What is School Public Relations?
The NSPRA (National School Public Relations Association) professional definition is:
"Educational public relations is a planned and systematic management function to help improve the programs and services of an educational organization. It relies on a comprehensive two-way communications process involving both internal and external publics, with a goal of stimulating a better understanding of the role, objectives, accomplishments and needs of the organization. Educational public relations programs assist in interpreting public attitudes, identify and help shape policies and procedures in the public interest, and carry on involvement and information activities which earn public understanding and support."
Why School Public Relations?
If you ever need to explain to a school district why they need a school PR professional now more than ever, here's some information that may help:
- This is the media age - school communication needs have increased dramatically and become more complex. A school district needs a professional PR person to develop and execute its communication plans through both print/electronic media and face-to-face communication, and to handle relations with the multitude of media that call school districts weekly.
- Education is under attack - from taxpayers, business groups and others. A school district needs a professional school PR person to publicize the positive news about student/staff achievement and programs, and to develop a coordinated proactive, rather than reactive, approach that anticipates problems before they develop. If there is no positive communication from the school district, the critics' voices are the only ones that will be heard.
- The scope of successful school public relations has expanded greatly - from what in the past was mostly written communication, to a greatly increased need for face-to-face communication with the many publics in your community. A school district needs a professional school PR person to schedule community relations programming, Realtor orientations, breakfasts with Chambers of Commerce or clergy, and American Education Week open houses, to build informed support and solid community relationships.
Why Do You Need a School PR Professional?
Key Points About the Value of School PR Programming from NSPRA Leaders
Now that we are in the 21st century and the Age of Information, a school district needs a communications professional to manage communication strategies that are proactive for a school district, instead of reactive. School districts must make a choice to be an active player in their community, not a passive one of the past.
Having someone whose responsibility it is to be constantly looking at the messages we send our internal and external publics is invaluable to a public institution which depends on its community's support. Communications is part of everyone's job in a school district; however, someone has to be charged with the responsibility to manage the district's communications.
- Marsha Chappelow, Ph.D.
The ebb and flow of public opinion is critical to school districts. Just as most districts have personnel to manage the teaching and learning, human resources and business functions, it only makes sense to have someone responsible for managing the public opinion function of the organization.
School PR professionals monitor how the district is perceived by stakeholders and then can help implement strategies to improve public opinion. Any district that chooses not to employ at least one school PR professional is clearly leaving the public opinion function to chance.
- Bob Noyed, APR
Getting a Public Relations Program Started
At NSPRA we are often asked what is the best way to start a public relations program for a school district or a school. And even more frequently we are asked, "How can you get us out of this horrible public relations situation we are in?"
Getting started is often difficult because critics say you shouldn't use tax dollars for "puffery," "spin doctoring," and techniques to make individuals like board members and superintendents look good. And in these cases, NSPRA agrees with these critics.
Public relations needs to be in the public's interest. It needs to be grounded in solid two-way communication techniques and used as a vehicle to build trust, confidence and support for doing the best for all children in our schools. NSPRA firmly believes that school systems and schools have a Public Responsibility to tell parents and taxpayers how the schools are spending their money, and seeking their insight on helping the school district deliver high quality and an efficient educational program. The public has a right to know and be engaged in their schools. And they need someone in the schools trained in communication so they can get clear answers and guidance on how to work with their schools.
The following are ways some school systems have started PR programs:
- The school board forms a public relations or communications committee of the board. This committee, composed of board members and staff (central office and building representatives) begins looking at ways communication needs to be improved or enhanced in the school district. Such committees often seek input from NSPRA to demonstrate how other similar school systems are practicing public relations. A report is eventually made on why more needs to be done and it recommends ways of gradually implementing a school PR program.
- The Superintendent recommends that a study be completed, such as a communication audit, to assess what the communication needs of the system are. Normally, a professional communication consultant or firm conducts such an audit to give the system an outside and objective view of what needs to be done to start an effective program. NSPRA also offers this service to school systems and other education agencies.
- An upcoming bond issue referendum has increased the need for the school district to tell "its side of the story." Sometimes consultants are hired to assist a community committee to begin a communications effort. Soon it becomes apparent to all involved that such a communication effort can't just be for a referendum as impressions are made every day in a school system. Often, the effort begins with a consultant or a part-time person doing the public relations work. (Note: Be sure to hire the right consultant or part-time person; public relations calls for a professional trained in all aspects of communication. Make sure you hire someone with this appropriate background and or experience.)
- An issue, decision, or crisis have incensed and split your community, and you need help in putting the schools and community back together. Once again, consultants are often called in to assist with this situation and the eventual realization is that "if we had a proactive approach to public relations, we wouldn't have had this monster of a problem to begin with." This realization often leads to hiring or contracting with someone to plan and implement an ongoing and proactive communication for the school system.
Sometimes these new positions are split with other duties for the school system such as foundation coordinator, grants or policy writer, community education specialist and partnership coordinator.
Eventually, the position evolves into a full-time position because the need for more public relations grows when key leaders see the worth and value the public relations function brings to the school system or agency.
What Does/Can a School Public Relations Professional Do For a District?
A school public relations person handles these major functions:
- Public relations counsel - Provides public relations counsel, taking a proactive stance. Anticipates problems and provides solutions.
- Communication with internal and external publics - Handles all aspects of the school district's publications such as its external newspaper and internal newsletter, among others.
- Media relations - Writes news releases for all local newspapers/TV/radio; works to get media coverage of school district news. Serves as the media's liaison with the school district.
- Budget/bond issue campaigns - Stays closely attuned to the entire budget-making process and promotes community input. Develops budget/bond issue campaigns and publications.
- Communications planning/crisis communications planning - Writes/develops a communications plan for the district, detailing how to reach its internal and external publics; writes/develops a crisis communications plan of reaching publics, gathering the facts and dealing with media in a crisis.
- Public relations research, surveys, polls, informal research - Conducts formal and informal research to determine public opinion and attitude as a basis for planning and action.
- School district imaging and marketing - Promotes the district's strengths/achievements, and its solutions to problems.
- Student/staff recognition - Vigorously publicizes student and staff achievement; develops staff and retirement recognition programs.
- Information station for the district - Answers public and new resident requests for information; maintains extensive background files; keeps district's historical and budget passage records; and plans for school district anniversary celebrations.
- Public relations trainer - Provides public relations training to staff and PTA's in areas such as talking to the media, communicating in a crisis and recognizing that non-teaching staff are part of the school PR team.
- Community relations liaison - Serves as the district's liaison with community groups such as civic associations and service clubs; helps plan/publicize district's parent, senior citizen and community service programs. Develops ways to bring the community into the schools.
- Social media - Strategic implementation.
The "I's" are crucial - True communication, we know, is a two-way process of both inflow and outflow of information. A school PR person, in essence, helps keep both "I's" of the district open, and works to keep the public, in turn, both "I"nformed and "I"nvolved in the schools.
School Communication Benchmarking — Rubrics of Practice and Suggested Measures
Is your school communication program emerging, established, or exemplary?Find out with NSPRA’s School Communication Benchmarking — Rubrics of Practice and Suggested Measures.
- Assess the current state of your program against rubrics
- Focus on comprehensive, internal and parent/family communications
- Evolve and improve your program
- Assign quantifiable measures
- Track results against the status/evolution of your program
- Share and compare results with high-performing programs/districts; emulate their approaches
- Correlate your communications results with other key indicators of your district such as student performance results, staff engagement results, and more
- Support requests for additional communication resources
Free Communication E-Kit for Superintendents
Most superintendents fully understand the need and impact of an effective communication program for their districts. Yet some may need help starting a program as well as some direction for proving the value of the communication function to Board members, staff, and the community. That’s why NSPRA leaders have crafted this practical and brief resource to help you start and improve your communication efforts.
This Communication E-Kit for Superintendents is designed as a quick read for busy superintendents. It contains 15 topics designed to give busy superintendents a jump-start in starting a communication program. Read those that fit your needs. Be assured that you can find a great deal more about these topics from NSPRA.
Sample School Public Relations Policies
The Board of Directors believes it is the responsibility of each Board member, as well as each employee of the District, to actively pursue a two-way communications program that highlights the educational experiences in the city's public schools and promotes effective school/home/community partnerships.
The Board recognizes that citizens have a right to know what is occurring in their public school system; that Board members and all school administrators have an obligation to see that all publics are kept systematically and adequately informed; and that the District will benefit from seeing that citizens get all information, good and bad, directly from the system itself.
The Board affirms the following objectives:
- To maintain an effective two-way communication system between the District and its various publics which ensures:
- Dissemination of accurate, timely information about school policies, programs, procedures, achievements, decisions, critical issues;
- Interpretation of decisions and action;
- Elimination of rumors and misinformation;
- Programs and practices designed to provide an open climate which will elicit ideas, suggestions, reactions from the community and employees alike;
- An effective working relationship with the news media.
- To maintain a Public Information Office which will coordinate the District's communication efforts.
- To develop and maintain an organizational environment where all District staff members are aware that they share the responsibility for communication of school policies, programs and activities to parents, members of the educational and other communities.
- To maintain a written plan of communication policies and guidelines which will be available to employees and to the public upon request.
- To support the establishment of a Communications Review Committee to review and evaluate District-wide two-way communication efforts.
The Board of Directors of any school district shall have authority to authorize the expenditure of funds for the purpose of preparing and distributing information to the general public to explain the instructional program, operation and maintenance of the schools of the district:
Provided, that nothing contained herein shall be construed to authorize preparation and distribution of information to the general public for the purpose of influencing the outcome of a school district election.
Board members believe it is essential to the development of excellence in the education of youngsters that the maximum possible knowledge about the goals, achievements, activities and operations of the school district be conveyed to the students, staff and citizens.
The Board therefore reaffirms its commitment to openness in relationships with its patrons. The Board further believes that the citizens, as well as the staff and students, should be consulted and involved in the problem-solving and decision-making processes at as early a stage as possible. This involvement should be solicited actively and honestly through a wide variety of means.
Source: Tacoma (Wash.) Public Schools
Policies That Work: Public Information Programs
The public schools belong to and derive their strength from the people of the community. For a community to be supportive of its schools, the people must be knowledgeable of the aims and efforts of the District.
Therefore, the Board shall make every effort to:
- Keep the public informed about the policies, administrative operation, objectives, and educational programs of the schools.
- Provide the means for furnishing full and accurate information, favorable and unfavorable, together with interpretation and explanation of the school plans and programs.
- Adhere to a policy of openness and honesty in communicating with citizens, staff, the news media and other organizations.
- Make available the background material, which is sent to the Board of Education, to the public and news media through the Office of Communication Services; however, this excludes confidential material, to be defined as materials regarding negotiations, sale or purchase of properties, legal matters, and sensitive personnel matters.
- Establish and support appropriate and effective communication between the administration and other District employees.
- Have publications prepared as needed to keep citizens informed about educational services, achievements, needs, costs, revenues, and expenditures.
To ensure that citizens and staff have an opportunity to be informed about their schools, the Board establishes an Office of Communication Services which will, among other functions:
- Provide the appropriate liaison services between the District and the news media;
- Support, plan and execute appropriate direct communications between school and home;
- Assess the public's knowledge and attitudes about the schools, and use this information in planning a communications program;
- Assist in ensuring that communications plans and skills exist in each school and department;
- Assist with the publicity for all District programs as requested.
Source: NSPRA Resource Files