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

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 


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