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CMS flunks the PR challenge

There was no drama on TV this week that could beat the tragicomedy at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board.

It was a classic study in how not to handle a crisis.

After news broke Monday morning that superintendent Heath Morrison was unexpectedly leaving his job after only two years, reporters sought confirmation from the school system and board members, but hours passed without any.

At 3:30 p.m. Monday, the school system’s chief communications officer, Kathryn Block, conducted one of the most amazing briefings ever held at the county government center: She told reporters she could neither confirm nor deny whether Morrison was leaving.

About two hours later, the school board released a statement saying that Morrison was out. Deputy superintendent Ann Clark would take over when his resignation took effect Thursday. Nobody on the board was talking. And, in a telling move, no one was issuing any statements expressing regret over the superintendent’s departure.

Morrison would be quitting his job to take care of his ailing mother in Virginia, reporters were told.

That was the best they could do? County commissioner Bill James put it best: “So why would a guy quit a job paying $288,000 a year plus benefits? And quit a visible political job the day before an election?”

Tuesday afternoon, board Chairwoman Mary McCray appeared at a news conference with Clark. It wasn’t much of a news conference, really – no questions from reporters were allowed.

“I know that you have many questions at this time,” McCray said, “but we’re unable to answer them.” Their appearance lasted less than four minutes.

As the week went on, details emerged that showed Morrison – whose public persona was that of an up-and-coming administrator leading CMS to new glory – was not as popular with the board as it seemed. There was a report that said cost overruns were kept from board members and Morrison was considered personally abusive by some of his closest aides.

Whatever the reason, CMS and the school board weren’t talking. There had been an agreement on what each side could say, and the sick-mother cover story was obviously part of it. So you had one of the top 20 school districts in the nation by size wobbling around without telling the public what was up with its top leadership.

It didn’t look good. At best, it looked comical.

With no one on the school board setting the tone, and no one apparently in charge at the school system – Morrison was still superintendent until Thursday, but he wasn’t at work anymore – the situation with the press and public ran out of control. It felt as if the leadership of the school system had been effectively decapitated and no one knew quite what to do.

“I know it was fast-moving, and they were worried about confidentiality and things, but somebody should have stepped up,” said state Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Mecklenburg Democrat and former CMS administrator. “There should have been stronger leadership to set the tone and say, ‘This is what we can tell you right now.’ ”

Dianne Chase, a crisis communications consultant for C4CS, gives the system a “D” for its handling of the media.

“There’s always three things you can say in a crisis,” Chase says she advises her clients. “What you know, what you’re doing about it and how you feel about it.”

Even when there are legal agreements on what can be said publicly, there’s always some information that can be shared, Chase says. This is particularly important with an organization such as the school system, where taxpayers feel a sense of ownership.

“That situation where they said they could neither confirm or deny was an exercise in frustration with impatient reporters,” Chase says, “and you don’t want to make them mad.”

Chase, a former reporter who still occasionally anchors at WBT-AM (1110), says she noticed social media chatter about frustration with the CMS communications department this week, including some people who longed for the era of Nora Carr, the former schools spokeswoman who left for the Guilford County system in 2009.

“They definitely didn’t seem like they were prepared, and quite frankly, well-trained in these situations,” Chase says. “You’ve got to be prepared to communicate.”

Media Movers

Allie Spillyards joins WCNC (Channel 36) as reporter from the CBS affiliate in Knoxville, Tenn. … David Whisenant, a Salisbury native and chief of the Salisbury bureau for WBTV (Channel 3) for more than two decades, is named grand marshal for the 2014 Holiday Caravan Parade on Nov. 26. …

Danielle Kosir, who was working as a morning producer at Channel 3, joins WTVI (Channel 42) as producer and reporter for “Carolina Impact.” She is married to Nick Kosir, morning meteorologist on WJZY (Channel 46). Previously she was an anchor and producer at the CBS affiliate in Twin Falls, Idaho. …

Scoop of the week goes to Dedrick Russell of WBTV for breaking Monday’s story of the surprise resignation of Mecklenburg schools Superintendent Heath Morrison. Runner-up is the Observer’s Mike Gordon with the story of former Mayor Patrick Cannon voting in this week’s election despite his felony conviction. …

Anniversary of note: Jon Wilson marks 10 years on WCCB’s (Channel 18) “News Rising” this month. Before his TV gig, he did nights on WRFX-FM (“The Fox” 99.7). … David Rhew, a former WBTV reporter and general manager of WVTI, starts Monday in the office of corporate communications for the city of Charlotte. …

Former WSOC (Channel 9) photojournalist Dustin Etheridge joins Wingate University as media content specialist, managing the university’s website, social media and working for WUTV, the university’s television station. At Wingate, he joins former WBTV (Channel 3) newscasters Kristen Johnson and Jeff Atkinson. Etheridge’s wife, Kristy Etheridge, is a former reporter at WBTV who is now a writer at the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.