Building Morale and Engaging the Public: Whose Job Is It Anyway?

Posted 11/09/2015 by schoolpr
Categories: Uncategorized

If you talk to school employees as we do in our communication audit process, you often will get an earful about low morale and how employees feel under-appreciated in today’s education-bashing climate. Even when leaders ask employees for their opinions on workplace matters, staff sometimes feel that nobody listens to them. They see certain brands of engagement as “window dressing” that leaders use so they can check off a requirement —  that they engaged staff members about an issue.

NSPRA members are well aware of this problem; many have done a good job of interacting with staff and building internal efforts to authentically engage people at various levels. Now NSPRA has created a project team to work on possible engagement solutions to boost morale in schools and school districts across North America. If all goes well, we hope to publish a new resource for you by this summer. (More on this a bit later.)

The Corporate World Also Grapples with Employee Engagement

We’ve learned that corporations are dealing with their own low morale and employee engagement issues. The Gallup organization has completed helpful research on this issue that asked questions like:

  • Who influences the employee engagement efforts and practices?
  • Is the major influencer at the executive level? (Superintendents and other central office leaders, in our case.)
  • Is it the local level manager? (Principals, in our case.)
  • What part does the individual style of each employee play in engagement practices?

According to an article by Jim Harter, chief scientist of workplace management and wellbeing for Gallup’s workplace management practice, Gallup’s findings revealed that the primary determinant of an engaging and high-performing workplace is the manager. Although wide variation in most organizations occurs across teams and business units, he notes that people leave managers more than companies.

Gallup has also reported that as much as 70% of the variance in the employee engagement of teams can be traced back to the influence of the manager — through the manager’s engagement, behaviors as observed by team members, and the natural wiring of managers. In our organizations, that means we are primarily talking about principals as our managers.

Superintendents Also Make a Difference

According to Gallup, when engagement is based on perceptions of the overall organization, it is likely that there is a strong association between perceptions of the CEO and perceptions of the overall company. In a study of 190 organizations, Gallup found that executive leaders influence front-line employee engagement both indirectly and directly. They affect engagement primarily indirectly, through their influence on people they manage themselves, and directly through specific performance management elements, including clear expectations, discussions of progress and a mission or purpose that people can identify with. (Another Gallup resource.)

The Gallup findings indicate that when executive teams are highly engaged, the organization’s managers are 39% more likely to be engaged. When managers are highly engaged, employees are 59% more likely to be engaged. As such, at each level within the organization, the local manager or leader has the ultimate influence over how to communicate expectations, whether employees have a chance to do what they do best, whether individuals have opportunities to develop and whether people are able to see how their work connects to the organization’s overall mission or purpose.

Anyone who has worked in different schools or districts knows that the leader of the system and the school sets the tone for engagement. Some leaders embrace it, while others, not so much! Transforming these leaders or finding new ones committed to engagement is a good place to start in building morale in your schools.

Engagement Resources for Now and the Future

  • Gallup offers research and insight and is one of the leading organizations on employee motivation and performance. (
  • NSPRA has just co-published two new resources based on the real-world experiences of an NSPRA Past President Kathy Leslie, APR, and her colleague Judy Taccogna. Entitled The Politics of Authentic Engagement, their book and its accompanying handbook are great investments with practical insight into authentic engagement for your schools. Learn more and purchase each resource at
  • As mentioned earlier, NSPRA is collecting and assessing the engagement and morale-building programs offered in today’s schools. The NSPRA team is now in its research gathering stage, so if you want your program to possibly become part of this new, exciting resource, here’s how.

Rich Bagin, APR
NSPRA Executive Director

An Easy Step to Build Trust and Confidence in Your Schools

Posted 10/12/2015 by schoolpr
Categories: Uncategorized

In today’s competitive and political atmosphere, school leaders often ask us about strategies and tactics to build trust and confidence in our schools — let alone how to enhance the reputation of public education.

We always offer solutions on a number of fronts, but we also ask leaders to think about all the touch points built into the school year — those times when parents, teachers, and principals all interact with one another. Those face-to-face episodes often begin making or breaking the confidence your critical audience of parents has in your schools.

Parent Conferences Give You a Time to Shine

Traditional open houses and parent conferences are now in full swing in many communities. Those of you who are parents or who have a bit of experience meeting with parents know how these events can serve as a great starting point to build confidence in your school and your teachers.

When these events go well, you have established a base-line of trust and solid relationships with your parents. When they don’t go well or if they just receive a “meh” reaction, it could be the first step in eroding parents’ confidence your school is the right choice for their child.

Charters and private schools often prepare their teachers for how to conduct effective parent conferences because they know how crucial conferences are in making a favorable impression and in showing you are competent, caring, communicative, and authentic about their most precious asset — their children.

Let’s Focus on Parent Conferences

My wife and I, both former teachers, have been through 13 years of conferences for each of our sons’ public school careers. Some of their teachers gave the impression they were just there because they had to be — kind of like going to the dentist for a regular checkup. While many teachers were warm, welcoming, and gave the impression they cared about our sons, we still vividly remember those who just punched the clock. They missed a great opportunity to assure us they were going to put in the work to make the school year great for the kids they taught.

Teachers Are Credible and Authentic

What a difference a prepared, welcoming, and caring teacher can make on the public’s confidence in your system and in your school!

Now multiply that trust-building performance by the number of teachers and conferences held each year in your system, and you can see the rise of goodwill building on behalf of your schools.

If you have 1,000 teachers and they complete only 15 conferences this fall, you have made 15,000 positive face-to-face impressions and you are well on your way to developing positive relationships with many of your parents.

This parent-conference approach to building trust should be easy to address. For years, our research and that of others have shown teachers are the most credible spokespersons for your district when they talk about your schools. So when teachers start a positive relationship with parents after a face-to-face meeting, they add an authentic, personal touch when they follow up later in the year with e-portals and other e-devices.

Check Out These Resources

Larry Ascough, an NSPRA consultant and the editor of a Region X (Texas) Newsletter, Communicating for Results, pulled together an excellent compilation of parent conference resources in his resource section. Go to “Parent-Teacher Conferences…or Collaborative Conversations?” Much of the information is drawn from

The tips are quite practical and comprehensive. You can use them for training sessions with your staff or for reminders throughout the year.

One additional NSPRA tip is to send a summary of the most common parent questions and answers to all the parents of that teacher’s students. You will help teachers reach more parents and indicate that their children are lucky to have such a responsive and caring teacher during this school year.

Rich Bagin, APR
NSPRA Executive Director

The Closer You Get, the Better We Look

Posted 09/04/2015 by schoolpr
Categories: Uncategorized

Once again we tip our hat to Phi Delta Kappa and the Gallup Organization in completing the annual poll of people’s attitudes toward the public schools. The poll provides a great service for school leaders because it’s essential that we listen to our communities’ perceptions about our schools.

I may view the annual PDK/Gallup poll differently than other people. I see it as an agenda-setting moment for school communication leaders. Often, I look at some of the responses and say, “Wow, do people actually think that is reality in our local schools?” In some communities, these findings may ring true, but in others we must get better at communicating and engaging our parents and larger communities about what’s real in our schools.

This space limits how much we can discuss crafting strategies for key issues of testing, opt-out of testing, accountability measures, school choice, charters, and more. We will tackle many of those topics in the year ahead. But, in the meantime, let’s focus on the public confidence factor in your local schools.

Local Schools Are Better Than Other Schools Nationally

This year’s report shows overall grades for public education all the way back to 1985. And the one constant is that local schools receive many more grades of A or B than those nationally. That means that parents and others who know their local schools primarily say they are doing a good job. People think, “It’s all those other schools that are bad, not mine.”

And yet, those other schools are made up of somebody else’s local schools. And those local schools receive high local grades.

The term irony comes to mind. Go figure.

And yet, we do understand that many schools need improvement in many localities throughout our country. And often misperceptions of what I call “Big Education” are formed though the negativity of media accounts, political leaders, and blogs telling us that Big Education” is going to hell in a handbasket.

And while I am at it, Congress falls into the same local perception dilemma. My congressman is good, but “Big Congress” is bad.

See-for-Yourself Campaigns

The farther you get from your local schools, the darker the perception of public schools in general. That’s why we have been saying for years, The Closer You Get, the Better We Look. And now we have 30 years of PDK/Gallup Polls to prove it.

Two things to consider:

  • Repeat aspects of the current poll in your community and then strategically find ways to engage parents, local leaders, and others in your results. Good engaging dialogue will make your schools better. Check with the Gallup folks on how to make this happen.
  • Plan a “See-for-Yourself Campaign” to get more parents and community leaders in your schools. NSPRA members have done this for many years and the strategy works to point out the good and what’s still must be done to make schools better. This approach often gives people a myth-busting experience that increases the level of confidence in schools.

The bottom line is: Don’t let the negatives of “Big Education” creep into your local schools. Be proactive to prove that the closer you get, the better we look.

Rich Bagin, APR

NSPRA Executive Director

More School Leaders Now See the Need for Effective Communication

Posted 08/10/2015 by schoolpr
Categories: Uncategorized

Great participation, meaningful and relevant presentations, and the largest paid registration in NSPRA’s 80-year history all point to building momentum for the increasing need of school communication programs in our schools. The record paid attendance of 805 participants at our Nashville Seminar in July broke the record of 800 that we notched all the way back in 2006 in Chicago.

Having the larger attendance this year helps NSPRA accelerate fulfilling our mission of improving communication and building more support for our schools.
I noted in the opening general session that our education landscape continues to change by offering the sometimes controversial issues school leaders continue to deal with in the U.S. and Canada:

From NSPRA’s Catbird Seat, we see lots of controversial issues in local school districts and boards across North America. Many are handled well when reasonable people are given or make enough time to engage and communicate with one another.

Quickly, here the issues we see percolating in the U.S. and Canada:

  • Common Core push back and vilification,
  • Opt-out of testing of all sorts,
  • One-to-one tech initiatives – with BYOD elements,
  • Social media mishaps – digital tattoos,
  • School choice competition,2015SeminarRecapPicture1
  • Charter school accountability,
  • Opting out of immunizations,
  • Boundary changes,
  • Passing budgets and finance referendums,
  • Equity for all children,
  • Diversity communication and relationships,
  • Length of school day and school year,
  • Announcing testing results,
  • Weather closings of schools, and
  • School safety and gun issues.

I offered 3 maxims for school leaders when it comes today’s practice of school communication:

Getting out front means you won’t be left behind.

GettingOutFrontSchool leaders and public education itself got clobbered when the Common Core Standards were launched because there was no planned communication strategy with timely and continuous communication on this important topic.

What happened as a result? Critics defined it and from there the professional media and social media advocates took it away from us. Being proactive is still one of the major weaknesses of communication efforts in our schools.

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

LastMinuteCommunicationWe often fail because we release critical information at the very last moment. Even when we may not know what our next steps may be, we must bring our staff, parents, and others along in a transparent fashion to avoid surprising our audiences with messages that causes them to feel blind-sided by our efforts.

Communication is the traveling buddy of major change.

CommunicationTravelingBuddyChangeWe have seen it happen so many times but it is still shocking. The failure to communicate change in school systems to staff and parents often kills the change initiative itself. For any major change to be successful in your system, your audiences must be fully informed and engaged.

StopWhen we at NSPRA complete communication audits for school systems, we often display a stop sign to alert the system that change will not be successful until they stop and plan how they will use communication and engagement to implement the change in their system.

As we all know, continuous learning is what is needed in our field. Competition increases and new tools continue to grow, escalating our need to communicate effectively all the time. To help you learn how to deal with changing needs, NSPRA offers professional insight on a year-round basis. Tap into our website at and by all means possible, do plan to join us next July in Chicago for NSPRA 2016.

Perhaps you can make your year even better when you take part in all the networking opportunities and gather countless program insights when you interact with more than 800 professionals who understand what you do for a living. Plan to join us. And watch our website for more information. We’ll begin posting about NSPRA’s 2016 Annual Seminar this fall.

Rich Bagin, APR
NSPRA Executive Director

Unconventional Things to Do This Summer

Posted 06/08/2015 by schoolpr
Categories: Uncategorized

Most school communication pros operate with a summer checklist that begins with a deep cleansing breath when all students have left their buildings and media inquiries subside. Summer workloads are still hefty, but you often experience pockets of uninterrupted stretches of time that just don’t happen during the regular school year. (Our condolences to our year-round school members!)

So, with a nod to those who may experience some of these precious interludes, here are a few unorthodox approaches to explore this summer:

Plan a Register-to-Vote Campaign

It has become increasingly clear that school reform initiatives are driven by elected officials who often have no real clue about how their decisions will hurt the children and well-being of their very own communities. And that description, unfortunately, is taking the high road as other initiatives are driven by special interest or corporate groups who use their local primary campaigns to build a foundation to torch school budgets or to advocate for their particular brand of education.

One of the better moments of a democracy is that “He Who Has the Most Votes Wins.” Urging staff, parents, and others to register to vote before primary elections is a good first step to overcome movements that undercut public education.

Research what you can do to remind all eligible voters to register and then plan to give them easy steps or directions on how to register to vote.

As we have said before: In these local and state legislative elections, we must ask, Who’s for Kids and Who’s Just Kidding?

Listen to Parents of Your Recent Graduates

Now that most graduation ceremonies are just about over, it’s a good time to capture the collective wisdom of some parents of your graduates. They may seem a bit shocked when you approach them, but they remain a very important target for your communication efforts for years to come.

In focus groups, begin to get a feel for how to improve your efforts by asking questions such as:

  • What were the best characteristics of your graduates’ experience during the past 13 years?
  • What do you wish we could have done better for your graduate in the past 13 years?
  • In thinking about how we communicate with parents, what could we have done better for you? From the individual school? From the district as a whole?
  • Now that you may no longer be directly connected to our schools, what type of information and communication you would like to receive from our schools? Would you like to be engaged in some way about the future of our schools?

Feedback from even some of these questions can help you shape messages and improve how you communicate in the year ahead.

Add to Your List of Summer Reading: The Politics of Authentic Engagement

Former NSPRA President Kathy Leslie, APR and co-author Judy Taccogna have just released a practical and readable book on the politics of authentic engagement.

Engagement is one of those terms that seems to be “in the eye of the beholder.” Over the years, we have worked with superintendents who have proudly handed us slick brochures as examples of their brand of engagement — they just had brochures; they didn’t interact with anyone. Others have stepped up but then realized how much work it could be to engage people. They may have ultimately even alienated audiences because they withdrew their efforts and never closed the loop with their now non-supportive participants.

Here’s the thing: Make the time to read this new book. It will give you the insight you need to get involved and to commit to authentic engagement. Engagement really works when it’s done right.

Since NSPRA is a co-publisher along with Rowman & Littlefield, our NSPRA store will carry the book at You can also buy it from Amazon along with your latest tech device, kitchen faucet, and pet supplies.

Join Us at the NSPRA Annual Seminar in Nashville

Now you have some professional options for this summer. But, of course, I know we will see more than 700 of you at NSPRA’s Nashville Seminar from July 12-15.

It’s not too late! You can still register at

See you there!

Rich Bagin, APR
NSPRA Executive Director

Charter Schools in Perspective: Check Out a New Resource for Discussing Charter Schools

Posted 05/11/2015 by schoolpr
Categories: Uncategorized

Just mention charter schools in many school communities and most likely you’ll receive vociferous and quick responses — both good and bad. People’s opinions are often formed by what they have heard about charter schools in general or by what they know about the charter schools in their own communities. Recent reports of fraud with some charters also create more doubt on the accountability measures used by those who authorize charter schools.

Often we see opposing views about charter schools as researchers tell us there is no such thing as common ground. But the one thing that many leaders now admit is that charter schools are here to stay. And, like more traditional public schools, some perform better than others. We also know that a great deal of misinformation about charter schools abounds and assumptions sometimes are at the base of emotional decisions about charter schools in local communities.

Thanks to our colleagues at Public Agenda — through funding provided by the Spencer Foundation — we all have a wonderful new resource entitled Charter Schools in Perspective. In a snapshot of a research and data-based approach to charters, it helps local leaders grasp the facts about charter schools, discussing how the public is generally misinformed about charters, even touching on the highly political nature of charter schools in some communities and how some charters are perceived as instruments for segregation in some regions of our country.

As the study notes, “Public opinion on charter schools seems both unstable and inconsistent. This instability creates something of a vacuum where adversarial rhetoric thrives and polarization worsens.” Once again, a vacuum is quickly filled by others, leaving the rest to play catch-up to tell their story.

Samples of Misinformation About Charter Schools

The report notes that polling shows that many Americans are misinformed about charter schools and form opinions based on that misinformation. Polling conducted by two different organizations indicates considerable misinformation around:

  • Whether charter schools are public (they are)
  • How they are funded (by taxpayers)
  • Whether they can charge tuition (they can’t)
  • Whether they can hold religious services or teach religion (they can’t)
  • Whether they can select students based on academic ability (they can’t)

To help structure an enlightened discussion about the charter movement to address this misinformation, Public Agenda has just released its 140-page report, along with a few other practical discussion guides for school districts and communities who are “beyond ideology and polarization so they can make the practical decisions they need to make to improve educational opportunities for all kids.”

How this Resource Helps

Charter Schools in Perspective is a nonpartisan effort designed to support a more informed, civil, and productive dialogue about charter schools.

Public Agenda doesn’t take positions on contemporary controversies about education, and neither does the Spencer Foundation. They both believe that more informed, thoughtful deliberation about issues related to what kinds of schools communities should create is in the best interest of communities, parents and children.

The materials are all free and available online at Here’s what you’ll find:

  • Have a question about charter schools and want to see if trustworthy research answers it? You can turn to Charter Schools in Perspective: A Guide to Research. In this thorough and accessibly written analysis, the authors synthesize and summarize current research on charter schools, including academic research often out of reach behind paywalls. Topics include student achievement, finance, governance, innovation, and public opinion.
  • Local officials should also check out Ten Questions for Policymakers, a set of questions that will help them think through decisions about charter schools in their jurisdictions.
  • You may want to share with your local journalists some guiding information from Ten Questions for Journalists.
  • And if you want to hold a dialogue in your community to explore options for school improvement, Are Charter Schools a Good Way to Improve Education in Our Community? helps communities hold civil, productive dialogue on doing so.
  • The guide is also a great resource if you’re interested in learning more about the benefits and trade-offs of different perspectives on charter schools and improving schools.

Communication and engagement — early and often — must be the heart of all major issues for your system. If you or your community now has charter schools on your radar, make the investment of time to review this practical new resource.

Rich Bagin, APR
NSPRA Executive Director

Social Media: Managing Risk and Leveraging Opportunities

Posted 04/13/2015 by schoolpr
Categories: Uncategorized

NSPRA member Kristin Magette has “done us all proud.” Her new book, Embracing Social Media, focuses on one of the bugaboos of social media that drives superintendents and school boards crazy — so crazy at times that some have restricted or banned the use of social media in their schools.

Kristin’s local school PR experience shines through in her book. Just look at the fears and concerns about social media she attributes to some school leaders:

  • What if someone makes a negative comment?
  • What is someone posts something that violates the confidentiality of one of our students?
  • What if someone posts something bad about a staff member?
  • What if one of our employees posts something unprofessional?
  • What if it becomes a place where people go to “air dirty laundry” or to “crank up the rumor mill?”

It Happens With or Without You

Much of Embracing Social Media gives us solutions and approaches to deal with those situations. And as Kristin notes, most of these things are already happening on social media now. By making the choice to ban social media, you are “not exempting yourself from the discussions taking place; by contrast, you are allowing these discussion to flourish unchecked and without your consistent, informed and calming voice.”

She urges school leaders to stake out their space in social media. By doing so, Kristin notes that controversial comments are often reduced as they are “dealt with in a manner that is respectful, understanding, firm and policy-driven.”

The informal nature of social media gives some people the impression that it is an avenue to just “wing it” and to jump into the fray. Nothing can be more damaging to your system than to play it loose and informal. Districts need to establish their own protocols and polices to cover all aspects of social media use in their systems.

Embracing Social Media helps you build a foundation for success in social media. It also gives you persuasive talking points to influence decision-makers about why social media must be part of your school communication program. Recent stats show that many Americans now own 4 digital devices and the average U.S. consumer spends 60 hours a week consuming content from these devices.

Economically Reach More Audiences Quickly
Our audiences are already there. We need to go to where they are rather than asking them to use our own established channels.

Leading districts and communication programs are now using social media as a valued tool to economically reach parents, students, and others with key messages and information about their schools.

Join Kristin at the NSPRA Seminar

The good news is that Kristin Magette will be leading a special session at the NSPRA Seminar this July in Nashville. For more information about the Seminar, go to And you can find her book on NSPRA’s website at

Rich Bagin, APR
NSPRA Executive Director


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