Become a Member
Author: NSPRA Staff/Sunday, August 6, 2023/Categories: News
NSPRA is governed by an Executive Board composed of 12 officers, and four of those positions are up for election in 2023.
During the Annual Meeting and Celebration of Achievement at the NSPRA 2023 National Seminar in St. Louis last month, NSPRA President-Elect Candidate Heidi Vega, APR (pictured left), and Vice President for Diversity Engagement Candidate Janine Thorn spoke to attendees about both their vision for the future of the association and how they look forward to contributing as incoming 2023-24 members of the Executive Board. Along with South Central Region Vice President Candidate Jake Potter, APR (who was appointed in October 2022 to fill the remainder of the vacated South Central Region vice president position through September 2023), both Vega and Thorn were approved by acclamation of the board at the meeting, as permitted by NSPRA Bylaws in the case of uncontested races.
North Central Region Vice President Candidates Tracy Habisch-Ahlin and Terri McHugh, APR, both delivered candidate speeches for the only contested office of the 2023-24 election during the North Central Region Colleague Connections session at the Seminar. Association members in NSPRA's North Central Region — Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario — who hold a current professional membership will cast their vote via eBallot beginning Monday, Aug. 14.
Get to know all of the 2023 Executive Board candidates by reading what they have shared below about their professional backgrounds and thoughts on school public relations.
All candidates were invited to submit a brief biography and statements in response to the same three questions. Use the arrows below to read each candidate's responses.
Candidate biography (as submitted by the candidate):
Heidi Vega, APR, is currently the Director of Communications for the Arizona School Boards Association which serves all school board members, superintendents and 223 school districts across the state. Before that, she served as the Director for Communications and Community Engagement with the Deer Valley Unified School Districts for seven years. She has served in leadership roles for the Arizona School Public Relations, National School Public Relations and Council of School Boards Association Communicators which include serving as the 2021 NSPRA Vice President of Diversity Engagement and recently earned her second Copper Medallion Award for effective overall communications by ASPRA. She has been recognized as a “35 Under 35” award recipient and presented with the Front Runner award by NSPRA. She is also a veteran of the U.S. Air Force and a proud product of public schools.
How can school PR professionals best advance our role as communication leaders, demonstrate communication accountability and build understanding of communication as a core management function?
"School PR professionals are the backbone to the organization, and we must continue to be the strategic advisors to the leaders of that organization. In this position, it is easy to get lost in the tactical day-to-day work and putting out the fires along the way. We must continue to advocate for the seat at the table with leadership and position our work and expertise by connecting the work to the organizational mission and demonstrating accountability through measurable results. At times, we must ask “hard” questions, anticipate, analyze and interpret public opinion, engage our communities, and ensure the work we do for public schools is purposeful, measurable and proactive."
What do you consider to be the major communication challenges facing districts/education organizations today, and what qualifications, skills and expertise will you offer as an Executive Board member to help NSPRA support members in addressing these issues?
"The major problems I have seen across the country that districts and educational organizations face seem to have commonalities in social and political barriers, understaffing and high employee turnover rates and uncertainty or distrust in the public school system. I’ve experienced both roles, in a school district and now, at the school boards association. Both positions face similar challenges, one at the local community level and the other at the state level. What I have learned in my experience is that people, whether it’s parents or elected school board members, want to feel supported in their roles. That’s the power in communications and engagement. We as PR professionals hold that power and do great things with it when you begin to listen, engage and connect with people. Both experiences have helped me understand the roles and challenges we continue to face, and how to support our NSPRA members by listening, engaging and connecting with them."
NSPRA’s mission is to be the leader in developing professionals to communicate strategically, build trust and foster positive relationships in support of their school communities. How will you support this mission as an NSPRA leader?
"Part of the role of an NSPRA board member is to ensure the work the board does always strategically aligns with the mission. I will support the mission by being at the board table and working with the entire board as a unit on decisions that will support all members. Member engagement and other relevant metrics are important to measure what areas of the association are effective and what gaps, if any, may need to be identified and adjusted. A big part of serving on the board is to be the eyes and ears of members across the country and bring issues, concerns, needs and accolades to the board and discuss what our members need and how to best support them as an association. NSPRA leaders represent all members, whether you are from a small or rural district, large and urban district, whether you are a one-person department or oversee a staff of five, it doesn’t matter. NSPRA is your association."
I have served as a school PR professional for 15 years. During my tenure as the Hudson School District’s Assistant Director of Community Relations, I have taken a progressively more active role within the Wisconsin School Public Relations Association (WSPRA) state chapter. I currently preside as WSPRA’s past president following my terms as Vice-President, President-Elect, and President.
My journey to school communications is unique. In 2006, I was elected to the Hudson School District Board of Education. I came into that role as a small business owner and children’s advocate. My work experience, education, and commitment to including all voices at the table, especially for those individuals or groups most impacted by a decision, have provided me with a strategic and systems-oriented lens in leadership and school communications. As the leader of a one-person school communications shop, I have lived all the roles of a school PR professional. I have led multiple capital and operational referendum campaigns, two rebranding campaigns, website redesign, designed and implemented community engagement initiatives related to school start times, long-term facility planning, strategic planning, and our high school learning for the future goals. I am responsible for the district's school safety preparedness and response plans in coordination with emergency response and the WI Office of School Safety. I support district and school leadership with their communications and serve as an advisor, strategist, and systems thinker. Additionally, I coordinate and promote our district’s internal and external communications. As with many individuals who serve as a one-person shop, I also supervise all of our community services programs, including Community Education and Before and After-School Child Care.
"School PR professionals are uniquely positioned from a systems perspective to consider internal and external stakeholder needs. It is at our core to engage various stakeholders and provide timely and transparent information. We demonstrate the impact of strategic communication with stories on school performance, student outcomes, and district mission and goals. Our stories validate the community’s investment. Understanding data and presenting it in a way that is easily understood by the broad community is essential. Careful consideration of feedback and evaluating our efforts demonstrates accountability. Attention to strategic communication and engagement paired with data positions school PR professionals as trusted advisors and champions of our school community."
"I believe there are three primary communication challenges facing school districts and education organizations: a commitment to building public trust, community discord, and a commitment to telling our story with honesty and transparency. Trust is a critical currency for school districts. When families, staff, and community members trust a school district, they are more likely to be engaged in the educational process, support district initiatives, and feel confident in the district’s ability to make good decisions.
Nearly ten years ago, I participated in the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) training program on planning for effective public participation and their Emotion, Outrage and Public Participation course. The framework for public participation provided by IAP2 has guided all of my community engagement efforts since. Community engagement that is grounded in building trust, providing stakeholders a voice in decisions that impact them as much as possible, and developing a common understanding of goals. With this foundation and common understanding, I have experienced improved dialogue on contentious issues. I would use this same framework of engagement as an Executive Board member."
"Firstly, I would strongly advocate for school PR professionals to participate in NSPRA training and professional development. NSPRA has provided me with valuable insight into strategies and new skills for advancing my practice within my school district. I see NSPRA focused on staying ahead of the curve by maximizing the collective knowledge of its members.
Connection is what keeps me coming back. I want every member to say “these are my people” when they interact with NSPRA. So many school PR professionals do their work in isolation. Many do not have a team to bounce ideas off of or get support during a difficult time. NSPRA and each of our state chapters provide this much-needed mentorship and friendship!"
After spending eight years as a newspaper reporter and editor, I switched careers and became a school public relations professional. In the past 24 years in school PR, I have developed and executed numerous strategic communications programs for internal and external audiences and also have had a variety of experiences responding to issues I didn’t plan for, including school crisis situations and media storms. In 2008, I achieved Accreditation in Public Relations from the Universal Accreditation Board and currently serve as a member of the NSPRA APR Committee. I have held several leadership roles for the Illinois chapter of the National School Public Relations Association, including one term as the Illinois chapter president, and received the Illinois Distinguished School Communicator Award in 2011. I have been widely recognized at the state and national levels receiving Golden Achievement Awards for strategic public relations from both the Illinois chapter as well as NSPRA. I have also presented at state, national and local levels on topics including web site design, media relations, social media, positive culture building, recruitment, legal issues, strategic communication and crisis communications.
"People don’t know how much they need you, until they need you. Individually, communication leaders can get a seat at the table by providing solutions to problems. For example, if the district is struggling to recruit staff, the communications professional can develop a strategic communications plan and request a meeting with their superintendent to explain the plan’s objectives and how they will hold themselves and the campaign accountable during the evaluation phase.
As a national association, we can build up our members, so they feel confident in addressing their leadership team. We cannot simply tell school boards and superintendents that they need a communication professional on their leadership team. Instead, our first step must be supporting our members through mentoring and professional development. In this step, members are developing both the skill set required as well as the confidence to approach their supervisors. In addition, we can continue to demonstrate the value of communication by highlighting successful campaigns in the publications of other national and state school associations, such as NSBA and AASA, and presentations at their conferences."
"One of the biggest communication challenges is competing against the growing negativity directed at schools. From people speaking at meetings during COVID to parents calling for more control over curriculum, we are living in a tumultuous time. Yet, this is also the era of innovation. Schools are offering more curricular and extracurricular opportunities than ever. Students are learning about prioritizing their well-being and caring for others. Students have opportunities to be heard and to lead.
Our charge is to fight this negativity through positivity. My district has done extensive training in creating a positive culture, something I shared at the NSPRA Conference in Virginia. The research shows that a positive, engaged brain improves performance, pride and culture; helps retain our best employees; and deepens student, family and community relationships. The communications team is involved in creating this culture not only through the stories we tell, but by listening and modeling a positive attitude. In my years as a journalist, I learned the craft of storytelling. In my years as an APR, I learned the importance of research, planning, implementation and evaluation. However, those skills pale in comparison to what I learned about creating a positive culture and spreading happiness and optimism in our schools and beyond."
"I joined NSPRA and its Illinois Chapter in my first year in school PR. These organizations and their members provided me an education, mentors, a support system, leadership opportunities and friendship. As a veteran PR professional, it’s my turn to give back by serving on NSPRA’s APR Committee, as a presenter at both the state and national level, and as a mentor to many school PR professionals.
In Illinois, I have served on the INSPRA Board in many capacities, including president and currently co-vice president of programming. We use data from our annual membership survey, as well as surveys following each program, to design professional development based on feedback from members. As a PR association, it’s important to model the RPIE process while encouraging our members to use that same process in their work.
Serving on INSPRA prepared me to be a successful regional vice president. We have rural districts with one to two schools and a superintendent or secretary responsible for communications. We have suburban districts with one- or two-person PR teams. We also have large, urban unit districts, such as Chicago Public Schools, with robust communication teams. I learned to listen first, so I can best advocate for members and I pledge to do the same if elected North Central Region Vice President."
Jake Potter, APR, was appointed to fill the vacancy of South Central Region vice president and serve the remainder of Melissa McConnell's term, who resigned from the position to accept a role on the NSPRA staff. This position's term began on Oct. 1, 2022, and will conclude on Sept. 30, 2023, when the next regular election for the role will be held.
Jake serves as Director of Public Relations and Outreach Services for the Leavenworth Unified School District (USD 453) in Leavenworth, Kan. The suburban school district rests on the outskirts of the Greater Kansas City metropolitan area, provides Pre-K through 12th grade educational services to approximately 3,700 students, and boasts the first public high school in the State of Kansas (1865) and the nation’s oldest student JROTC program.
Jake is entering his 14th year in the district where he has led the public relations department, including strategic planning efforts, successful passage and delivery of bond initiatives, and creation and oversight of a summer student PR internship program. Prior to School PR, Jake worked for a public relations firm in the KC area providing strategic communications counsel and support to a variety of public sector agencies and organizations.
Jake has served the Kansas School Public Relations Association (KanSPRA) in various capacities since 2016, including as president for the 21-22 school year. He is most proud of the chapter’s Mark of Distinction designation earned and awarded in 2021 and 2022, and steady increase in total membership during that time. He has presented at chapter, statewide, and national conferences, including the NSPRA National Seminar and National Association of School Boards.
"School PR professionals can best advance the role of communications by earning and maintaining a seat at the executive table within their organization. This means being an active and tireless advocate for the communications role respective to the school system.
The best way to demonstrate the importance of communication as a core management function is to be seen and heard as a selfless and consummate professional, with a willingness to offer insights and perspectives to further the organizational mission and maintain trust and connectivity throughout the school community.
There are also endless opportunities to grow professionally, and learn from one another on a daily basis. Nowhere is that more evident than by the NSPRA professional development calendar which provides thought leadership, and connection to resources and subject matter expertise, throughout the year. I would strongly encourage that School PR professionals model a commitment to lifelong learning, and take full advantage of NSPRA’s member benefits."
"I believe that the challenges facing public education are maintaining a positive attitude, with high levels of energy focused on highlighting student and staff achievement, at a time when external threats require energy in the form of responses to coordinated attacks on education. Working to identify common ground amongst polarized audiences, maintaining a best-for-kids mindset, and serving as a trustworthy steward of the school district are the keys to thriving during this challenging climate.
Another key challenge is working creatively and effectively to recruit and retain high-quality educators and administrators, when working in schools can feel more adversarial and thankless than ever before.
As an NSPRA board member I am always willing and available to visit with members about these topics, or any others, and offer whatever assistance, referrals, or counsel I can provide."
"With complete and ongoing support of my school Superintendent, I have had an amazing experience serving on this year’s NSPRA board, and acquired a much deeper level of appreciation for all that takes place behind the scenes to provide high-quality professional development opportunities, and meaningful connections amongst those whose work is critical to School PR.
My district values the professional growth of our administrative team, and recognizes the opportunity to bring back new ideas and best practices through attendance at conferences and service on local, regional, state, and national committees and boards. I am an active member of the Kansas School Public Relations Association (seven consecutive school years of board service), and am committed to remaining an active member. As an NSPRA leader, I strive to be accessible and open to sharing all of the best practices, replocable successes, and avoidable missteps that can be learned from one another’s experiences.
As South Central Region VP, I have conducted chapter leader Zooms, visited regional or statewide conferences in Kansas, Missouri, and Texas (presenting at the TSPRA conference), and assisted Louisiana with their efforts to successfully petition for state chapter consideration.
I am hopeful to continue to build trust and positive relationships throughout the South Central region."
Janine Thorn is a lifelong learner who attributes listening skills as the vital factor in excellent communication and uses them to connect to people, learn, plan, share, and collaborate. Having never met a stranger, she attributes her interest in diversity, equity, and inclusion to her lived experiences and that of her grandmother, who felt denied education – growing up in the rural south of the U.S. with limited access to education materials, relying on the power of storytelling and rote learning to acquire an 8th-grade education. Janine has always been inspired by stories and developed a natural inclination to communicate diverse interests across intersectionality. Going beyond communication, she focused this career phase on applied practices that call people in (not out) of the process to improve systems and, ultimately, humanity.
"Staying connected to NSPRA and local chapters, sharing resources and information. Dedicating ourselves to being life-long learners and always remembering our time as students or parents and centering their needs along with that of the greater community. Throw in some poetry slams, podcasts and open mic nights across cultures to sharpen skills and learn something new."
"Amid declining enrollment and budget deficits, along with politicizing the teaching of historical facts in education – Empathy. Remembering our role as communicators in helping people understand and learn about something outside of their own point of view. Also, overcoming the seemingly blurred line of fact verses misinformation. Professionals must use the tools and techniques to educate our audiences. Modeling the Way with respect – and having the ability to disagree but not be disagreeable."
"Servant-leadership. Listening to members through developed and new channels to provide what is of interest to the membership. Being nimble, course correcting as needed and if something isn’t working, adjust and redesign."
About the NSPRA Executive Board
The Executive Board includes a president, president-elect, vice president for diversity engagement, seven regional vice presidents and two appointed vice presidents at-large. The president serves one year in office, and the president-elect serves one year in office before assuming the presidency. Regional vice presidents and the vice president for diversity engagement each serve a three-year term, while vice presidents at large each serve a two-year term.
While serving on the Executive Board, elected officers must fulfill their duties in accordance with NSPRA Bylaws. These duties may include:
Learn more about the Executive Board and annual elections.
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