The curious case of Pedro Martinez

Don Vetter is a former journalist, currently a PR practitioner in Northern Nevada advising companies and local governments. He was the Washoe County public information officer from 1990-93.

Some have suggested that all publicity is good publicity. Clearly they have never envisioned the reputation implosion washing over the Washoe County School Board and its curious dealings with superintendent Pedro Martinez.

The content of this crisis—the exact reasons for Mr. Martinez’s “removal”—are maddeningly opaque. Thus, the “charges” have taken a back seat to the context of the crisis.

How you go about your business as a government agency beholden to a set of stakeholders—in this case students, parents and Washoe County taxpayers—matters now more than ever. The lack of process, transparency and clarity has led to a death spiral of lost credibility. Canceled meetings, lawsuits, televised hugs, recall efforts and resignations due to health reasons have only added opacity and fueled speculation.

This reflects not only on the school board and the district they manage—political pundit Jon Ralston opined they are the new “worst elected body in Nevada”—but also on the community.

We have seen the category of crisis communications become much more crucial to the well-being of any organization. The best organizations plan for such upheaval and hope that they never have to “break glass” in the case of reputation fire.

On that fateful Tuesday, what transpired among the school board members can only be surmised. It seems that a crisis communication counselor was probably not in attendance to hoist the red flag of reality check, to ask the “Yeah but …” questions before a photon torpedo was launched into the court of public opinion.

In these situations the organization contends with the classic quandary of balancing advice from the legal side versus the communications strategist. In a crisis, the astute PR type will hopefully lean toward full exposure, explanation if a mistake was made and a promise to do what it takes to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But the lawyers warn that contrition, or exposure of a mistake, can be construed as an admission of guilt in a potentially expensive lawsuit.

What we can learn from this curious case of Mr. Martinez is that context does matter and in this day and age the communication counselor may be as important as the legal one.

For the community and the media folk, the school district is an important element of our collective psyche—and it shouldn’t take this crisis of confidence to point that out.

News coverage should be more rigorous and circumspect, voters need to pay more attention, and at minimum the upcoming election should warrant as much limelight as the mayor/council races. Day-to-day, more people in this community are personally touched by or in touch with their schools than they are with any city-county government, and matter how much we beat our breasts over this issue we will move on; teachers will still teach, students will still be students and school lunch will be served around noon.