Teachable Moments from a Career in School PR

Posted 02/09/2021 by schoolpr
Categories: General, Professional Development, school communication, school PR


As my official tenure with NSPRA winds down this month, I thought it was appropriate in my last edition of Always Something to look back over the years of my career and find a way to leave you with some teachable moments that you can return to for inspiration over the span of your own career. I thought I’d share some of the maxims I developed to guide my work as well as a few of my favorites from seasoned colleagues who helped steer me and our profession in the right direction.

Some need no explanation. To others I give an example or two.


First, here are some of my precepts that may help you:

  • “People programs beat paper programs every time.”

It’s difficult to persuade someone with just a brochure. I’ve never seen it happen. Even today’s technology falls short of giving people the warm feeling that those intimate face-to-face moments can create. Once you establish credibility through in-person interactions, only then can social media help you persuade others because those folks know and believe you from you already because you met face to face.


exit 7

  • “Create an information vacuum and someone (usually your opponents) will quickly fill it.”

Despite repeated counseling against it, this phenomenon happens much too much even today. What happens? When some leaders hesitate to speak up to explain their decisions, their eager critics seize the moment and claim the issue on their own terms — rightly or wrongly. 

It’s often an advantage to be first on the issue battleground because “catching up” is hard to do through reactionary tactics. We often say that “Getting out front means you won’t be left behind.”

  • “Top school public relations pros have one foot in the schools, one foot in the community, and the stretch marks to prove it.”

A big part of the PR position is to listen to the community and bring that feedback to the decision makers, even though some of them don’t want to hear the comments. It’s the PR pro’s role to communicate not only the district’s position to the community but to also explain the rationale for the decision — even though some community members may not want to hear it. That’s how the stretch marks develop.


  • “When emotions and facts collide, emotions win just about every time.”

As school leaders, we deal with two precious items of our community’s taxpayers — their children and their money. exit 6

Emotions normally eclipse facts in discussions about students’ well being. No matter how factual your argument may be, it may still lose ground in the struggle when decisions arise around what your actions will do to the well being of “our kids.” 

Emotions also prompt more and extended media coverage. Always assess how your decision could ignite an emotional push-back and be prepared to explain why your decision is really better for all students.

  • “Public relations is the practice of aggressive common sense. Anytime a decision goes against the grain of common sense, you will have a lot explaining to do.”

Keep this one in mind if you’re changing school attendance boundaries, and you’re recommending that students who live just 2 blocks away from their current school will have to move to a school that is 5 miles away. Be prepared to deal with explanations about why your proposal is a good idea, and how it really supports these students because, on face value, common sense says otherwise.


exit 5

  • “The way you handle a crisis may be more damaging than the crisis itself.”

In a crisis, communication is critical. The quicker you take charge, the quicker you will be on a road to recovery. When you’re slow responding, your critics and others will certainly jump in to prove that what you did or what you’re doing is wrong.

  • “Your graduates tell your success story better than you can.”

Your best success stories are often told by your students themselves. Whether your students are currently enrolled or are alumni from years ago, the credibility, value and authenticity they bring to their messages overshadow any from others who never attended your schools. And don’t forget that testimonials from parents also add value to your messaging programs.

  • “When the district’s tagline is not believed by the frontline, the district is headed for big trouble.”tagline icon

We heard parents utter this maxim when they participated in a focus group during an NSPRA audit. If your teachers and other employees are saying different things to their audiences than you are, the credibility of your district’s tagline is in major question. NSPRA surveys tell us that people view local school employees as the most believable spokespersons for your local schools. Effective, consistent internal communication is critical for the communication success of your schools.



  • “Communication is the traveling buddy of major change.”

Change will never succeed if you don’t construct a planned communication strategy and tactics to build a successful path to change and its implementation. When people haven’t followed this principle, I’ve seen them fail many times during my NSPRA career. For example, two neighboring districts implemented new math programs at the elementary level. In one district, leaders started early with staff and parents in communicating their proposed program. It was a resounding success and parents supported the effort. In contrast in the neighboring district, no communication plan was offered. Parents vociferously revolted, the math program was suddenly dropped, and the beleaguered superintendent was soon looking for another superintendency far away in another state.



  • “Last-minute communication rarely solves a problem. It often ignites it.”

Once again, being proactive is a much better attribute of a successful communication program than inertia. Not speaking about issues until you’re seemingly forced to do so is not a successful tactic to help you build credibility in your district. When you don’t communicate, questions often arise like, “When did you know about this information and why didn’t you tell us it back then?”


exit 11

  • “Staff should always be prepared to deal with the “My Kid First” (MKF) mentality when they talk with parents or host them at parent conferences and other gatherings throughout the year.”

This reminder is to just reinforce the notion that parents and families place a priority on wanting the best for their children. It’s always important to approach parents with an explanation showing how you, your school and the parents collaborate as a team to do what’s best for their children. We understand that with anywhere from 20 to 150 kids in a teacher’s workday, this can be an impossible expectation. But teachers who regularly demonstrate that they take a caring approach and communicate often with parents will be appreciated and regarded as a MKF teacher.

  • “Our communities should be known by the schools they keep.”

Especially during school revenue discussions, remember this maxim. Another approach to this is to ask: What does our community stand for?


exit 8


  • “School public relations people look at the whole apple.”

It’s my firm belief that public relations professionals must look at all aspects of a school system to help protect its reputation with its communication and engagements methods. The school public relations role is truly a management function. School PR vets often note that their job function requires them to observe all school district functions to help enhance, improve and protect their district’s reputation. When they work closely with their superintendents, well-positioned school PR pros have earned permission to “stray from their lanes,” and consult with superintendent on matters that may call for some additional attention.

  • “During your career you will be tested in many ways. By taking the high road, people will be able to see you better and learn what you stand for.”

Thorny questions about ethical practices, political issues, and more can often arise during your career. You must continuously stand up for doing the right thing, even when that means doing the difficult thing.


And here are some more keepers from NSPRA colleagues:


exit 9

  • “An invitation to everyone is an invitation to no one.”

Ken Weir of Pennsylvania has wisely taught us that it’s important to personalize communication and make our audiences feel special as part of select group. The good news now is that technology makes doing this easier than ever.

  • “A public relations program without effective internal communications is built on quicksand.”

Buddy Price, a veteran from South Carolina, says it well. Over the years when people asked where they should most effectively spend their time and limited resources when it comes to school PR, we always answer that they focus on internal communication. Without reliable internal communication, your external programs will not be nearly as valuable as they should be.


exit 12

  • “First graders like surprises; your superintendent doesn’t.”

Vets Harry Roberts, APR, and Ken Weir both submitted this saying to us years ago. It’s great advice, especially in today’s stress-filled daily operations in a school district.


And finally —

  • “When you walk out of the office at the end of your career, the most valuable things you’ll take with you are your integrity and reputation. Protect them!”

Astute veteran Judy Willis of Arizona shared this maxim near the end of her school district career. It’s a great message to remember when you think about the time when you’ll call it a day in your career of school PR.


If you found this particular column inspiring, you can find most of these maxims and more from the two editions of NSPRA’s, Wit and Wisdom in Public Relations. Go to www.nspra.org/store.


Since this is my last edition of Always Something, let me make one final note. My official career at NSPRA ends on February 28th. Always Something has been around since 2009, although my run as executive director started well before that in 1992. While I have seen and learned a lot during that time, my biggest and most rewarding joy was working with our members and helping them grow along with our profession. It’s satisfying to watch our next generation of leaders flourish and thrive as they reach the noble goals of working hard to make our schools better places for all the kids throughout the U.S. and Canada.

It’s been a nice run and I thank those of you who supported me and NSPRA over the years as we built this organization into an important resource for leading professionals and systems throughout the U.S. and Canada. NSPRA is truly the Leader in School Communication.

Best wishes to all of you,



Rich Bagin, APR

NSPRA Executive Director Emeritus


Important Versus Interesting?

Posted 01/12/2021 by schoolpr
Categories: Communication, school communication, school PR

Plus: A Look at Some Communication Trends for 2021

13764317445_4f867b7fc8_o (2018_01_11 18_36_47 UTC)In our school communication profession, we’ve always had too much to do.

If you’re like many of us, you often wake up at night grappling with a gnawing work problem, trying to devise a viable solution. Every top PR pro knows that their job is never finished. More importantly, they’ve learned how to live with that uneasiness.

You can learn one way to approach this dilemma from NFL veteran but first-year coach Ron Rivera of the Washington Football Team. Recently, after being repeatedly badgered by the D.C. media about benching and then releasing a first-round pick quarterback, he told the media that he was done answering questions that he deemed interesting but not important. Like us, he knew that media wants both — the important and the interesting. But interestingly, to date his response has worked for him.

Taking the “important versus interesting guidance can also help drive your approach to your job. Placing a priority on the important issues — such as passing financial elections, implementing the reopening process, getting out COVID vaccination communication, managing internal and home school communication, and conducting trust-building transparency and engagement activities —is key for today’s communicators. All these core accomplishments are integral in providing paths to your district’s success.

But we also know that the interesting content issues are often more fun and morale- and visibility-building for your schools. For instance, highlighting staff and students and their unique accomplishments is also key to managing a successful communication effort.

Just don’t make what’s interesting important. Yes, we need to do it all, but we must emphasize doing the important when we make decisions about our workload priorities.

One quick sidebar is that years ago when I was in a cabinet meeting in my school district job, I saw a middle school student ride by on a unicycle. (Our central office was attached to the middle school at that time). After making a double-take, I scrambled down to the principal’s office and the quick thinking resulted in a nice feature story about the 8th grade unicycler and her ambition to some day join the circus. It was a fun and interesting piece long remembered in that community. Little did those audiences know much about the core and more important aspects of my job.

Now, jump ahead to our next 18 months or so when budget projections are expected to fall short of what would be needed to sustain many programs for our systems. Cutbacks are most likely on the horizon. Listen to my friend, colleague and mentor, Ken Weir, who taught me that you need to decide what you want to be known for. It’s better to be known for important mainstream and required work because the interesting activities may wind up with your being left on the cutting room floor. Remember, it’s harder to cut important work out of a budget than it is to simply eliminate interesting activities.


And Now, a Few Quick Trend Predictions to Watch for in School Communication in 2021

  • COVID communication will continue to be one of your major items in 2021. Hopefully, rampant uncertainty will dissipate, and the trust factors related to everything COVID will increase. Communication with staff, students and families will again be a top priority.
  • The ability to pivot quickly will again be necessary. Even when health directives become more certain, because so many things about the virus are still unknown, we understand that things may still change as scientists learn more. As tired and frustrated as we may be from the ordeal of this past year, your pivoting skills will again be called into play.
  • The focus on inclusivity and social justice will continue to drive decisions and open dialogue within school districts and their communities. The impact of the terrible incidents of the past year will continue to help us correct and navigate an enlightened approach for success in race relations and the fractured political camps of 2020.
  • The need for communication will continue grow and be recognized in 2021. The chaotic events of the last year has taught superintendents just how powerful effective communication can be as a management tool for their schools.
  • Trust-building strategies and tactics will depend on transparency and engagement activities. To effectively move forward, staff, students and families must be able to rely on school district information in an era of continued disinformation and disruption.
  • Building and maintaining positive relationships will be given a higher priority in 2021.
  • The art of using short videos will expand to reach more audiences. Quick formats with good content must be designed to meet the needs of key audiences.
  • Principals will continue to be crucial, visible leaders for their schools. They will need more communication assistance and resources to be credible when they communicate with their school’s communities.

As more leaders understand the power that effective communication has to provide and enhance solutions for major issues, the stronger the communication function in school districts will be. We’re in an era of using communication to build relationships. And in our profession, relationships are at the heart of every public relations effort.




Rich Bagin, APR

NSPRA Executive Director Emeritus

Photo by Jim Cummings, APR, formerly of Glendale Elementary School District.

Holiday Greetings! Here are some of our best stocking stuffers for you!

Posted 12/07/2020 by schoolpr
Categories: holiday, Pandemic, school communication

boy with santa hat

Like many of you, I, too, am ready to shed and forget much of 2020 as we enter this holiday season. We all know the challenges that we’ve already been through and yet, unfortunately, we still don’t have a clear picture of “what’s next?”

Uncertainty still abounds everywhere.

But we are certain that our upcoming holiday break is the best time to recharge and share love, tranquility, and support — in a socially distant way — as best as we can with relatives and friends who may need some extra support and cheer throughout the holiday season.

We do hope that many of your holiday wishes come true, but just in case they don’t, here are some stocking stuffers I’m tossing your way. Feel free to “re-gift” those you can’t use.

  • This year we’d like to start our list by topping off your stocking with an “immunity silver bullet” for you, your family and your district staff so that you’re all shielded from COVID-19 virus and so all employees can safely return to work and school as we take the next step to normalcy. We also want to super-size that immunity by repelling attacks on all school employees and leaders for the difficult decisions they’ve had to make during the pandemic. We know that decisions have been made with student and staff safety as the top priority. Although all of us are justifiably worried about the loss of learning, we’re also most concerned about the loss of life. Our leaders will find ways to recoup the lost learning in the months or year ahead, but we can all take pride in the heroic efforts it took to save and protect lives in our school community.


  • Place in your stocking a superintendent who “gets it.” One who listens, understands what little may be ultimately controllable, and one who gives green lights and budgets to make a real communication difference in your system. By the way, this superintendent also speaks about the value of communication as a priority with the Board and community groups wherever feasible.
  • For our superintendents, a gift to you is the talent of a true school communication professional. Working closely with a communication pro will make your schools and life better. You can even advertise for the position for free on our NSPRA website!
  • Magical laptop and cell batteries that never die.
  • Five retweets by your community’s influential leaders confirming positive tweets about your schools.
  • A local, respected Dr. Fauci-type leader who can become your local go-to expert with advice about returning to school, dealing with the vaccination process and messaging for the “anti-vaccination advocates.



  • A ticket to a series of NSPRA professional development opportunities such as the highly respected NSPRA National Seminar, our PR Power Hours, and additional growth opportunities for professionals in our field. The communication profession is changing, and it’s critical to stay on top of relevant strategies and tactics for your school leaders.IMG_3518(7)


  • A fully stocked “go-Bag” with battery extenders, extra phone chargers, nutrition bars, clean apparel and underwear changes, masks, and gloves, along with a few photos of your special loved ones because you know it may be days until you see them again.


  • A collection of 25 small but practical gift cards to distribute to staff and volunteers when they do a great job.
  • A consultant and facilitator to work with your system on engaging your school community in dealing with race relations leading to an enhanced approach for your school community.
  • A ticket to give you unlimited access to social listening and influencer identification tools like Brandwatch and others.
  • A quiet moment to sit back, reflect and smile because you have one of the most meaningful and important jobs in your community. You help kids every day.

Although we already understood this to be true, our important work is needed now more than ever. We see that the crises related to the pandemic have opened the eyes of superintendents, board members, community and parent leaders about just how important communication is in uncertain times. Communication will either make or break the outcomes you are seeking for your school community.

We wish you well and hope you can savor your professional and personal accomplishments during our unprecedented year, remain vigilant in following health guidelines, and continue to provide excellence in your communication effort as we approach the 2021 school year.

Best wishes for a healthy holiday season,gift-3


Rich Bagin, APR

NSPRA Executive Director Emeritus

Selected pictures by:

Jim Cummings, APR, formerly of Glendale Elementary School District

Diana Leferovich, Diana Leferovich Photography

Members Give Us Their Insights on Feeling Hopeful – Even During the Pandemic

Posted 11/09/2020 by schoolpr
Categories: Communication, General, Pandemic, Storytelling

By nature, most school communication professionals always look for positive and hopeful signals about their school districts. During the pandemic, they continue to play a part in building morale by sharing stories of staff and students helping one another to produce results and feel-good smiles.

Whether it’s teachers going the extra mile in after-hours, individual instruction for students struggling with assignments, or cafeteria workers and bus drivers delivering food to students during virtual school days, these professionals continue to spread the good word. Schools continue to be a heartbeat of their community.

Recently, in a partnership with Thoughtexchange, we asked NSPRA members key question:

What about the new school year makes you feel hopeful, despite the ongoing pandemic?

Using the Thoughtexchange system to identify and rank responses, here are some responses worth sharing:

  • I am hopeful the pandemic has revealed inequities in schools that will be addressed in the future to ensure equity for all children. Equitable access for all is critical for the economic future of our country.
  • Realizing the value of communications. Proactive communication is essential — especially in times of crises. More understanding of the need for effective PR in a school district.
  • Educators give me hope. They are the most mission-driven people I know. Despite the pandemic, they’re finding ways to help kids and families. Public schools matter now more than ever. We’re first-responders on the pandemic’s front lines.
  • Students are learning new skills and are being required to take charge of their own learning like never before. This can carry over and enhance student learning when the pandemic ends and students return to classrooms.
  • Opportunities to rethink things we’ve done forever. Work better, build better relationships. Be more efficient and find more time for the things that matter.
  • Young people give me incredible hope. They blow me away with their talent, thoughtfulness, inclusiveness, and kindness. When people tell me they are worried about the future of democracy, I tell them to visit a public school. The kids get it.
  • I see so much creativity from students and staff! Change is always hard, but the pandemic has forced us to grow and challenge ourselves in new ways. There, sometimes, has been a reluctance to push the needle in education — that status quo is okay. The pandemic has shown us this isn’t always true.
  • Seeing all of our staff come together to create a safe and healthy learning environment for students. Collaboration and dedication at its best!

NSPRA members deal with all the ups and downs of their districts year after year. They have learned how to authentically work with all issues and simultaneously provide a caring atmosphere for all students, staff and families. No doubt that this year remains the challenge of their careers, but even now our members remain hopeful as we work our way through this unprecedented school year.


Rich Bagin, APR

NSPRA Executive Director 

Photo by Diana Leferovich, dianaleferovich.photography

Superintendents Ask and NSPRA Answers

Posted 10/12/2020 by schoolpr
Categories: Communication, General, internal communication, school media relations, school PR


This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 48649747648_2796ba630b_o.jpgOver the years, we’ve repeatedly been asked several questions by superintendents. Our answers to these items have rarely changed because our responses are based on the results of what we see happening in local districts.

Of course, times do change, and I’ve always said that if you gather 4 veteran PR pros in a room, you may receive 4 different thoughtful responses to consider. The fact remains that while you do know your local situation best, you may find something new to think about here to alter your approach.

So, take it from this PR pro, these responses have weathered the test of time.


Question: With little budget available, which function is the best to initiate or protect during a depressed budget season?

Internal communication must be a priority.

All staff must be informed about and engaged with operations and your vision and status of issues for their schools. After we have completed focus groups of staff during our NSPRA Communication Audits, it amazes us to learn how inconsistent internal communication can still be in school districts.

Remember that parents and other community residents in your community find staff members at all levels credible about the issues they care about in your system. That means your employees can make or break the image of your schools. They help shape its image. Hopefully, you keep them informed so they can answer questions and even vote in school financial elections, where available.

Staff morale and engagement increase with effective communication programs.

As a veteran and now retired NSPRA member has said, “Public relations programs without effective internal communication are built on quicksand.”



This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 39668347835_c02dccc113_o__2018_04_16_11_18_18_utc_-removebg-preview.pngQuestion: A media outlet asked us to embed an undercover reporter as a student or a substitute teacher at our high school. What should we do?

Politely decline and run away from this one.

Even though the intent to be transparent is admirable, I’ve seen superintendents and communication professionals leave their jobs after they’ve let reporters do this and the subsequent articles hit people’s screens. Even though positive items may be reported, what’s remembered are the negative items “uncovered” by the embedded reporters.

It’s too high of a media relations and reputation risk. Just say “no” when you’re asked to do this.



Question: How can I comment when legal advice handcuffs my responses about employee or student misbehavior?

This dilemma underscores the battle between the legal court and the court of public opinion.

Your staff is looking for a leader who “has got their back,” but you’re muzzled because you cannot comment about personnel or other legal issues. One solution is to research other cases that are similar to the current incident and report that, in those cases, the outcome resulted in … ”expulsions, firings, etc.”

Another tactic is to recommend that the local reporter interview the parents of the cited student. Once the situation is made more public, you can normally talk a bit more about it.



This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 49076136147_65c3544f0a_o-removebg-preview.pngQuestion: How do you deal with damaging rumors? And how do you decide to go public about issues that may not be ready to be released?

This is another area where the no comment route can get you in trouble.

I’ve often said that when you create an information vacuum, someone (usually your critics) will quickly fill it.

Another thing to remember is that when you do not tell your story, the media or neighborhood critics will be happy to tell it for you. It’s always good to be first to release the information so that you can define and frame the possible debate for it. Plus, you can also point out the action you’ll be taking.



When you inevitably face sticky questions like these during the course of your career, keep in mind that members can always go to NSPRA Connect for a sounding board or call on us at NSPRA for help. In all likelihood, we’ve seen similar situations and can offer you practical advice based on solid research and experience.






Rich Bagin, APR

NSPRA Executive Director


Photos by Jim Cummings, APR, formerly of Glendale Elementary School District

Stepping Up to the Challenge

Posted 09/07/2020 by schoolpr
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: ,

In sports, when things are going bad, an impassioned teammate steps up or comes off the bench to provide the spark and needed continuity to get the team back on track. When a star player goes down, somehow a previously unknown player rises to the occasion. This teammate fills the hole that the star left and eventually turns the game into a team win. In these high-stress, game-time situations, often someone meets the challenge.

Now public education is meeting the challenges of our pandemic amidst all the insecurities it brings. Parents, staff and students are looking for some certainty of a new normal — but new seems correct as new circumstances can change weekly or even daily with unpredictable pronouncements by governors and new disease transmission rates.

Across the country, our entire public education team is now facing these challenges and providing alternative solutions often one school or classroom at a time. To move forward as schools open nationwide, we need for all of us to be supportive as educators adapt to making the 2020-2021 school year as successful as it can be.

Just last week the Minnesota Star Tribune ran an op-ed by education leaders from the Minnesota Association of School Administrators (MASA) and the Minnesota School Boards Association (MSBA) along with cooperative insight from the Minnesota School Public Relations Association (MSPRA). The article tells our current story quite well.

Here are some excerpts from the piece:

  • As students begin this new year, it’s important to remember the history of public schools, how they’ve adapted to meet changing times and the critical role they play in building strong communities. Now, more than ever, public schools need all of us to stand with them, regardless of where we sit on the political spectrum.
  • Public schools have been in our country longer than we’ve been the United States of America. The first free public school opened in Boston in 1635. Some colonies created laws requiring schools for towns of a certain size, but early efforts were sporadic and disjointed.
  • Framers of the Constitution believed in public education for all children. Founding Fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had vastly different political views, but they shared a belief that publicly funded public schools were a cornerstone of our democracy. “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it,” wrote Adams.
  • Since that time, the notion of a “common good” has been central to the foundation of public schools, while expectations of public schools have grown. Public schools are expected not only to teach academics, but to prepare young people for a productive future, provide community and social services, and more. Importantly in today’s environment, public schools are the main places that bring together children from diverse economic, social, racial and religious backgrounds for hours each day.
  • Societal needs, events and issues often come knocking on the doors of public schools before others have to navigate them — and public schools always rise to the occasion. Some examples of what’s been asked of public schools over time:
    • Educate students who don’t speak English.
    • Provide childcare for working parents.
    • Address issues of poverty through meals and more.
    • Ensure student safety and practice lockdown drills.
    • Offer social, emotional, and mental health support.
    • Integrate schools and address racial equity.
    • Help students when crisis or dissension hits our country or our world.
    • Provide a wide range of special education services.

The op-ed continues by noting that last March, the coronavirus pandemic turned the traditional method of schooling on its head. School leaders are now making agonizing decisions about opening their buildings while balancing very real health concerns. All public schools have created models for in-person, online and hybrid (half of each) learning, and are ready to — and will — pivot based on their local COVID-19 data and their unique circumstances.

Getting ready for the first day of school in 2020 has not been easy. There have been — and will continue to be — hiccups along the way. But one thing remains clear: Every single public school is focused on providing the safest and best learning experience possible, within the realities and rules of a global pandemic.

27253764636_7820908d13_o (2018_01_11 18_36_47 UTC)

This is not the first time a curve ball has been thrown at our public schools. Our schools have weathered world wars, past epidemics and natural disasters. They are creative, responsive and — most important — open to every single student who comes knocking.

We need our public schools, and they need us.

Strong public schools truly do make strong communities. It will take all of us, whether through words or deeds, to support our public schools in these trying times. Public schools are the great equalizer, the hub of our communities, there for us in good times and in bad.

Working together, we can keep our public schools strong — so when this crisis ends, they will still be there, ready for whatever comes next.

We salute our Minnesota education leaders for reminding all of what we stand for and how more support and understanding and collaboration will help to get us to the other side — whenever that will be.

You can see the entire op-ed:  Public Schools Always Rise to the Challenge.

Rich Bagin, APR

NSPRA Executive Director 

Photo by Jim Cummings, APR, formerly at Glendale Elementary School District

Communicating About Reopening Your Schools

Posted 08/10/2020 by schoolpr
Categories: Communication, crisis communication, Pandemic, school communication, school reopening


_N0R6358-1Here’s the dilemma surrounding reopening schools during this pandemic: “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

School leaders are doing their best, and yet some parents and others (like politicians) are berating them saying, “That’s not good enough.”

Teachers and other school staff rightfully fear risking their personal and family’s health and they’re simultaneously worried about their students falling behind without their one-to-one interaction.

All are concerned with the potential learning gap that developed since last March and wonder how to not only catch up but also how to get back on track as fast as possible. And they know that special needs students require more instruction and nurturing because their needs are not now being met.

Some people see reopening schools as a catalyst to trigger our economy because once they fully reopen, parents will be allowed to return their real jobs. They’ll no longer serve as substitute teachers a job that has taught most of them to respect the many skills and expertise of today’s teachers.

So, if the truth be known, what we all need right now is a big, comforting hug the kind that soothed and made you feel better in your childhood and, hopefully, calms you in your adulthood as well. I know hugs are no longer allowed as they were before (The New York Times recently published a piece on how to hug during a pandemic), but at least close your eyes and remember a hearty hug that may relieve the pressure we’re all feeling.

Many of us are aware of the more extreme rhetoric we’re hearing about the choice between returning to school in person five days a week or using hybrid and distance learning practices. For example: Vocal critics say that opening too fast is like walking students into a burning building, or we’re using students as canaries in a coal mine. (I told you they were extreme.)

Others note that the risk for students is very low they say that it’s likely that 99% of students will be safe while only 1% will possibly get sick and another .5% could die.

But that means that a school district of 5,000 students could lose up to 25 students. Think about that. You might lose Antoine around the corner or Alice, your niece, on the other side of town.

In a system where I live with more than 165,000 students, we could have 1,650 infections and 825 possible deaths. To place those numbers in perspective, think of how we normally rally for more counseling when we have one or more student suicides or a fatal student auto accident in our communities. How would we handle what could happen with those projected numbers?

And let’s not forget the elderly, high-risk family members who also could then be infected and succumb to the virus. Plus, teachers and other school employees will be at risk. Difficult safety and health decisions are being made. Even NFL players can opt-out of their upcoming season — if there is a season.

To illustrate my point, Education Week’s in mid-July cover ran the names and a few photos of the hundreds of educators we already lost to COVID 19.

Mounting Pressures to Return to School

The pressure to go back to school continues to mount. Working parents need to go back to their jobs with the benefit of jump-starting our economy and taking care of their own fiscal responsibilities. Our students have lost a great deal of instruction time and are falling behind. But consider that ironically in healthier times some parents voluntarily “redshirt” their kindergarten students for a year to gain a perceived advantage over classmates. Developmentally, there is no question that missing school is a negative, and extra time and staff will be needed to make up for the gap in their instruction. But there is an important competing factor at play: The Journal of American Medical Association estimated that closing schools last March saved an estimated 40,600 lives. In my mind, saving lives outweighs the shortfalls of a half-year gap of normal instruction.

Advocates for a faster return also tell us to learn from private and charter schools that are opening now because they have developed better distancing learning and interactive approaches. We agree that we should learn as much as we can about varied distance learning approaches that work. We should make it a priority to learn more from those who may have been successful. But we have the added problem of adapting what we learn to the scale of our public school enrollments. Dealing with a private or charter secondary school with 500 or fewer students is vastly different from managing a secondary public school of 2,000. If it can be done, we need to learn and implement as many new approaches as we can.

What Can You as Communicators Do?

  • Remain flexible and heed the advice of scientists. Yes, even with scientists’ reporting uncertainty and changing their previous reports, we need to follow their recommendations.
  • John Donahue, CEO of Nike, notes that we need to be authentic, transparent, and visible — just showing up during these periods of uncertainty and being nimble enough to admit we do not have answers when directives are changing as fast as they have been.
  • Establish a central point of communication that becomes the “go-to” spot for communication. Keeping information updated is critical. Rumors will fly and there needs to be spot where people can find answers.
  • Stress the safety and health of all students and staff in your communication. It is the filter through which decisions will be made. Like snow school closings, you may not always get it right, but your error was based on thinking about the safety of students and staff.
  • Be empathetic in all your communication efforts. As part of NSPRA Live 2020, a virtual mini-conference, I monitored a panel about developing communication messages during the pandemic. It’s so apparent that all decisions on reopening are very, very local decisions. Messages will vary based on your district’s situation, but one theme of all messages came through. Be empathetic. Show that you understand, indicate that you’re doing what you can within the filter of student and staff health and safety. Acknowledge that you’re aware of the lack of childcare in your community and that senior athletes may not have their chance to showcase their talent for potential scholarships. Show that you’re working with others to try to find solutions but show that you care about their situations. Note that you’re working with childcare groups within your community and surrounding businesses and asking your athletic directors to contact colleges to see what’s needed now to share the talents of your senior class.
  • Anticipate what lies ahead and how you will communicate about it. What’s the plan for dealing with the occurrence of student or staff members’ infections in your buildings? Parents and others will want to know so communicating those steps will demonstrate that you will do all you can to protect those in your buildings.



We encourage you to follow the advice of national, state and local scientific health leaders as well as engaging as best you can with your staff, families and Board in making the difficult decisions for your school community. If your infection rate remains low, you, like many other districts this week, may be welcoming back students in a full, in-school or hybrid setting where students interact with teachers. If infection rates remain high, distance learning is probably your choice until the rates go down.

When a vaccine finally arrives some of the community turbulence and pressure should subside. But experience tells us that the anti-vaccine advocates will challenge that choice as well. And that is precisely why I named this blog on school communication leadership Always Something.

In the meantime, give yourself and your staff a hearty mental hug. That may be one way to get through this latest leadership and communication challenge we’re all facing.


P.S. NSPRA members, be sure to go to NSPRA Connect where your fellow colleagues are offering their solutions to these sticky situations. Also, check out the NSPRA website. Go to www.nspra.org.



Rich Bagin, APR

NSPRA Executive Director

Igniting Change and Transformation in Your Schools

Posted 06/08/2020 by schoolpr
Categories: democratic society

I, like most of my professional colleagues, remain appalled and condemn the brutal deaths of George Floyd, along with Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, because of police brutality. But deep down we know that this type of racism and social injustice has been prevalent in our country for hundreds of years. Many more black Americans have lost their lives to bigotry and racism and, yet, we may have never heard their stories.

Taking time to put ourselves in the shoes of black Americans will help us begin moving forward after the last two weeks of hell. Being empathetic is a place to start. Hugs will reassure us that together we will get through this. But only if we remain active, consistent, and persistent. 

We will not tolerate this rampant injustice anymore.

I am hopeful that we will not let these recent tragedies pass only to have similar atrocities continue months or years from now. Too many times we thought things would change. Then they did not. But during these last two weeks, the number of peaceful protesters, the mix of races and ages worldwide seem to me to be more powerful in demanding change this time around. 

It does feel different to me. 

Ride This Wave of Momentum 

As school communicators, there may never have been an opportunity greater than now to ignite change and transformation for the communities we serve. We must pressure officials everywhere at every level to condemn racism, social and institutional injustice, and police brutality. 

As educators we have so much work to do. We need to dig deeper to listen to students, staff, and community residents of color. We need more than just a listening meeting with these groups; we need an action-oriented approach to make a difference for them in the culture of your community. We will face hard work and some institutional barriers, but now is the time to use the momentum of Black Lives Matter to be accountable in your school community.

We All Need to Rise to This Challenge 

We know that education leaders’ plates are very full right now. Planning to reopen schools with COVID-19 restrictions, making up for the COVID-19 instructional gap, and dealing with projected financial problems in our faltering economy, all create busy and hectic workloads for all of us. But it’s still critical to tackle your racial relations issues to make better lives for all in your schools, community, and staff. Being proactive now when it comes to race relations can lead to a smoother and fuller school year if all your students, staff and parents have a renewed understanding and comfort level in the leadership of your schools.

Rich Bagin, APR

NSPRA Executive Director


Successful Change Requires More Communication

Posted 05/11/2020 by schoolpr
Categories: crisis communication, Pandemic, school communication, school PR

boy-child-clouds-kid-346796First, Creativity Reigns

No doubt you’re learning to cope with the shelter-in-place directives we have because… well, we have to.

We know that creativity is a critical thread in the fabric of our best school communicators. I’m continuously impressed with the creative approaches that school communicators have taken to find ways to rally our spirits and bring positivity to this discouraging situation. For instance, many folks have devised creative ways to celebrate the class of 2020, like using drive-in movie theaters for graduation and more.

Even my neighbors have stepped up to contribute to the cause by trying to tease a smile from our frustrated faces. For instance, The Washington Post ran a story about the Schruben family in Maryland who posts a daily lawn sign with their own brand of “Dad Jokes.” As walkers amble by, they now stop to see the new message and hopefully smile or groan as they finish their daily walk.

One favorite is:


A pause for your groans or chuckles.

Second, Make Sure That Communication Is in on the Ground Floor in Your District’s Re-opening Plans

Come this fall or late summer — whenever school begins again, we’ll need creative approaches and major communication strategies and tactics to deal with the change and uncertainty we’ll all be facing in the 2020-2021 school year.

I have often said that communication needs to be the traveling buddy with change. And that has never been more true.

Research tells us that most folks do not change unless they have a reason. With so much change afoot and the desperate need for clarity and understanding ahead of us, communicators must be on the ground floor of any school re-opening efforts to help all leaders make decisions and discuss key messages for staff, students, and parents.

If you’re not currently at the table, now is the time to be aggressive and step up to be a part of the decision-making and communication process. Decision makers will discuss the when, how, why, and who in their plans and you must be there to run possible “what-if scenarios” with each of your target audiences.

In some cases, your team will decide what they can and cannot do. Be aware that when announcing your district’s plans, people will question and even challenge you about the decisions. Consider using a filter of student safety, health and learning, and legal requirements as you create your responses. You must also prepare for the questions you hope you’ll not be asked — because seasoned media reporters often ask them, whether you’re prepared or not.

And remember that the response of, “The Governor Made Me Do It,” may begin splintering when neighboring school districts ignore some of the governor’s directives.

As part of our outreach, NSPRA is a member of the Learning First Alliance (LFA), consisting of 11 leading educational associations that represent teachers, superintendents, principals, chief technology and communication officers, school counselors and curriculum learning leaders. During this unsettling time, the LFA has been looking at many of the issues surrounding reopening our schools for 2020-2021 and the list is exhausting.

Just a few with public relations matters include:

  • People will expect distance learning to perform better than it did during the immediate response we gave in February and March of this year. Some districts excelled and others, not so much. Parents and taxpayers will expect a consistent and better approach in the new school year since we’ve had many months to prepare for this new round of implementation. The public will not be patient and understanding if the rollout does not work. Solving the problem of lack of devices for students and spotty internet access will also be a consideration.
  • School calendars may need to change. We all understand how difficult that process may be, but now may be the time to consider change. Year-round schools have been working in some communities for years. It may be time to learn from those districts as we all wrestle with the limitations of physical distancing, splitting AM and PM sessions, distance learning on certain days, bus routes, schedules, etc.
  • We must solve the equity issues for social emotional learning (SEL) students and others with special needs.
  • Concentrate on professional development for teachers and other staff to learn what’s most effective in distance learning. Again, make the most of the opportunity to learn from those who are doing well and make the time and commitment to offer practical development for all staff.
  • Demonstrate that your school buildings, cafeterias, and buses are safe and clean.


The need for communication is paramount in making your new school year move forward. I’ve said that it’s nearly impossible to communicate uncertainty with authority. It is, however, possible to communicate through transparency what have you done and what you’ll continue to do.

The key is to build understanding. Find ways to remain visible through engagement and collaboration and even acknowledge a bit of vulnerability. Uncertainty is part of what many people in your community also understand because it’s part of their reality now as well.

Your district’s future is now. Join with your team to strategically create a new approach to become change-agent partners in doing what is best for your school community.


Rich Bagin, APR

NSPRA Executive Director


Nobody Signed Up for This

Posted 04/13/2020 by schoolpr
Categories: crisis communication, school communication, school PR

“Nobody signed up for this.”

44743905011_5499891846_o-removebgSo said Gary Burnison, Korn Ferry CEO. And yet we find ourselves in the middle of a pandemic that is seemingly “touching” everyone.

There is no running away or turning our backs on this one — we are surrounded.

As bad as it is with some people in life-and-death situations, we need to once again dig deep and think about how communication can help all those we serve both now and in the future.

We’ve already seen many uplifting stories and heard about folks calling on communication professionals to assist staff and students with online learning.

And communication is playing a very positive role in building morale for teachers, principals, and non-instructional staff members to demonstrate how they’re being appreciated during this extremely rough patch of our times. Plus, each day brings yet another creative approach to how we can recognize and spotlight the 2020 senior class.

We Need Time to Plan and Think About the Next Steps

In talking with two leading NSPRA members in a Zoom happy hour last week, we learned that a positive side effect is that now we may be able to take advantage of a rare commodity: to make some time to THINK.

Our typical non-stop pace is probably still percolating for many, but it may also be an valuable opportunity to call a “time out” to retreat just a bit, assess our work to date and all its usual uncertainty, and think and plan what steps will be needed when students and staff return to whatever our new normal may become.

It’s a time to float bold, creative approaches in a collaborative setting with your leaders.

It’s time for communication professionals to step up and provide leadership in molding your system’s eventual return to normalcy.

You need to have school leaders recognize that they can “lean on you” to help them with your system’s comeback.

No Doubt. Budget Woes Are Ahead

To help your schools, another reason you should be proactive and strategic now is concerning the inevitable projected budget shortfalls that some districts may face in the next 18 months. Already some state legislatures are talking about reneging on their budget allocations for schools for next year.

There’s no question that budgets will get tight because our national economy is in flux and state and local tax revenue is rapidly decreasing.

We trust that the old practice of eliminating or reducing communication as the first-to-go in difficult budget times is now behind us. We see that more and more savvy school leaders now understand that communication is the crucial life blood of retaining and building support for their schools during difficult times.

Today poses a critical task for our profession. If you step up soon, you will help confirm the notion that professional communication is now more critical to school districts than ever.

And On a Lighter Note

We recently saw that cartoonist Drew Sheneman of The Star Ledger (Newark, NJ) depicted two frazzled parents, with libations in hand, looking at their two elementary students. The kids were wrestling and arguing about who got to use the home’s only tablet. The parents watched woefully, looked at each other, and said:

“I’ll never vote against a school budget again.”

So, on a positive note, there’s no telling what the fallout from this new wrinkle of home schooling will be like when we finally return.

Stay safe, healthy and connected.



Rich Bagin, APR

NSPRA Executive


Photo by Jim Cummings, APR, Glendale Elementary School District