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

Heading Off an Ethical Dilemma Before It Arrives at Your Doorstep

Posted 02/06/2014 by schoolpr
Categories: Uncategorized

My late brother, Dr. Don Bagin, a noted guru and author in school communication, used to preach that the ability to anticipate was one of the leading skills of a great communication professional. He would urge his students to run “What-if-Scenarios” as part of a planning process for any new idea or program. This strategy would lead to developing Plans A and B or refining the idea to make it more effective. And, in some cases, it killed the idea entirely.

Recently an NSPRA colleague told me about a local news story and the community’s firestorm of comments carried in the local paper and its e-edition. What happened serves as a good example of the need to anticipate and run the “What-If-Scenarios” when developing a new program.

To protect everyone involved, I created a generic description and tweaked the situation a bit as it played out in a suburban community.

Going from a Wall of Fame to a Wall of Shame

A former high school athletic star and recognized local community member was recently convicted of sexual misconduct with a minor in his community. About 20 years ago, the star athlete was named to the local high school’s Wall of Fame and his photo and his accomplishments are still prominently recognized on the school’s wall. His own children now go to that school.

With circumstances surrounding the sexual misconduct, parents and others in the community are asking school officials to remove his high school accomplishments and photo and to also strip him of his Wall of Fame status. They note that they do not want their children to see his photo and to think that he serves as a role model for today’s students. The comment section online continues to grow — as they are apt to do these days — and has the community transforming the Wall of Fame into one of shame.

The Dilemma About the Next Steps Could Have Been Eliminated
Many school districts, corporations and even associations offer numerous outstanding achievement awards in one fashion or another. But how many of us run the “What-if-Scenarios” to cover a case in which an awardee could eventually become an embarrassment for the school, the corporation or the association? My guess is very few of us do that.

So, here are some thoughts on dealing with this sticky situation:

  • First, check with your legal counsel about the legalities of removing someone from the Wall of Fame.
  • Also, ask your lawyer to draft a new policy and an awardee letter of agreement to be considered as Board policy to cover any existing award program in your district in which you have the right to remove an awardee from the program based on criteria your lawyer creates.
  • When you start any new programs, make sure that you include the legal removal clause in the regulations of the program.
  • Before awards are given each year, have new awardees sign a letter of agreement which stipulates that the district has the right to remove awardees from the program based on the legal criteria your lawyer provides.

Reputation management is a key function of top communication professionals. Bad things do happen to great schools. But we need to find ways to prevent added damage by anticipating and using the “What-if-Scenarios” for all our communication programs.

Rich Bagin, APR
NSPRA Executive Director

Cleaning Up the Cesspool of Online Comments

Posted 01/08/2014 by schoolpr
Categories: Uncategorized

On December 28, The Washington Post ran a topical story, Web sites try to clean up cesspool of online comments. Just read the lead to make sense of the cesspool comment:

Mix blatant bigotry with poor spelling. Add a dash of ALL CAPS. Top it off with a violent threat. And there you have it: A recipe for the worst of online comments, scourge of the Internet.

It struck a nerve that has been bugging many of us in school PR as we find ourselves in the middle of being open and transparent in a time of waning cyber civility.

The article pointed out how newspapers, their respective websites, and other online publishers are modifying their policies about comment sections. They are monitoring them more and requiring people to use their real names. Anonymous commenters or those by let’s say, Mr. Everything Is Wrong in Our Schools, will no longer have a public platform to bellow their thoughts — unless they sign their real names.

Even before the Internet, this type of anonymous self-expression created problems. Formerly, newspapers with a Letter to the Editor section which allowed anonymous comments served as the precursor of this vitriolic approach. While working with a school district in North Carolina more than 15 years ago, I learned of a weekly newspaper that offered a voice mail line where anyone could take verbal shots at the Board president, the superintendent, or the principal. People could freely accuse these figures of some juicy impropriety, and then this paper would print the allegations. Obviously, no one at the paper held the position or role of “Fact Checker.”

Making Transparency a Two-Way Street

Another element to consider is that the comment forum is often a popular go-to section for many readers who want to see what the “public” is thinking about local issues. Some of our colleagues often read the comment section to see what “it” says so that they can better prepare their approaches on key issues that matter to the success of their schools. Some just read it for the entertainment and sometimes shock value it provides them — as in, “Did you see what Slingshot Harry said about our Board last night?” No one really knows that “Slingshot Harry” is a female charter member and chief editor of the local anti-tax coalition in their community.

We are all for transparency but we need to remember that transparency is a two-way street. We respect the need for openness so that community members can say whatever they want and so that they can tell us how to get better. But those who post their opinions should also authentically identify themselves and be responsible for their comments.

Here are a few tips for how to deal with this problem in your district:

  • Follow the lead of the major publishers and begin requiring authentic names attached to the comments. Some publishers now accept comments only after they verify their writers’ identity by connecting to their email accounts. For instance, The Huffington Post now asks commenters to log in using a verified Facebook account.
  • Most NSPRA districts now publish a Rules of Engagement or a Netiquette Policy, listing the dos and don’ts about comment sections. These rules also give the district the right to remove offensive postings according to the guidelines the district sets.
  • If you do not yet have an engagement policy, a good collaborative way to build one is to involve leaders in your system, parent and teacher groups, high school journalism classes, and others in constructing one. Once completed, make sure you communicate the new policy to all audiences who are involved with the process.
  • Monitoring your own district’s comment section on Facebook, your website, e-newsletters, and other outlets can become overwhelming if you live in a proactive and politically charged community. Superintendents and Board members must understand that it takes time to monitor your comment sections, so if you clock the time spent, you can demonstrate what this new, extra “duty” costs your system. As The Washington Post article notes, AOL employs 40 staff members to monitor its comment sections.
  • Make sure that you treat comment sections with transparency, openness, and credibility. Even though some comments may be difficult to accept, you will eventually earn respect by receiving and publishing all comments on your various platforms. An interesting practice we’ve noticed now is that some schools districts have parent groups post “set-the-record straight” comments when they read falsehoods raised about their schools.

Adding the requirement to have people authentically identify themselves is a step to make our comment sections a bit more civil. We still will receive our share of critical and negative comments — as is always the case in our democratic society. Our cable TV and radio talk show hosts prove that every day — but we know who they are and what they stand for. We can put a name to their comments.

Authentic identification of comment sections won’t solve the problem, but it should diminish the anonymous sling-shot and often untrue attacks that feed the negativity that bubbles up in some of our school communities.

Rich Bagin, APR
NSPRA Executive Director 

Destroy Public Education! Vote NO!

Posted 12/06/2013 by schoolpr
Categories: Uncategorized

ImageI hope you are as shocked as I was when I first saw this photo of a yard sign about a school finance election in Arizona. It prompted me to transform into an angry Lewis Black-type of stammering hissy fit, but that in itself is yet another story.

 At least in the community in which the sign was posted, critics of public education did not beat around the bush and nibble away at the system with corporate or public-dollar voucher approaches to solving their perceived weaknesses of public education.

Nope, these folks have drawn a line in the Arizona sand. They just want to Destroy Public Education. This statement is so wrong on so many counts that space or attention spans don’t even allow me to list all the reasonable responses to such a moronic statement.

So, after public education, what’s next? Why not get rid of public safety? Police? Water treatment? Public sewer systems? Public colleges? Public health? Public veterans’ assistance, and so much more? 

And when their homes’ market values go into the dumper — who would want to live in this service-less community? — the perpetrators naturally won’t look in the mirror for blame but will most likely chastise local government leaders for not providing those services, even though those leaders have inadequate budgets that force them to regularly play local government budget triage.

Okay, here are my points:

  • Most of us admit that many of our schools do need to improve and we need to make them work. And by we, I mean total communities need to look at all of their options, including alternative approaches that may work better for some students and some communities. We must be open and transparent in making those decisions and just not draw our own lines in the sand when it comes to seeding new approaches in our education landscape.

  • We need to begin saying, “Enough is enough,” when it comes to the extreme measures that some people are taking to destroy public education. For years, education leaders have remained fairly silent while critics have begun building a foundation of dismantling the very backbone of our democratic way of life. It is more than just pushing back; it means being more vocal and influential and smart when it comes to the future of public education. Just this week, it’s been reported that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a powerful lobbying group that has had much success in promoting the privatization of education, reducing public employee compensation, etc., has begun running into its own budget shortfalls. Some of their corporate members have withdrawn their support because of the powerful collective voices of our more aware citizenry. ALEC is still a force to be reckoned with, but it is great to see that some sunshine on their operations has created less enthusiasm and money for their type of lobbying. Early in 2014, NSPRA is preparing to add a new advocacy feature on our website that will help you make the case for public education.

  • The secondary message to the yard sign, “Parents should pay for their own kid’s education,” sounds great to those who no longer have kids in our schools. And that still is a majority of taxpayers in our communities. Years ago, I used my own family as an example to dispel this empty-nester myth. I have two sons who have graduated from public schools — that translates to 26 years of K-12 public schools at an approximate per-pupil allowance of $8,000 per student back then. So, tuition was $8,000 each for their 13 years in our schools. Quick calculations show that the school district paid $208,000 for my sons’ education. My school taxes were running about $3,200 back then. Using those figures, it would take me 65 years of school taxes to pay “back” the cost of their education. In others words, thank goodness for effective public education!

  • Consider learning more at NSPRA’s Annual Seminar being held this year in Baltimore from July 13-16. This year’s theme is Winning the Battle for Public Education. Just go to www.nspra.org to learn more about this year’s Seminar. Super-early bird rates apply until January 24, 2014.

And, finally, we saved the best news for last:

The district in Arizona where the yard sign was posted actually won its election. Let’s hope this awareness and activism continues as we all need to make our case for effective public education.

Rich Bagin, APR
NSPRA Executive Director 

Learn What They Want to Hear — Just Not What You Want to Tell Them

Posted 11/07/2013 by schoolpr
Categories: Uncategorized

Making your messages connect with all of your school audiences is harder than ever. Most people are so busy with their jobs, lives, and preferred mode of entertainment that they don’t make the time to focus on your school messages.

Let’s face it — most of our parents and other community leaders are bombarded with texts, email, streaming videos, photos, and their infatuation with their new favorite app. It is extremely difficult to penetrate the clamor with our messages about Common Core, budget decisions, new tech ventures, and more.

Like most PR counselors, I need to first give you the old “research mantra.” You won’t even make a dent in connecting with your audiences if you don’t know what they know and what they want to learn more about. Research will make your messages more relevant and connected. And yes, research proves that research works.

Psst… Here Comes a Shortcut to School Messaging Research

Let me share a shortcut for developing messages that your school audiences will better receive. The shortcuts are based on more than 20 years of experience and research of working with school audiences in school districts, both big and small, and urban, suburban and rural.

NSPRA has just co-published a book entitled School Communication That Works, by NSPRA member Ken DeSieghardt, CEO and partner of Patron Insight, Inc. The quick and enjoyable read (well, to those of us who are into school PR) gives you the rationale and messaging insight to regularly reach more of your audiences.

Ken talks about content — what parents and community leaders really care about. Unfortunately, it often is not what we have been telling them for many years. He cleverly bridges that content gap by first telling us to give them what they want and then we can begin putting a bit of medicine in with the pudding to get some of our preferred messages across.

This Is How Parents, Patrons, Taxpayers Think

One of my major “take-aways” from this new book is the section in each chapter labeled This Is How Patrons Think.

Here are two examples:

  • Continually show me that you manage your money with an understanding that it is actually MY money, and I’ll be much more likely to support you when you need additional funds.
  • I’m too busy to remember complex plans and details. The only way for me to track anything this detailed is for you to break it down for me into small pieces. Each time you have something to say, make it simple: what you did, why you did it, and what I might have forgotten from the past that ties to what you are telling me now. And, above all, don’t forget to tell me why I should pay attention.

Nothing will ever replace direct research with your target audiences. But if you are looking for a time and financial shortcut to begin grasping the type of audience-based messages that may stick, consider taking Ken’s advice.

Ken will also be speaking at our Baltimore Seminar next July. His new book is available from NSPRA at www.nspra.org/store.

Rich Bagin, APR
NSPRA Executive Director

New Insight on Marketing Public Schools

Posted 10/07/2013 by schoolpr
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: , , ,

Thanks to a tip by NSPRA President Nora Carr, APR, we are sharing just a glimpse of a study completed about North Carolina’s registered voters. The study was intended to help leaders get a better grasp of effective marketing messages about public education in North Carolina. My bet is that these findings will also ring true for many other regions of our country as well.

The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation commissioned the study and Neimand Collaborative’s Artemis Strategy Group conducted it in February 2013. (See the link below for the full report.)

Most of us in education use the “greater good” pitch to prove the social value of public education in our communities. Educators normally agree that the societal outcome of public education is the key card to play when we talk about the value of public education.

This study notes that individual outcomes trump the merit of societal outcomes in the thinking of these North Carolina voters. Basically, the researchers are telling us that we need to prove that our day-to-day work is creating success for all children in our changing world. They tell us that individual outcomes for parents and students are the most powerful. Societal outcomes are desirable, but less powerful. In other words, people are asking: What have you done for my daughter to make her a successful adult in our community?

We need to make sure our messages communicate what we are doing to make each child a success.

One additional preliminary observation is that confidence, hope, and optimism about individual results are the most powerful emotional states that adults seek when they consider K-12 education. Parents are seeking confidence that schools are doing well in that role and adults seek confidence that their education investments are actually preparing students for success in real life. We all need to focus on this insight as we begin talking about the powerful value that public education brings to our students first — and then to our communities.

Some additional advice and messages from these research and public opinion strategists are:

  • Education Savings Accounts, Opportunity Scholarships, or whatever anyone calls vouchers are just nice names for giving taxpayer money to private schools. Don’t be misled — these voucher programs put public school money into private schools.
  • Public schools are the best choice for parents, children, and North Carolina. They are by no means perfect. No school is.
  • Common Core — explained as new and improved curriculum that produces a well-rounded and prepared child — has strong traction and should be leveraged as a marketing tool to instill confidence.
  • Talk about the needs of parents and children first — not the needs of the system — then talk about the supports that are necessary to help each child and family achieve their goals.
  • Education is not a system; it is a personal growth experience for parents and children that is made possible by smart and compassionate people working together to help actualize personal and social goals.

To read the full report go to http://bit.ly/1bD0LYw.

Rich Bagin, APR

NSPRA Executive Director 


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