If the words “public relations” leave a sour taste in your mouth, you're probably thinking about the negative side effects of PR. For the purposes of this article, though, think positive. Not the “spin” and “crisis” and other unsavory connotations and events you hope will never be associated with your school. Smart schools use a PR focus for much of their messaging, and I want to share a quick-start strategy that will help you create a school PR plan that rocks and you can begin using today.
Public relations in the digital age is a critical aspect of school communications. Fact is, if you don’t select your words and tell your stories, someone else will. That is what PR and this article’s all about.
Understanding the school PR landscape
Gone are the days when sending a newsletter home in student backpacks will keep everyone informed. Parents and community members are bombarded by perpetually loud and opinionated voices via blogs, social media, news, and forums. If these louder voices are the only ones speaking, you have no hope that your truth will prevail.
As Kathy Brant, director of communications for Schiller Park School District 81, pointed out in a spot-on article about the power of social media, social media word of mouth is a PR phenomenon school communicators need to embrace.
School public relations works like this: If you tell a parent how great and wonderful your school is, that is advertising. If you tell a parent tell how great and wonderful they are and how your school will help them be even better, that is marketing. If a parent tells their friends and neighbors how great and wonderful your school is, that is PR. Strive for this kind of grass-roots PR and you’ll build trust, confidence and support.
Trust, in fact, is what the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) espouses in one of its core beliefs: Public relations develops trust through two-way communication and meaningful relationships with all audiences.
“Next to doing the right thing, the most important thing is to let people know you are doing the right thing.” John D. Rockefeller
A good public relations strategy, which includes good PR stories, is far more effective than running ads. PR strategically influences reputations, builds confidence, and creates trust. Think of school PR as “Performance Recognition” and you’ll be on the right track.
Benjamin Disraeli said, “Without publicity there can be no public support, and without public support every nation must decay.” Our communities, parents, staff, students, even taxpayers and retirees without children attending your school, want to be part of something fine. They want their community’s children to be part of schools where great things are happening. And you need their support.
Avoid the barriers to good school PR
I know: you have no staff to dedicate to this strategy. You have no time to add something else to your overflowing plate (and neither does anyone else). You don’t understand the required skill sets. You don’t have any media connections or even know where to begin. And, you don’t have a plan.
Don't allow yourself to be a barrier to good school PR.
Jay Cooper at Campus Suite calls it the “One-Man Band Syndrome” when it comes to a school PR manager’s workload. School communicators, he points out, are already asked to do so much these days. Learning to master the multiple digital channels, for example, is one more part of the school PR manager job description these days.
Just like learning and keeping up with social media, putting strong fundamental PR in place requires you start small and build over time. It’s eating that elephant one bite at a time. You get the idea. You can create a plan that will let you begin implementing PR over time until you have an effective process in place where others can add their knowledge and skills. You will be amazed at how much you can accomplish each year.
Get your school PR plan rockin'
For this post, we’ll assume your primary public relations goal is to create a steady stream of good stories to share with your community. Here is the cardinal rule, to which all your PR efforts must adhere: your PR should always be rooted solidly in fact. PR is a part of the good fight; a fight that education is striving to win. So, let’s get started:
1. List critical school-wide goals for the year.
As a simple example, let’s say one of my school’s PR goals for the year is to let my community know what a fantastic early learning program we have here. We not only teach children, but we also instill in them a lifelong love of learning that is bar none. Check. That is one of my school-wide goals.
2. Use multiple 'channels’ to communicate.
Now, how can you communicate this great early learning program to others? Well, how about we create a video showing some of our early learning programs? Happy students, learning and excited, alongside enthused teachers? Add a few comments from parents and even older students who have been through the program and voila, done. Post the video on YouTube or your school's Youtube channel (that's easy to create.)
I’ll post the video on Facebook, Twitter, add it to Instagram, and link to it on the website so people will be able to visualize their child’s success in our school. I’ll notify our local media and the chamber of commerce about it. I’ll also make registration information easy to complete right online.
Then, have teachers start collecting stories of individual child successes throughout the year that you can share on the website and through social media.
3. Select qualified ‘recruits’ to gather successes.
Let's say you have three kindergarten teachers and two aides, they are recruits. Explain in detail what the goal and why you want to highlight their grade level. They need to understand the rationale and benefits to them and their students. They need to know the value of this goal to the entire school and all its programs.
4. Set timelines and due dates.
Ask recruits for suggested timelines for them to have information they can share. Maybe they recommend some baseline stats (where the kids begin) so in a few months they can show how far they’ve come. Maybe some video clips or quotes that you can build upon later as evidence of their enthusiasm for learning. Maybe they have a learning module that is during a certain month that is always a favorite that they want you to highlight.
5. Recognize and reward your helpers
Set up a plan to nurture these folks; recognize their efforts, and reward the outcomes as part of this year’s strategy.
As they make progress, be sure you acknowledge those participants. So, if a teacher provides the first interviews or quotes, express your gratitude and tell him/her how valuable their contribution is. Bring it up in a staff meeting and talk about why they are doing this and how it has long-term effects on all the staff.
Create opportunities to reward those who succeed at creating PR successes. Maybe it is a recognition during a staff meeting or a governing board meeting. Maybe it is a certificate from the superintendent, principal, or director with a candy bar, or a handwritten note of thanks describing their particular contribution. Small gestures like Starbuck’s gift cards go a long way in showing your appreciation for their help. It doesn’t have to be big, but the more you recognize their successes, the more participation you will see.
Follow steps 1-5 for each of the goals you’ve selected for this year’s PR strategy. If you only have time to implement one the first year, then pat yourself on the back and start there. In a couple of years, you will have accomplished much.
When to implement your school PR plan?
You can begin today by starting with the first step above. That first step will depend on your school’s mission and values and stated goals. Your PR strategy should be in line with your overall mission, supporting it at every turn. If it doesn’t, then either your overall mission needs to be reworked and updated or you need to reconsider your PR goals.
- Look at the school calendar and pencil in some dates to begin each phase listed above (even if they change) and then back out far enough to give you adequate lead time.
- Coordinate any school event that is already on the calendar with your selected goals. Are there some potential synergies? What about that school open house? Try to coordinate PR efforts during these events. Get them all on the calendar.
- Look at all your other avenues of communication and include your PR goals in each of those channels. That means the website becomes a primary hub of communication, and you can include regular news articles and updates as frequently as possible. Then, each time you add a news article, add some teaser text from the home page to the full article. Be sure to include photos with the article when possible and then be sure to link to your articles from Facebook, Twitter, and any other social media platform you use.
- Incorporate and inform any other channel or group that shares an interest in your goal, like the PTA, parent volunteers, community groups, staff, local preschools, city and chamber organizations, etc. Target your message appropriately to each of these groups so that you are focused on their needs (not yours). Consider, “How will they benefit from what I want them to know?” Craft your message with how this benefits them and you’ll see much more publicity and support.
Start building momentum now
Establishing a PR machine that rocks requires getting your stakeholders on board with the importance of getting your stories out. They all need to know what good stories look like. That might mean providing examples from other schools, at first. Then, as soon as possible, highlighting examples from within your ranks.
There are always lots of 'ah-ha' moments and enthused experiences when something difficult becomes understandable or easy. Have teachers record those moments and turn them into human interest stories. Interview parents for their perspective. They will be honored to discuss their child’s progress and the joy in their learning.
Gather testimonials from parents, alumni, staff, students, and community members. Create opportunities to collect these and use them everywhere—on the website, social media, videos, memes, marketing materials, etc. Consider holding events for students to serve others in the community and gather testimonials from those they serve. Talk to successful alumni and ask them who their favorite teacher was and what influence they had on their life. Asking good questions is the key to getting good testimonials. Just make sure they are real and sincere.
Think of school PR as “Performance Recognition” and you’ll be on the right track.
You can have everyone on your staff enjoying the sweet taste of effective public relations. Together, you and your staff feel a sense of pride in what you are accomplishing each day, and you will be building PR momentum that will grow into a solid reputation of trust and satisfaction. You will have more control over the stories others are telling about your school through channels like social media and word of mouth.
Take it from someone whose name is synonymous with success – Bill Gates – who once said, “If I was down to the last dollar of my marketing budget, I’d spend it on PR!”
Bonnie Leedy is the CEO of School Webmasters and leads a team that turns websites and school social media platforms into centers for effective communications, marketing, and public relations. You can reach her at Bonnie@SchoolWebmasters.com.