One of the Most Important Skills to Cultivate: Clear Writing

Posted 06/09/2019 by schoolpr
Categories: Communication, Professional Development, school communication

15416440957_57b12b8111_o.jpgWhich skill separates a job candidate for a professional communication position from the competition?

To me, it’s writing. That’s why we give an onsite writing, grammar, and usage test to all job candidates who apply at NSPRA.

I learned this the hard way by hiring a senior-level staff member who had more than 10 years’ experience in local school public relations. To my dismay, much of her writing had to be reworked and then edited again. All that extra effort turned out to be a real struggle for all of us working on projects with her.

There is no substitute for clear, succinct writing.

We all write every day in one form or another and many of us may not make the time to edit our own pieces. But we should, at minimum, ask a colleague to read them for typos and to make sure that they will make sense to their intended audience.

Improving writing makes you a better communication professional. It can be hard work unless you’re a “word nerd” who enjoys playing with words and making an impact with your copy.

One tip to help improve — or really to just to sit down with a good book — is to read the new resource, Dreyer’s English—An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. Author Benjamin Dreyer is copy chief of Random House and his book is authoritative and yet amusing for those who deal with words for a living.

He covers the writing waterfront with dos and don’ts along with giving advice on what the rules are and when it may be okay to break them.

Here are a few examples from the insightful and entertaining book:

  • It’s okay to begin a sentence with and or but. But only if it strikes your fancy and you don’t overdo it.
  • Every once in a while, it’s okay to split an infinitive. He cites the original Star Trek series, “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”
  • A lot vs. Allot: Unfortunately, we still often see “a lot” being used as one word, “alot.” And we’re not just talking about the loose approach people use on their Twitter accounts.

 

Consider keeping Dreyer’s English handy while writing your next project — sort of looking over your shoulder to make you a better writer. It’s also a nice thank you gift for an intern or staff member who, too, is headed for a future requiring concise, clear writing.

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Rich Bagin, APR

NSPRA Executive Director

 

 

Photo by Jim Cummings, APR, Glendale Elementary School District

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How Do You Say Something When the Law Says You Can’t?

Posted 05/11/2019 by schoolpr
Categories: accountability, school communication

zipperMost superintendents, principals and school communication professionals have been there before.

We all know that you can’t comment about specific disciplinary violations aimed at students and staff. We know that we are silenced by the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Yet, when the “word” gets out about an incident, people think that the official “we-can’t-talk-about-it” response means that we’re sweeping the incident under the rug or even worse, that whatever it was is a routine occurrence at our schools.

And when people on social media begin to pile on, even school district staff members start to think, “I wish our leaders would do something to ‘have our back,’ and set the record straight.”

In the past 2 weeks, NSPRA members have been discussing this dilemma on our NSPRA Connect Open Forum. As always some of the best insights come from our communicators in the field.

 

Here are just a few thoughtful comments from our members:

We had a similar situation, and were very upfront in the interview about FERPA and student privacy being the reason for not commenting on specifics. I also stated that we work hard to resolve student issues within the school community. Social media is not the appropriate place to resolve issues.

Emphasize that it is the district’s obligation to investigate both sides of the issue and protect all students. Then switch the conversation to the policies and procedures that you do have in place to reduce and prevent these types of incidents. The goal is to diffuse the social media impact even though you cannot control it.

Michelle Karpinski, Portage Public Schools

When a parent takes to social media, we have the principal contact that parent immediately. Even though some state they don’t have to take their comments down, they usually do when they know someone from their child’s school is watching. When dealing with media, we flat out state there are always 2 sides to every story and we wish we could comment but can’t due to FERPA. Doing those 2 things usually helps things die down more quickly.

— Renae Walker, Bismarck Public Schools

I’ve often found the single most effective thing to say to get your message across without violating any laws, etc., is something like this: We would be happy to give you (the reporter) the entire story if you can get the mother to give us written permission to do so. We are completely willing, but unable to do so under the law without written permission from the mother. The media quickly understands that there is more to the story, that you are willing but unable to provide more information under the law without permission, and that there might be more to this story than the mother is telling.

Mary Beth Hill, Lexington County School District One

We are dealing with a very similar situation this week. The second time in 2 months at the same school… When parents directly attack a school or teachers and the facts completely contradict, I do think it’s important to show the school and staff you support them. So, I have started to go a bit further in my statements. When I am able legally — I dispute misinformation, and I ask the community to wait for the facts to be shared (via police or other reports). I explain that what they are hearing does not match what we are finding in our investigation.

I’m not sure if you have experienced this, but I am finding more and more that if we just sit back, say we can’t comment and wait for it to pass, it empowers parents and students to continue this type of tactic. I actually had a long conversation with our daily paper editor yesterday to talk about the damage done to our school’s reputation and how do we follow-up later to say, “Hey, this didn’t actually happen. The school/staff did the right thing.”

No easy answers, but I thought it would be good to at least open the door to have that conversation.

Stacy Tapp, APR, Racine Unified School District

 

So, like many situations that deal with communication, at least 2 or 3 answers may be right for you and your school district. Flirting with the high-wire act of disclosure and privacy of FERPA is a tricky maneuver and our advice is to stay within the law while trying to show support for your staff and schools.

 

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Rich Bagin, APR

NSPRA Executive Director

 

On-the-Street Interviews with School Board Members

Posted 04/04/2019 by schoolpr
Categories: Communication, marketing, school communication, school PR

poster 5 12052017The setting is the exhibit floor of the National School Boards Association (NSBA) held in Philadelphia on March 30-31.

If you’ve ever worked an exhibit booth at a national convention, you may understand how difficult it is to grab the attention of the passing parade of board members who meander through the miles of exhibits in the cavernous hall.

Some major corporations provide lots of food and close-to-circus acts to capture their 15 seconds of possible face-to-face interactions that might lead to sales of school buses, school safety enhancements, food service, maintenance materials, software, and more.

Each year at our NSPRA booth, we hope to lure passersby into our discussion by offering them a timely free resource or by asking a question. This year, we took the question route, hoping to help them realized how improved communication can help them prevent and solve problems.

 

The Question:

Do You Need Help with Some Communication Issues?

Here’s a sampling of the responses we heard:

  • We may be beyond repair. We’re looking for a new superintendent as we speak.
  • Doesn’t everybody? And if they say they don’t, they’re lying.
  • We’re in good shape. Our superintendent was just named one of NSPRA’s Superintendents to Watch.
  • We don’t communicate together, let alone with the public.
  • That’s a loaded question ….
  • No, but I’m new.
  • They don’t tell me anything.
  • [With a smirk on her face] We always communicate clearly, properly, and with no miscommunication.
  • No, we’re good.
  • Not at this time.
  • Sure, we need help with parents’ not reading the messages we send them. And then they complain that they’re not aware of what’s going on.

 

Now after we captured their somewhat guarded attention, we asked a few more questions and then offered some specific advice that may help them when they return to their district. We also armed them with NSPRA information on the benefits of becoming a member district or a subscriber to NSPRA. We introduced them to all of the solutions we offer at our upcoming seminar, through the new NSPRA Connect service, as well as by completing an NSPRA audit or Communication Review.

Each year, we can trace a few audits to the first encounter we made at the exhibit booth. We also see an increase in membership and participation in our Seminar. The biggest take-away may be the fact that a sizeable number of interested Board members focused on communication and discussed it with NSPRA anywhere from 15 seconds to 15 minutes.

These teachable face-to-face moments don’t come that often from our national office. We eagerly seize the chance to spread the word and enjoy the professional opportunities whenever we can.

 

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Rich Bagin, APR

NSPRA Executive Director

Caring About the Common Good

Posted 03/10/2019 by schoolpr
Categories: democratic society, Education, marketing, school communication

15768879767_9628b7b8b1_oRecognizing Public Schools Week

 

It’s time to bring back the idea of the common good.

We need to make considering the common good a priority in our school communities. We seem to be drifting to the idea that what’s good for me is much more important than what’s good for our entire community. A quick example is the anti-vaccination movement. It’s baffling that we can no longer bring peanut butter cupcakes to our school celebrations (a common-good approach), but we’re not as concerned that we allow the unvaccinated to freely spread measles to our vulnerable populations.

We have to remember that we’re all in this together, although sometimes in our fractured world, we feel like we’re all in it alone.

We’re not alone.

And that means we have to get back to thinking about the common good in our communities. We can’t rise as a community or a country until we consistently think beyond ourselves.

We have to look up from our phones and out of our cubicles and start looking at people, start talking to people again, start asking how we can make things better for all of us — rather than just for ourselves. How can we look long range and work together as a community to truly make life better for the next generations?

We know there’s no such thing as a silver-bullet solution, but we also know that public schools come as close as anything to be the steroid-type enabler for raising the bar by considering the common good. Yes, public schools are as close we can get to achieving a viable solution.

 

Public schools reach millions of students

Public schools teach 9 out of 10 students enrolled in education today.

That’s 50.7 million students — all individuals who will eventually add to or detract from the future and well-being of our communities and our lives.

Just think what our total communities would be like without public schools.

Sure, alternatives would pop up, but there’s no way that any of these alt-systems could scale up to provide what is needed for the vast array of today’s students.

 

Celebrate Public Schools Weekpublic-schools-week.png

March 25-29 has been set as Public Schools Week. It’s a great time to take stock and celebrate how your public schools pave the way for the common good in your school communities.

Take a look at all you do for your students and how your schools and staff make your community better. And when you point out this major plus of public schools to your community members, work in an engagement component to seek support to make your public schools even better.

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As a member of the Learning First Alliance (LFA), NSPRA is joining with other major leadership organizations to celebrate Public Schools Week. We encourage all interested supporters to use the LFA toolkit which gives you practical messages, templates, social media feeds, and graphic elements to save time and give ease for your promotions. Click here for ideas and resources.

Here’s hoping that these resources will help motivate you to join the celebration and to remind our communities about the integral role that public schools play in providing for the common good for all in the years ahead.

 

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Rich Bagin, APR

NSPRA Executive Director

 

Photo by Jim Cummings, APR, Glendale Elementary School District

 

 

 

 

 

Integrity Is Everything

Posted 02/06/2019 by schoolpr
Categories: school PR, standards and ethics

IMG_8594 (2018_01_11 18_36_47 UTC)Some Musings About Our Profession

My friend and mentor Ken Weir always prompts interesting discussions about our profession. He always makes me think more deeply about things.

Early in my career he noted that some people say that our job is just to make people look good — like rearranging a flower display so that the most beautiful and long-lasting flowers are front and center to pleasingly carry the “look” of the entire arrangement.

Sure, we all do that in various ways sometimes, but no more than a mother does as she straightens the collar of her son or pats down a stray hair or two before the photographer takes his picture.

Really, we all want our families and colleagues to look good. And if we can help in some way, that, too, becomes part of our job.

But sometimes making our districts look good or protecting their reputation can be high-wire act when it comes to some major issues in our school communities. Our personal integrity and professional code of ethics come into play, and we need to stand firm when unethical situations barrel toward us.

Let me give you an example:

Years ago — before the social media explosion, I received a call from a memb44743905011_5499891846_o-removebger in a suburban district. He was seeking counsel on this situation:

The kindergarten wing of the school district’s elementary school had just burned down and the plan was to move the kindergarten students to the high school.

The kindergarten parents almost revolted because they were worried about how their children would be treated. But the district assured the parents that their 5-year-olds would use separate entrances, would not be in harm’s way, and would never interact with the older students.

Shortly after the move, our member told me that a gun was found in a locker of one of the high school students and that locker was along the hallway leading to the kindergarten class.

He asked if he should disclose this finding to the elementary parents.

After questioning him a bit about the details of his situation (Who already knows? Were the police notified? Was the high school student apprehended? Was anyone hurt?), I told him that he needed to be transparent and authentic. He needed to treat the situation with the sensitivity and empathetic communication that a true pro like him could deliver.

Well, it turned out that his bosses felt differently. They never felt the need to communicate with the parents in their district. This situation never went public.

Such were the days before social media. Be forewarned: this incident would never happen like this today!

 

This story underscores the fact that one of the true hallmarks of a healthy profession is its code of ethics and how people in the profession practice it every day.

We hold NSPRA’s ethical standards high and expect that all of our members feel the same. Spin doctors, con artists, fake news advocates need not apply for membership in a professional association like ours.

Take some advice from one of our retired members. Judi Willis, APR, says it well:

“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!”

— Judi Willis, APR

 

A maxim for all of us to remember as we put our ethics into practice every day.

 

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Rich Bagin, APR

NSPRA Executive Director

 

Photo of child by Jim Cummings, APR, Glendale Elementary School District

 

Creating a “My Kid First” Mentality for Customer Experiences

Posted 01/05/2019 by schoolpr
Categories: marketing, school choice, school communication, school PR

Tags: , ,

 

mkf1It’s a truth universally known: Every parent wants the best for their child, no matter the situation.

Critical to providing a positive customer experience is that school staff members understand that parents come with those high expectations. 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.

Parents want schools to treat their children fairly, provide a caring and nurturing climate, and leave them with a sense that their child is in great hands in your class and your school.

If parents don’t feel this sense of security, your schools will quickly be in jeopardy of losing students to private, charter, or other alternative programs that are now readily available in this era of school choice. So, as we prepare to interact with parents in our schools, we must always remember to provide staff with professional development opportunities so that they can make the most of their customer/parent experiences.

In NSPRA’s newest publication, Making/Marketing Your School the School of Choice, we offer a number of tools to boost the customer experience with your school including:

  • First Impressions Report Card — A look at functional signage, clean hallways and classrooms, displays of student art work, etc.
  • “Secret Shopper” Customer Service Checklist — A review of the timeliness of your responses, how you address questions and requests, how warmly you greet people, etc.
  • How Customer Friendly Is Your School? — Useful questions to guide your assessment: Can office signs be read from all approaches? Do all employees — not just office staff — take responsibility for answering phones because phones should not ring for more than 5 times? Have all employees been instructed on how to greet visitors and offer assistance?

 

Plus, a number of newer customer service books for business ventures have recently hit the market. Most address the attitude and flexibility of staff dealing with situations. As an example, Jeanne Bliss, a customer service industry guru just published, Would You Do That to Your Mother? Some school transferrable advice from Bliss includes:

  • Let your availability reflect how you care. Be there to answer questions and give guidance; don’t make customers hunt for answers.
  • Let your paperwork navigate customers to clarity and understanding. Avoid jargon as well. What is a blended learning and is it only in a blended classroom?
  • How you apologize is your humanity litmus test. Things will go wrong, that’s a given; handle them with empathy and compassion.
  • A graceful departure may lead to an eventual return. If you lose a student or parent to a competitor, be helpful and wish them well. They may just return next semester once they realize how much your school offered them.
mkf2

One additional takeaway on the newer approaches to customer service is that employees should have the authority to override policy from time to time when common sense or the “golden rule” should prevail. For instance, don’t let this scenario be the norm: “You submitted your application 9 minutes late for the scholarship because an accident backed up traffic, so we cannot accept it.” No, be reasonable! Accept the application!

Understand that people come to you with the “My Kid First” mentality and make sure that the importance of creating a positive customer experience always guides your actions.

 

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Rich Bagin, APR

NSPRA Executive Director

 

Photos by Jim Cummings, APR, Glendale Elementary School District

 

 

 

Stocking Stuffers for Every School Communication Professional

Posted 12/08/2018 by schoolpr
Categories: holiday, school communication, school PR

Tags: ,

15972909905_68db55cea5_o (2018_01_11 18_36_47 UTC)You can hear it in the air: ’Tis the season for joy and merriment. I wish all who work in school PR a wonderful holiday season for you and your families as well as a great and healthy new year ahead.

We hope all 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.

 

enfield duo (2018_01_11 18_36_47 UTC)

  • First, a stocking stuffed with a superintendent who “gets it.” One who listens, understands what little may be ultimately controllable, and one who gives you green lights and budgets to make a real communication difference in your system.

 

  • Cell phone batteries that never die.

 

  • A copy of the NSPRA classic, The Wit and Wisdom of PR Success. I could teach a full semester of a School PR course for superintendents just based on the valuable advice in this compendium by some of the best in our business. For instance:

“Don’t wait to be asked.” John BuddWit and Wisdom cover front (2018_01_11 18_36_47 UTC)

“Public relations programs without effective internal communication are built on quicksand.”Buddy Price

“People want to be served, not sold — involved, not told.”Patrick Jackson

 

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

 

  • A copy of Jim Lukaszewski’s Why Should the Boss Listen to You? The Seven Disciplines of the Trusted Strategic Advisor, a perfect fit for every school public relations professional.

do not disturb

 

  • A Do Not Disturb Sign or — maybe better yet — a Please Disturb Sign for your office door.

 

  • A stack of 25 small gift cards to hand out to staff and volunteers for doing a great job.

gift3

 

  • At least 3 outstanding principals who serve as positive role models for building-level PR — one each for elementary, middle and high school.

 

  • A stash of 5 additional personal days that you probably won’t get a chance to use but at least you can feel good about having them in your back pocket all the time.

 

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  • A ticket to NSPRA’s newest member benefit, NSPRA Connect, where you can ask nearly 2,000 school PR pros for their helpful insights about your upcoming sticky issue or stewing dilemma or operational tool like what the best choice is for a mass communication system.

 

  • An extra night’s sleep — just because we all need to recharge once in a while.

 

2018 Washington logo--October 23, 2018

  • Tickets for both you and your superintendent in July for a chance to network with colleagues at NSPRA’s National Seminar in Washington, D.C.

 

  • A quiet moment to sit back, reflect and smile because you have one of the most meaningful and important jobs in the world. You help kids every day.

Those of us in our profession know how our work makes a difference in the lives of students, staff and our school communities. Savor those accomplishmgift-3ents.

Be sure to make some time to be good to yourself and your loved ones in the holiday season ahead.

Best wishes and happy holidays to you,

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Rich Bagin, APR

NSPRA Executive Director

 

Santa photo by Jim Cummings, APR, Glendale Elementary School District