Joele Frank assembles PR team for under-fire NY high school

NEW YORK: An impromptu group of PR professionals led by members of financial and crisis PR firm Joele Frank Wilkinson Brimmer Katcher came together to work with special-interest organizations this summer, as the public debated the opening New York's first public high school for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students.

NEW YORK: An impromptu group of PR professionals led by members of financial and crisis PR firm Joele Frank Wilkinson Brimmer Katcher came together to work with special-interest organizations this summer, as the public debated the opening New York's first public high school for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students.

The Harvey Milk High School received much notoriety early on, as its opening was announced in a front-page New York Post story on July 28.

Although founded in 1985 by nonprofit group the Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI), this year the school was expanded from a high school program that enabled students to take New York State Regents exams to a full-fledged public school. Much of the media attention and controversy was centered on the school's $3.2 million budget for its 100 students.

The story also became a flashpoint for national media attention as some of the school's opponents voiced concerns that it promoted segregation on the basis of sexual orientation.

The school's proponents said that it promoted a safe learning space for children who are often threatened or find it difficult to adjust to the traditional high school environment.

On August 3, the school's supporters appeared to suffer a major PR setback when the usually liberal New York Times editorial page doubted the wisdom of creating such a school. The paper's editorial board wrote that the city "cannot condone the concept of establishing a special school specifically for students based on their sexual orientation."

After keeping up with the school's PR travails, Joele Frank offered the HMI some PR counsel on a pro bono basis. "They needed to quiet [the media] down," said Frank. "It wasn't about the issues, it was for the children."

The firm, which typically works with large corporations on crises and mergers, took on the campaign and assembled a team of six staff members to work on it full-time.

In addition, the firm worked along with professionals from lifestyle and business PR agency Clifford Public Relations, Omnicom's Ketchum, media monitor Multivision, multimedia technology company nVision, PR Newswire, and attorneys at King & Spalding on various projects involved in supporting the school's PR effort.

Although the team felt that it couldn't change people's minds regarding their philosophical opposition to the school, the team worked with two goals in mind: educate the media, and make the political and physical environment safe for the students' first day of school on September 8.

"These are at-risk kids, and while many of the media reports addressed teasing, the things these kids endured were torture," Frank said, arguing that reporters were under-informed about the students' plight.

The Joele Frank team also created a fact sheet with information about the school, the HMI, and the students.

In addition, members of the HMI answered every written criticism, including both letters and editorials. This included a Wall Street Journal editorial that called Harvey Milk's students "educational elite."

The HMI group countered that charge in its fact sheet by reporting that 40% of last year's students reported annual family incomes below $20,000.

The staffers also engaged editors at The New York Times, and saw the paper run three separate pieces after the August 3 editorial.

As the opening day of school neared and the media quieted down, Joele Frank shifted its attention to Astor Place, where demonstrators, including well-known conservative Christian Fred Phelps, planned to protest the school's opening. Working with police, local merchants, and supportive protesters, the group ensured the students' safety and lent support in an already stressful situation.

While there is still follow-up work to be done, the PR team said that the campaign largely achieved its main goals. "It's a classic case of PR fixing PR," Frank said.

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