There was a time when public relations in a school consisted of passing on the names of honor roll students to the local paper. That time has passed. As a PR director, you likely know firsthand that schools today face challenges that are more complex and sensitive than ever before.
That means that many schools are now recognizing the value in a talented PR director. On one hand, that’s good news. It means PR directors are in high demand. In fact, according to Rich Bagin, the Executive Director at the National School Public Relations Administration (NSPRA), the PR director is so important at many schools that they serve as Chief of Staff for the district’s superintendent.
However, your talents and position are so valuable precisely because the job is so challenging. Between student safety issues, community concerns about curriculum and budget, and even parental concerns about their child’s well-being, it’s fair to say that you have your hands full.
How do you cope with these pressures? Surrounding yourself with an effective and supportive team is a great first step. It’s also important to have the right tools at your disposal. Your school website is often a school PR director’s closest ally because it can help you disseminate information quickly. It can also save you time and valuable resources.
The biggest growing challenges of a school PR director
Why has the public relations director’s job become more challenging than ever? There are many reasons, but here are the three big ones:
1) The next crisis is just around the corner.
Remember when a school crisis was nothing more than an outbreak of chickenpox or a bad lunch menu? Those days are long gone. Today schools have to deal with everything from student safety to cyber bullying to online communications by students and faculty.
One of the fastest growing challenges of a school PR director is addressing threats to student security. Whether the threat is real or fake, it’s your job to separate fact from fiction. In an event that threatens student safety, there’s tremendous demand for up-to-date information. There can also be a sense of urgency on the part of the media to put out information before it’s verified. In some cases, your words and message may be the only things keeping parents updated on the security of their children.
While that next crisis may be hard to predict, preparing for strategic crisis communications isn't. Put a plan in place to be able to react quickly and professionally.
2) Information travels fast.
We live in a time in which a 140-character message can be significant enough to change community perception forever. Once a message is out, there’s little time for slow-moving organizations to change the story.
Social media is a powerful phenomenon in our culture today, and it seems that schools are where this power is never more evident. From bullying to free speech violations, social media use in and around schools is becoming a monster that fortunately can be tamed. I think.
According to NSPRA, many schools make the decision to hire a PR director after being stung by a controversial issue or story that took on a life of its own. The NSPRA says that a controversial story can often take school administrators by surprise. As the issue snowballs in the media and online, it can split the community or substantially tarnish the school’s reputation. The school soon discovers that it’s nearly impossible to manage a story once the story has legs.
But social media can be a very powerful tool in the PR directors tool kit. Check out this recent webinar on How to Make the Most of School Social Media to Boost Engagement.
You have to manage the story and its effects before it even makes it to the public. Whether it’s a budget concern, a teacher or student behavior issue, or a student safety risk, it’s up to you to make sure the issue doesn’t irreparably harm the school’s standing in the community.
3) More than ever, schools need community support.
Schools have always had an interconnected relationship with the surrounding community. However, they now need community support in ways that they rarely did in the past.
Many public schools face the ongoing challenge of raising financing for operations. Rising costs, shrinking tax bases, and reduced state budgets have put districts in a cash crunch. That leads to bond initiatives to shore up funding. Educational levies are controversial in many towns. Taxpayer advocacy groups are often media savvy, well-funded, and extremely effective at turning the levy into a tax issue rather than an educational issue.
Again, the NSPRA says many schools don’t recognize the role PR can play in a levy initiative until the need is urgent. However, building community goodwill for a school doesn’t happen overnight. It requires a disciplined, continuous process of sharing the school’s achievements, successes, and positive stories with community members and media outlets. Public relations experts will tell you that it’s never too early to start the PR process in a levy initiative.
Private schools may not depend on ballot initiatives for financing, but they do need to attract students from the surrounding community. A PR director can be especially effective at engaging with local media to tell the school’s story. By highlighting school events, student accomplishments, and faculty recognition on a regular basis, the PR director can build a narrative within the local media that establishes your school’s reputation.
Of course, you can only be as effective as the tools at your disposal. Social media and online communications are a critical component of the public relations process because they allow for information to be disseminated quickly. Campus Suite’s content management system makes sharing information quick easy. You can highlight news and events with noticeable banners, share blog posts and announcements on social media, and easily update your site to recognize your school’s and students’ accomplishments.
What do you feel are your biggest communications challenges these days?
Marketing director and content strategist for Campus Suite, Jay’s a former school public relations specialist who’s helped businesses, schools and colleges use the power of web communications to improve their image, generate support, and optimize relationships. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.