Selling the awful to the angry

Yesterday evening, my family trucked down to 96th Ave SW, invited by the Calgary Board of Education (along with the other families in the Westgate School Bilingual Spanish program) to view the “new” school, Eugene Coste Elementary. It was supposed to be a chance to see the new location, and ask questions of the CBE Area IV director, as well as the Planning & Transportation folks.

I emphasize the word “supposed” — that was the CBE’s perspective. They thought they would get a lot of interest, and a lot of people who were genuinely happy that a solution had been found for the accommodation woes at Westgate School, which is at over 90% of its rated capacity.

But, funny thing, there weren’t many happy people.

When we received the official notice that Eugene Coste was the “solution” to the problem, there’s been almost the equivalent of an angry mob. (I know — I’m one of them.) And that angry mob has been inundating the CBE with emails, phone calls, petitions, and even an appeal rally in the lobby of their headquarters last Friday. It would be awfully hard for anyone at the CBE to be able to not notice that there are a lot of unhappy people.

Yet, despite all the warning, the CBE continued with its open house at Eugene Coste. I would like to refer to it as “Eugene Coste School” at this point, but in truth, it’s only a building with some rooms — everything that could make it a school, like desks, chairs, art on the walls, books in the library, and so forth, are utterly absent. The building was little more than a shell.

When we entered the building, we were effectively directed to what I think was previously the library, to see some information, and talk to the directors. Except there wasn’t much talking — it was largely listening to the angry parents question the directors, and listen to the directors attempt to explain their position. Amongst all of this were kids running about, having to be corralled by parents who were trying to speak their minds. There were a lot of angry parents. Amazingly, so I heard later, the CBE was surprised that so many people were unhappy about the affair.

Now this, dear reader, is where I give myself the facepalm. You know this expression, yes?

I say this because I’m utterly unable to see how the CBE thought that asking a large number of unhappy parents to drive through rush hour traffic to a school to which they’re largely opposed with their tired and hungry kids in tow (without a single distraction available to occupy them), not run a single tour of the facility to sell its virtues, and corral everyone in one room to “talk” with the people most of the angry parents are blaming in the first place, was ever a good idea.

Exactly how was this supposed to be successful?

I work in marketing. You know, the industry that exists to sell you the things you don’t really want to buy? (Okay, slightly cynical. I admit that perhaps I’ve been doing this job too long…) You can look at Mad Men and snicker, but the basis of the show isn’t far from reality: we make you want something.

The CBE didn’t even try to make us want to send our kids to Eugene Coste. Let’s ignore the hour-long bus rides and massive disruption to families’ lives — the school building was devoid of any life whatsoever, and we didn’t even really get a chance to see much of it. And having our fears glossed over by “best case” scenarios of bus routes and timing? A little more than moderately insulting. Basically, they failed at selling the idea.

This is the point at which an agency is asked to leave the pitch process and not return. Or, worse, the agency’s account is brought up for review and they have to validate their existence against dozens of competitors who want the account.

This is something the CBE needs to figure out: how to sell awful situations to angry people. The entire city is under school space crunches, and there aren’t a lot of options for anyone. The releases we receive are emotionless, lacking sufficient information, and unable to address the fears that arise — the very things that any good marketing job should address.

No competition for the CBE, you say? You’d be surprised how many people are readily willing to consider the separate school system, or even the extra cost of charter schools. And we’ve got a lot of charter schools in Calgary, so this is definitely not a hypothetical scenario. The CBE just ends up with more angry customers, who won’t be willing to put up with the problem much longer.

So a suggestion to the CBE: you want people to like you? Get someone else to tell your story, ‘cuz you’re doing a lousy job of it.