Cutting Communication

The Decline of Public Support When You Need It the Most

Education is in the midst of near seismic-proportion budget cuts that project to last another year for some areas of our country. Some are attacking the communication function as being a non-essential element for today’s schools. When effective, comprehensive communication programs are cut, school districts might as well wave the surrender flag because they have just cut the primary and critical component of building support, accountability, and trust for their schools. It is one of the most short-sighted and irresponsible decisions that a school board can make.

From our vantage point, here is what we see happening:

When cuts are made, a communication void is created. Guess who fills that void? Yep, critics and special interest groups now tell their stories without any insight from your school district. You just handed over the keys to the public opinion process to those who choose to tell their one-sided story. We also see organized teacher unions jumping in to fill this void.

• School leaders say, “Don’t worry, we’ve assigned the communication function to the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum.” When this happens, ask these districts the old Dr. Phil question, “How’s that working for you?” I have never seen it work; it amounts to giving only lip service to the communication function. Busy administrators do not have the time or the communication skills to do the job effectively. It is wasteful and quickly frustrates staff, the media, and parents because timely answers are not delivered and support begins slipping away.

• As mentioned, this year we see more teacher organizations also calling for communication cuts. The irony is that their local organization and area service reps have a team of PR professionals to call upon to tell their story. Turf battles and finger-pointing become even more pronounced in these difficult budget times.  Every community needs to hear from all sides about the budget-cutting process. We applaud the teachers for being proactive, but not for simultaneously using their own PR teams to cut the school district PR budget.

• Internally, lack of communication breeds secrecy, rumors, and mistrust.
Sounds like a great place to work to me!

• Externally, lack of communication creates misunderstanding, divisiveness, non-support, and mistrust in your schools.
Your local chamber or real estate folks will see one of their best selling points — the image and reputation of your schools — crumble before their eyes.

So, consider some of the following messages and tactics during this budget season:

School districts are multi-million dollar operations. No leading business of that size or less would ever fathom not having professionally trained communicators on staff. Business leaders know that communication is the lifeblood of their organizations; they normally spend in between 20 to 25% of their total budget on all facets of communication. NSPRA surveys show that schools spend less than one-tenth of one percent (.001) of an operating budget on communication. So cutting the .001% seems a bit silly at a time when our schools need more support.

• Stress the importance of public accountability and the other PR (Public Responsibility) when talking about the communication function. Take the total cost of your communication program and divide it by the number of taxpayers or tax-paying households in your community. Let’s say it comes to $10 to $25 per household where the average homeowners’ tax bill is $2,000. The investment in communication then becomes an accountability feature to tell these taxpayers how their other $1, 990 is being spent. With nearly 80% of homeowners without students in our schools, school boards must demonstrate just how they spend their taxpayers’ money.

• Don’t shy away from talking about your return on investment (ROI) when it comes to your communication effort.
If you are losing enrollment to other schools, you may want to point out that your communication and marketing efforts captured or retained 100 more students this year. Use that figure (100) and multiply it by per-pupil state-aid allocation (say, $5,000) and you can testify that a large part of the $500,000 allocation was the result of effective communication. And if those students stay with your system for another 10 years, the amount jumps to $5,000,000. That’s just one of the reasons cutting communication is a short-sighted decision.

• Take the lead and provide a framework for your district to engage its publics during this critical time in public education.
Engage community leaders in this process so they can see for themselves the difficult road ahead and seek their support in making the appropriate decisions for the children of your school district.

Find more useful examples on NSPRA’s web site. Go to the Budget Communication Clearinghouse on our web site. Recently we have shown how the communication function also leads to higher student achievement through staff communication training, recruiting volunteers, mentors, and sponsors to work with our schools continuously.

And finally, one anonymous NSPRA member may have said it best in our membership survey:

Public relations — the way we practice it — is the glue that holds everything together and the grease that makes it all work. With tight budgets and constraints, it is needed more than ever.

We must demonstrate what we do with results and we need to regularly share those results in relevant ways with key decisionmakers. Now is not the time to be out of sight when difficulties arise. Step up and get out front. Be proactive with sets of alternative solutions and strategies to help our leaders do what is best for all our students in the years ahead.

This should be a great time to be in school public relations.

Rich Bagin, APR, NSPRA executive director

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One Comment on “Cutting Communication”

  1. Tom DeLapp Says:

    Rich, your insights are right on target. The only thing I would add is to make sure our colleagues build allies within the education family that endorse the value and contribution they make as PR professionals. Others telling your story is better than you having to do it yourself. See if you can assemble an endorsement list like you would for a campaign. Put a little thought into this and you might be able to counter the union and critic arguments that you’re just “fluff”.


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