horror show when it comes to communication media. So are you. This is why they’re the perfect example to trot out in the hope that you embrace a little self-improvement.

As parents of schoolchildren, the district needs to notify Mrs. Kid and me of many different goings on in the schools. For a time it was restricted to snail mail and phone calls home. The district soon discovered cell phones which led to calls and text messages, followed by e-mail, then Facebook, Twitter, and I think the last few bricks thrown through my window came from them. It’s hard to say with all the spelling errors on the threatening note but that was either the local gang or my son’s English teacher, probably the latter. Their motto: “if one communication channel is good, all of them are even better!”

They’re “Wuphfing” me.

Field trips, tardiness, grades, and even the latest measles breakout all require some kind of contact by the district.  Rather than pick a medium that matches the message the district spams all of them at once. And I do mean ALL of them. E-mail, home phone, cell phone, texts, and notifications of all kinds come barging through like opening day at Comic Con, simultaneous and unstoppable.

It’s not just one source, either. The district, the school, the Principals, the teachers, and even the crossing guards have something to say, every day, about each child. At first we were diligent. “Oh, the school is calling, we’d better answer this…wait…they’re just telling us the schedule which has been posted for 4 months is not going to change tomorrow.” But then the same message would pop up on two cell phones, the house phone (why do we even HAVE a house phone?), texts, e-mails, and that damned brick. 10 minutes later the same barrage came through for the other child.

This is why we don’t have windows any longer but the proverbial straw was this mangled message I received in e-mail this morning:

This all call is to inform you that the district, in partnership with the City of Oceanside, has conducted lead water testing at all of our school sites. We have results from 16 of the 25 sites tested posted on our web site at Only two of the 16 sites— Clair Burgener and Chavez Middle School—had one fixture with detectable levels of lead below the federal actionable limit. Although not required, these fixtures have been taken out of service indefinitely and are being retested.

Either we have a serious public health crisis that must be addressed immediately (because all of the other fixtures had detectable levels of lead ABOVE the actionable limit), a confusing health crisis (because somehow between Burgener and Chavez they split one water fountain, not having one EACH), or small inconvenience (which is probably what they meant…but maybe “Clair Burgener and Chavez Middle School” is the name of one school and now we’re terribly lost).

Unfortunately, we’re talking about lead and one of the symptoms of lead poisoning is a loss of cognitive function so it’s not safe to assume anything about the intent.  It’s likely the average parent in the district will not have noticed how confusing is this message but then they are probably all suffering from detectable levels of lead above the federal limits and the joke is completely lost on them because they are literally dying of lead poisoning.

Lead is a serious public health threat. In a public school setting, the danger (and irony, honestly) is amplified. So please, let’s get it right at least in the case where we are discussing the intersection of serious health issues and my children. Their future PR firm (clearly they need a new one) will likely rewrite part of the message as:

“Two of the sixteen sites, Clair Burgener Academy and Chavez Middle School, each had one fixture with detectable levels of lead. The level of lead detected is below the federal limit but the district has taken these fixtures out of service indefinitely out of an abundance of caution.”

This phrasing is noticeably improved for a number of reasons. First, it is clear now that the subject concerns two different schools and not just one. Second, it is also clear that there is a single fixture at each site under inspection. Third, we’re emphasizing that we found some lead but it’s not a cause for concern. Of course we’d tell you if we found lead; we’re not monsters, but just keep things in perspective: it’s not anything you should worry about. Finally: the message tells the reader that notwithstanding the fact lead levels are fine, the district is not happy about it and is shutting down the affected fixtures until they can sort things out.  Notice how the message now removes the government jargon “actionable limit.” Good communicators don’t use jargon to communicate with non-members of their professional group. Instead, we use clear and plain language to define terms. We use proper and consistent naming to avoid confusion…and we don’t bury the lede.

The lede is that you found lead. When you open with “only two of the 16 sites” and close with “lead,” I’m immediately convinced you’re trying to downplay or spin the findings. Stop that. You found lead. Where? Two places. How much? Not enough to be concerned. But what if I am concerned anyway? We took those fixtures out of service. How do I find out more? Here’s a few links, knock yourself out. See how I avoided confusion there by spelling “lede” to denote the difference between the main point of the story and a dangerous neurotoxin?  It’s the little things…

This isn’t about the poor guy who sent the memo. The thing was certainly written by a committee but it’s NOT communication. This is confusion. I get 200+ e-mails a day and if I need to read one twice to tease out the important bits, you’re failing at your job.

You, too. You need to find the right communication channel, use it the right way, and stop the interpersonal spam. Or at least when you call, leave a message somewhat shorter than an Oscar acceptance speech.

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