Proving the Value of School Public Relations Through Measurement

Posted 10/13/2014 by schoolpr
Categories: Uncategorized

One sign of a true profession is the standards it holds for those who practice that profession. Another is proving the value of the profession in accomplishing the main mission of its organization.

A Quick Historical Snapshot

For many years, NSPRA followed and adopted standards that NSPRA pioneers set — many of those pioneers were past NSPRA presidents. The standards evolved over the years, and we updated new standards in an NSPRA publication, Raising the Bar for School PR. I was fortunate to write NSPRA’s first crack at an evaluation guidebook entitled, Evaluating Your School PR Investment, based on our standards. That contribution grew into today’s NSPRA Communication Audit process.

In the same historical period when we set standards, NSPRA’s accreditation blossomed, adding another rung to the ladder of professionalism for our members. Five past presidents who made an important contribution to accreditation were on the development team, and all of the work was done during Larry Ascough’s presidency. Past Presidents Dr. Ken Muir, APR, and Joe Rowson, APR, led the accreditation effort, offering new ways to measure skill levels, judgment, and productivity. The NSPRA accreditation program eventually merged with the Universal Accreditation Board’s (UAB) program which included the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and other public relations groups throughout the U.S. NSPRA continues to participate in this universal program today. Also, NSPRA has adopted a code of ethics and joined with other groups in adopting the North American Public Relations Council’s Uniform Code of Ethics.

Enter NSPRA’s Benchmarking Project

A bit more than 3 years ago, a Benchmarking Project Team tackled the onerous task of benchmarking the practice of school public relations in local districts. Led by consultant and NSPRA Past President Sandy Cokeley, APR, in just 2 years, the team delivered a benchmarking tool entitled, School Communication Benchmarking — Rubrics of Practice and Suggested Measures. The initial version covered three areas and we just added a fourth. The areas are:

  • Comprehensive Planned Communications
  • Internal Communications
  • Parent/Family Communications
  • Marketing/Branding Communications

How Does Your Program Stack Up?

Thanks to the work of numerous NSPRA professionals mentioned in the guidebook, you can now see where your program stands — whether your program is just emerging, already established, or considered exemplary. As my dentist notes, throughout this process, “You may experience a bit of discomfort.” But your program and your school district will be more effective for going through the process.

The guidebook gives practical examples to professional communicators, superintendents, and board members, showing them the components of a successful public relations program that ultimately contribute to student achievement. No board or superintendent should start a program without this guidebook as they set the path to achieving effective and efficient communication in their districts.

With this guidebook, now we all have solid answers to the common questions that we hear all the time:

  • What does a school PR person do anyway?
  • What value does PR bring to our schools?
  • Where do you start?
  • How do you know if your program is effective?
  • What else should we be doing in school PR?

If you’re an NSPRA member, you can download the entire rubric for $20. Print and non-member prices are also available. To learn more, go to www.nspra.org/products.

Rich Bagin, APR
NSPRA Executive Director

Two Trends — One Positive, the Other, Not So Much

Posted 09/08/2014 by schoolpr
Categories: Uncategorized

Two trends in our profession demonstrate the increasing need for a solid communication professional on staff.

Trend 1

More districts are finally recognizing and began funding communication as a management function in their systems. So as friend and PR guru Steve Knagg often says, “Amen, brother!”

Districts are finally recognizing that in today’s climate, where anyone can become an instant publishing source about your schools, they need a go-to pro to engage their communities and serve as a credible source and force for transparent communication.

They also are beginning to understand that it is not simply telling the good news but also engaging the community to tackle issues that may be preventing the system from getting better. And that means that they need a real pro – someone steeped in internal and community engagement experiences who has the over-arching skills needed to lead a comprehensive strategic communication program for their districts. Publicity and social media specialists can play a part in that effort but today’s challenges demand a cabinet-level communication position.

Trend 2

It is hard as hell to be a school communicator in today’s world.

And that’s probably why Trend 1 is brewing. More districts are realizing that they will be way over their heads if they don’t have a professional communicator on staff. Most districts without professional communicators rarely make the time to deal effectively with proactive, let alone reactive, communication. And that is why they often find themselves taking a public opinion beating.

But the second trend goes much deeper than that.

We received a call from a member who told us a story that points to what people in today’s school district jobs frequently face.

Here is the modified version of what we heard to set the stage on how our jobs are changing:

An elementary student fell from the top of a slide during school hours. Four adults were in the area supervising. The student had facial bruises and other damages. The student was treated at the emergency ward of a local medical facility and the district noted that it would pay for medical costs related to this incident.

The mother of the student later said that the student was in a fight and that the fight caused the damages.

She went to the local newspaper, contacted a lawyer, and the story has gone viral on social media. A fund was established to help the parent fight this battle and national media also descended on this district to tell the mother’s story.

Social media is fanning the flames of this situation and folks from across the U.S. are commenting about the situation as they understand it. This type of situation could quickly overwhelm the operations and reputation of any school district.

District legal counsel was naturally involved and the now “public court” versus “public opinion” negotiation is going on as the school district needs to tell its side of the story based on adult witnesses at the time of the incident. A major credibility gap exists until the “truth” is revealed as many residents no longer give school officials the “benefit of the doubt” in these situations.

Pat Jackson, APR, the late PR guru and friend of NSPRA, used to call these situations based on instant polls during his day as “old-time lynch mobs.” I have said many times that when emotions and facts collide, emotions win just about every time.

And that’s why it is important to get out front early with what you know.

Keep repeating the key facts of the situation. You must demonstrate empathy in these cases and do all you can to help the child through the situation.

Bruce Blythe, the author of a new crisis leadership book, Blind Sided, compares crisis incidents to someone having a heart attack: The faster you deal with it, the better success for survival. He also asks professionals to take the “reasonable person test.” How will reasonable people in your community react to your action steps and messaging?

Times are different for today’s school communication pros. The pros know better than many of their colleagues what it takes to lead a system through a crisis. Hopefully they can convince their legal counsel, board, and top administrators to take action instead of remaining silent while their entire community is abuzz with misinformation that is damaging the reputation of their schools and possibly their staff.

Top pros already have their infrastructure set up to quickly deliver appropriate messages to staff, media, parents, and key opinion leaders in their community.

The good news remains that more school districts are realizing they need more communication leadership and they have begun filling the current enormous void with top-flight communication NSPRA professionals.

Rich Bagin APR
NSPRA Executive Director

Common Core: New Considerations as the School Year Gets Underway

Posted 08/11/2014 by schoolpr
Categories: Uncategorized

Try as we may to make the new school year full of fresh starts and new community relationships, we will need to become more proactive on a number of fronts concerning the Common Core.

We project and recently heard some rumblings that next week’s annual Gallup/PDK poll may indicate that public support of the Common Core continues to wane. If that’s what the report says, it will most likely be the headline in next week’s media reports.

The anti-Common Core movement has made its mark. Some parents and others are following the big misinformation mantra of critics, saying it is a national curriculum that was not developed by teachers and other informed educators. (Remember to go to NSPRA’s Common Core Communication Network and the Learning First Alliance’s Get It Right resources to review the facts on Common Core standards and implementation.)

Time to Take the Battle to the Local Level

Since education leaders, for more than two years now, have failed to get out front on this issue, we must once again play catch up to dissolve the misleading perceptions about the Common Core. Critics have defined Common Core and it is a daunting task to overcome the current misleading rhetoric. But we can do it if local educators realize that communication and engagement are the two keys to making Common Core work for their districts.

The best and most efficient approach at this stage of the roll-out is to get aggressive at the local level, one school district and school at a time. Local school leaders and teachers always have more credibility with their communities than state lawmakers who make decisions from afar or those aligned with marching orders from groups who may benefit from the demise of the Common Core.

Consider these local strategies and activities:

  • Ask Parents: Which Standard Are You Against for Your Child?

Dr. C.J. Huff, superintendent of Joplin Schools in Missouri, shared this approach with me at our recent National Seminar in Baltimore. He asks parents to visit with him and he runs through the standards, asking, “Which standard are you against for the well-being of your child?” Most often, parents cannot disagree with the standards, and they realize that it is not a national curriculum and that, with Common Core, local districts still decide the best methods to teach their local students. Huff finds that they realize that most of the rhetoric by critics does not pertain to their child or their schools.

  • Creating New Standards Wastes Time and Money

A few states are working on their own standards. One completed its draft only to have it rejected by a state legislative body because it was too much like the Common Core State Standards. That, in itself, proves something. It seems to some that professionals who understand education standards agree about what is best for students. Of course, some may choose to have others who don’t know what they are doing create a new set of standards for their children — good luck with that process.

And the irony for those in the fiscal conservative camp is that we rarely hear about how much it will cost to develop the new state standards as well as the specialized testing for their own set of new standards. Those costs will most likely be passed onto local taxpayers at a time when today’s parents and other taxpayers negatively view the idea of spending more money on tests and standards. When those taxes go up, let’s hope that the public realizes that these costs were brought to them by their state legislatures.

Sitting down with parents and reviewing the new college and career-ready standards will help clear the air when it comes to Common Core standards.

  • Don’t Fail Our Children Now

For years, educators have been asked to improve our schools and make our students more competitive, no matter where they live. To move our schools in that direction, we must set our standards at appropriate levels to help all educators and students aspire to new levels of achievement.

Now is not the time to falter in pursuing better education for all students.

Make it known through communication and engagement efforts that you are committed to high levels of teaching and learning so that your students will have every opportunity to become productive members of your school community.

And as technology shrinks the world, you can also ask your students’ parents and others to ensure that your local students be just as accomplished as students in other school districts throughout our land.

Now is not the time to falter on that commitment to our children.

Rich Bagin, APR

NSPRA Executive Director

 

School Budget Deliberations and the PR Pro

Posted 06/09/2014 by schoolpr
Categories: Uncategorized

It used to happen once every budget season — at least that’s when we would hear about it.

Tight budgets mean more cuts. More cuts mean that all administrative and leadership positions find themselves on the chopping block. And communication professionals go down to the June 30th wire for their very own Ryan Seacrest “dim-the-lights” moment:

Will the communication person stay or will she go?

From our viewpoint, we see more communication professionals staying than going.

I am sure some may have been the victim of some well-meaning but thoughtless decision-makers, who often claim that other people will just pick up the duties that the communication professional performed. I have never seen that strategy work.

What I do see is that about 12 to 18 months later, the leadership team and Board begin posting a communication position because they realize that, in today’s communication overloaded world, nobody can keep up and be the recognized “answer” that their parents, community, staff, and media are looking for. When these audiences do not receive “answers,” our school leaders hand the megaphone to critics who gladly blog, tweet, and create listservs to tell their own version of your school district story. In other words, the communication mess grows bigger every day.

Other reasons communication pros are staying and not going

  • We now live in a world where parents are used to getting quick answers or at least knowing where to go for the answers. Parents and others lose confidence quickly when they have to wait for days, get bounced around among many staff members, or do not receive returned calls because the staff is just too busy to respond to a request. People may appreciate your district’s test score, but they also know how you made them feel when you seemingly treated them poorly when they asked for and needed direct communication. Customer service situations can make or break confidence in your schools.
  • The right communication pro can turn complex issues into clear messages that build understanding and support.
  • Competition calls for more communication, not less. Most of the competition is supported by communication professionals — some even have one professional for each school. Cutting communication can translate to a loss of thousands of dollars as you lose your state per student reimbursement when disgruntled parents enroll their children at the local Everything-Is-Great Academy. If you recruit more students into your schools and they stay for all 12 or 13 years, your communication effort easily pays for itself and more.
  • When the media does not receive insight and context, you know the “rest of that bad story.”
  • Crisis situations become more aggravated and long-lasting without effective communication, especially with today’s reliance on social media.
  • Some political or community-active groups often call for cutting the position. If you look throughout history, warring factions often attempt to knock out the communication of their adversaries. Doing so is a perfect strategy for them; it leads to disorganization and chaos and opens the door for their own brand of messages.
  • Communication pros have been instrumental in dealing with increased parent involvement, partnerships, foundations, and special campaigns to increase attendance and effectiveness in diversity communication.

Basically, we are pleased to note that more leaders understand that cutting communication means that you are cutting your major strategy to build more understanding and fiscal support for your schools. Cutting communication has always been shortsighted. But fortunately, we are making some progress as more leaders are seeing communication as the lifeblood of their school communities.

Rich Bagin, APR
NSPRA Executive Director

Saluting Excellence in School PR

Posted 05/12/2014 by schoolpr
Categories: Uncategorized

“Rich, can you give me some examples of how communication and public relations performance really make a difference for local school districts?”

Too often, the uninformed more or less tell me that the PR function deals primarily with making their Boards and superintendents look good and that it has little to do with substantive issues in our schools. I always have great examples to shoot down that puffery approach to PR. At this time of year, we add some 5 to 10 more examples of just how great communication efforts deliver for our schools.

NSPRA’s Gold Medallion Awards showcase the best

NSPRA’s Gold Medallion Awards recognize the best programs submitted in this annual competition. Often, judges have a difficult time narrowing down the “best of the best.” This week we are announcing 7 award winners for the year. So, if you are looking for substantive communication efforts, take a gander at these examples (We will carry full descriptions of the programs on our NSPRA website later this year.):

  • The Duluth Public Schools (Minnesota) offered its Think Kids Community Visions and Priorities effort where it marshaled its community around its public schools to agree on a common vision and built backing of a local operating levy to support that vision. The program offers a great example of using communication in an engaging and collaborative approach by listening to the community and helping to build a sense of ownership of the Duluth Public Schools.
  • We recognized the Dallas Independent School District (Texas) for its Parent Portal System Bilingual Campaign. Engaging parents and families is critical to students’ success. Toss in the added challenge of communicating with non-English speaking parents, and you can see why this effective bilingual program captured a top NSPRA award. Training staff and parents was a critical component for this outstanding program.
  • The Peel District School Board (Canada) won the award for its Kindergarten Live! Program. With an increased effort to enroll more students in new kindergarten programs, the communication office mounted a 3-month campaign to enroll more students, educate more parents, and also help build the financial bottom-line as the system receives more revenue from the ministry of education for each child attending the program.
  • The Minnetonka Public Schools (Minnesota) earned its recognition through a program it called Creating a Culture of Innovation: Minnetonka Innovates Campaign. The program energized and motivated staff, created new ideas meeting school board criteria, and helped to implement 3 new initiatives in the school district.
  • The Houston Independent School District (Texas) PowerUp Communication program helped pave the way for successful distributing and implementing of nearly 18,000 laptops to students in 11 high schools. In an atmosphere where national headlines frequently highlight one-to-one efforts that did not work, the Houston ISD’s implementation succeeded because of its comprehensive communication and engagement efforts.
  • We honored another Canadian School Board, Trillium Lakelands District School Board, for its “We’ve Got You Covered” Secondary School Pathways to Success program. Understanding that students and parents alike are always a bit nervous making the transition to high schools, this communication effort allayed those fears by making sure it offered all the answers and boosted confidence as students started their journey through high school.
  • A third Minnesota district, the Bloomington Public Schools (There must be something in the Land of Lakes water!), was recognized for its winning 2013 Safe and Innovative Schools referendum project. The referendum was created to provide increased technology and improve safety and security measures for their schools. The comprehensive, research-driven campaign worked using a volunteer citizen and staff committee to complete the elements of a successful campaign.

All these award-winning programs cast a spotlight on great, substantive school public relations. But they also make their school boards, superintendents, staff, and communities look good in the process.

Doing great work and making sure decision makers know about it is also an important task of today’s PR professional. Winning an NSPRA Gold Medallion is one substantive step in that direction.

Rich Bagin, APR
NSPRA Executive Director

Taking Another Look at Our Media Relationships

Posted 04/04/2014 by schoolpr
Categories: Uncategorized

The Education Writers Association (EWA) recently released the results of a survey of 190 journalist members of EWA entitled Mediated Access. The coverage of that study made communication professionals – they call them PIOs (a term less frequently used by NSPRA members these days) – look like obstacles rather than facilitators. One headline read Education Reporters Slam Public Information Officers in Survey.

But if you step back and analyze the report itself, I think it represents a realistic snapshot of the mixed-bag of media relationships today. Possibly, another case of headline writers not reading the full report.

Indeed, this “slamming” survey notes that the relationships between journalists and communication professionals were fairly positive nearly 75% of the time. The exception was for a small number of instances in which reporters were not given interviews on their time schedule or were refused interviews at all. In these cases, the districts were described as practicing censorship.

Another critical finding was that the public is not getting all the information it needs because of barriers imposed by schools. About 76% of reporters agreed with that statement. That’s a head-scratcher for me because most NSPRA members practice transparency with an ounce or two of context tossed in to add clarification on any story.

Savvy NSPRA members know that if you’re trying to get to the ideal of having cooperation between reporters and school PR professionals, it all comes back to developing positive relationships on both sides. It goes south sometimes when school leaders feel ambushed or feel they were not treated fairly in the past. That’s when it gets more difficult to build a positive relationship and some barriers begin to impede cooperation.

One NSPRA member told me that the study was an embarrassment to our profession because she never barred any reporter in more than 20 years in our field. Another member noted that perhaps some of the current barrier issues reflect the fact that media standards are changing, particularly in big media markets and in those that are more sensational – this condition tends to be more prevalent on the East and West Coasts. She also added that she quickly learned that urban districts in sensational media markets face completely different media pressures and agendas, and may, at times, appropriately refuse an interview to a specific reporter based on that reporter’s past practices and ethics.

So there is another side to the “sorry-no-interview-for-you” story.

Other reactions to items in the study include:

Providing Access
Most communication professionals are there to provide access to reporters to complete their interviews. It is their job to help staff and reporters get together. One reporter commented, “Honestly, the worst schools to deal with are the small surrounding school districts with no PIO.”

Does it always happen on the reporter’s schedule? No, because teaching and keeping to school schedules are communication professionals’ main jobs, but, for the most part, we at NSPRA see that most communication professionals work quite well with their local reporters.

Monitoring Interviews
The study found that reporters do not seem to think that their interviews should be monitored in person, audited by phone, or even recorded. In media training, the first recommendation is normally to have your own video crew there when 60 Minutes comes knocking at your door. Neither side of the interview should fret about this process because it levels the playing field and establishes proof about what you said in case a story goes astray from what you actually said during the interview. It is called accountability for all parties in the interview. It is not designed to be an intimidating ploy, but rather is a stroke for accuracy and context in the final story.

Even the Newspaper Says, “No Comment”
And finally, this week The Washington Post did a story that its headquarters is possibly moving to a new building on K Street in Washington, D.C. The Post reporter covering the story noted “that the Post spokeswoman declined to comment for this article.”

So the Post spokesperson won’t even talk to the Post reporter on this story.

We assume that negotiations are still in play and no one wanted to harm those sensitive negotiations to influence the eventual outcome. Our experience shows us that school communicators face these sensitive issues with staff, students, and negotiations all the time. That’s why we understand that sometimes requests for interviews are more complicated than they seem.

Rich Bagin, APR
NSPRA Executive Director

Trending — Going from Chief Communicator to Chief of Staff

Posted 03/10/2014 by schoolpr
Categories: Uncategorized

All right, maybe it’s not really trending yet, but in the last 5 years from coast to coast I have seen enough professionals transition from being Chief Communicator to becoming Chief of Staff in mid- to large-size systems that perhaps we are seeing the beginning of a trend. And, by the way, in the past decade or so, I have seen four former communication directors also take on the role of superintendent.

Building on the Positive Relationship with Your Superintendent

For the ambitious public relations professional, this rise in status can be a natural step. The best PR professionals know that they need to take a global, big-picture view of their systems, much like the stellar superintendents they work with day-in and day-out.

Like their bosses, these communication professionals help leaders lead, they provide support and “cover” for staff, and they help build and manage the reputation of the district. They often earn the respect and credibility of staff because they understand the nuances of most school employees’ jobs. They also know what works and what doesn’t when it comes to relating to the public’s opinion of their schools.

Talented PR professionals are organized and, yes, let’s use the old PR cliché, “they know how to get along with just about everyone — even the media.” Most top professionals also understand their superintendents’ thinking and tendencies, which also makes them a great fit for the position.

It’s no surprise then that the next logical step for some PR professionals is to become a Chief of Staff. As one of our NSPRA Board members mentioned, “I may not have the chief of staff title, but I often provide that type of service for my superintendent as well.”

Adding Security and Safety Duties as Well

At our NSPRA Board of Directors meeting this past weekend, regional vice presidents mentioned that they are seeing another duty being added to the PR professional’s very full plate. In some districts, communication professionals have now been asked to oversee the security and safety issues for their systems. Depending on the scope and size of your district, this add-on may make sense if you want to add even more value to your positions with your school communities.

Top communication professionals are always among the visible leaders when a crisis hits a district. To be a part of the team, or to oversee, coordinate, and implement security and safety issues can also be a natural fit for many NSPRA members.

The key to a great school communication job has always been that the communication professional has the deep trust, understanding, and confidence of the superintendent. You earn that trust and understanding by working closely with your superintendent as a cabinet member. More and more, we see that superintendents are leaning on their communication professionals for their strategic thinking and planning. Top PR pros help their districts advance in a hectic climate that is often riddled with community and staff challenges. We pave the way for productivity and support — and that is what our school communication profession is all about.

Rich Bagin, APR

NSPRA Executive Director


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