School Public Relations: The Essential Ingredient to Student and School Success

About Proving the Value of School Communication . . .

Proving the value of effective two-way communication in our schools is why NSPRA’s leadership gave birth to its Communication Accountability Program (CAP) in 2004. It has been a focused effort to find the results and in some cases, authoritative opinions, of school leaders throughout the United States and Canada.

In some instances, proving and documenting the value of the communication effort is easy. The biggest scorecard, if you will, deals with the areas of financial elections and crisis situations. In most cases, when you win a finance election or effectively handle a crisis, the results are often due to effective communication programs.

We looked more into the research component of proving the value of our school communication programs. A survey completed by superintendents demonstrated just what they want from a communication program. And a survey of more than 43,000 parents in some 50 NSPRA school districts also found the content, delivery channels, and frequency preferred by parents in their communication with schools.

Another effort is collecting data on how the school communication program can be an accelerator for student achievement in our schools.

And finally, a benchmarking study has been completed and can be found in the updated publication, Rubrics of Practice and Suggested Measures. Get it from the NSPRA Bookstore.

    Do dig into all the following links as you begin to see just how valuable school communication is to the everyday success of our schools.

    Rich Bagin, APR
    NSPRA Executive Director

    Get Started Now

    Why should school districts and all school employees be held accountable for their communication success? The research leaves no doubt: The success of schools and programs — and all of the students that they serve — depend on outstanding communication by everyone.

    Sure, excellent schools need great teachers, dedicated administrators, safe facilities and responsive programs. But all of these components combined can fail to produce successful students and schools if the mix is missing one vital ingredient: the active involvement of parents and the community.

    And meaningful school communication is the essential catalyst to getting the kind of parental and community engagement students need to succeed.

    NSPRA and its members, representing nearly 1,700 school systems throughout North America, is committed to helping schools and communities achieve the solid communication foundation needed to support student achievement and success. NSPRA also seeks to help educators set standards for communication excellence and to be accountable for communication success system-wide.

    NSPRA’s Communication Accountability Project — supported by the tireless work of NSPRA members everywhere — collects research and resources to help educators build, run and assess school-communication programs that work.

    The information presented here can help you commit to and achieve the kind of communication excellence your schools and students must have.

    Please consider the information and ideas here carefully. Then commit to communication accountability in your schools. If you’re serious about helping your students achieve and your schools succeed, it’s a pledge you can’t pass up.
     


    Sections in this Article


    Consider the facts

    Effective, on-going, two-way communication is at the heart of successful schools that help students succeed.

    The research clearly underscores one straightforward concept: Students simply do better when parents and the community are involved with schools. Test scores climb. Remediation rates dip. Graduation rates improve. And everyone understands and values their roles in the success of the school enterprise.

    But solid communication is essential to creating the foundation for effective partnerships with parents and the community. Schools — and educators — need to carefully talk and listen as they build the collaborative environment that meaningful engagement needs to truly work.

    Parents too have very specific expectations for school communication. And those demands have been expanding as changing media and greater access to information-on-demand places more pressure on schools to be open, responsive and transparent. In an NSPRA survey of 50 school districts in 22 states, parents clearly stated a preference for direct communication from teachers, principals and school district leaders with a clear preference too on social and Internet-based media.

    The bottom line: Communication helps schools welcome outsiders in meaningful ways. It accommodates the diverse communication needs communities have. It identifies the meaningful ways in which everyone can take a stake in student achievement. And it provides the accountability framework for planning, monitoring and evaluating communication accomplishments and their links to student and school success.

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    Create a PR plan — and accountability — for everyone

    It’s a no-brainer that the path to communication accountability needs to be opened with a meaningful communication plan — based on solid research and grounded in measurable outputs.

    But plans are only words on paper unless everyone in the school system — from the board of education and superintendent on down — fully understands and takes responsibility for their unique communication roles.

    The typical tangible assets of a public relations effort — brochures, newsletters, web sites and more — all play important roles in disseminating key information. But successful communication involves both listening and talking — it interprets the schools for the communities and it interprets the communities for the schools.

    This is why it’s called public relations — information is important but relationships count. And perceptions sometimes matter more than facts.

    This is also why the personal communication of everyone in a school system — both listening and talking — is essential to communication success. The superintendent and district administrators, principals and program leaders, teachers and counselors, and support personnel in all departments need to be supported and assessed in their communication roles.

    The actions and words of everyone involved with schools create the images and forge the relationships that build the reputation of schools.

    It’s important to begin with a clear understanding of just what school public relations is — and is not: Public relations is not a spin process that papers over the bad and shines a spotlight only on the good. Public relations is, however, the process that assures the kind honesty and transparency in communication that supports meaningful, long-term working relationships.

    Committing to communication accountability is a marathon not a sprint. It’s not about the short-term gains that one-shot publicity efforts can sometime yield. It is about building honest, meaningful partnerships — that recognize the good and bad in a system — on the path to supporting student and school success.

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    Lead with a Vision for Communication

    Ask top search firms about the qualities communities look for in a superintendent and you’ll find leadership and vision — and the communication skills to make it happen — at the top of the list.

    The research supports the idea that communication accountability starts at the top and sets the standard of communication excellence for all employees throughout a school system.

    Interviews with top search firm executives, conducted by NSPRA, found communication skills as an important attribute often transcending through other essential skills, such as leadership, management, and maintaining successful relationships with board members, the community and employees.

    And superintendents seem to agree. NSPRA interviews with recent AASA Superintendents of the Year winners and finalists also documented that communication skills, and the direct links with leadership and vision, are at the top of the skill sets for successful superintendents.

    Jerry Weast, a veteran school superintendent for the Montgomery County (MD) Public Schools sums it up in his forward to the book, Why School Communication Matters:

    “As a superintendent for thirty-two years, I have learned that there are many ingredients for success but one stands out above the rest - great communication skills. You can have the most innovative reform plan around, but if you are not effective in communicating about that plan, it will fail. I have seen good superintendents who do not put a priority on communications forced from their jobs while less deserving superintendents who are better at the art of communications keep theirs. The simple reality of public education today is that superintendents must be outstanding educators and they must also be outstanding communicators. …

    “The bottom line is that creating a healthy environment for positive communications and outstanding student achievement must be part of our daily work. As much as administrators plan and work to ensure that a school is operating smoothly, the busses running on time, the teachers and students have what they need in the classroom, they must also integrate the work of communications in their daily life. In public education today, we need all the support we can get from parents, community and business leaders, elected officials, and others. We build that support through strong communications, by involving everyone in the process and keeping our eyes on the mission at hand - preparing our students for the world ahead.”

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    Listen to the experts

    Kathy Leslie, APR, president, Leslie Consulting and Associates

    “Ensure your planning process mirrors your communication/engagement vision. Never plan in isolation. Invite representatives of your stakeholder groups to participate in your communication/engagement planning process.”

    Pre-Planning:

    • Ask a small team of representatives to help you organize the planning process.
    • With the team identify a process that fits your district or school culture.
    • Ask them who the stakeholder groups are in your school/district.
    • Identify key trusted leaders in each group as well as connectors and critics.
    • Use a variety of invitation strategies including asking the team members to make personal contact inviting the people they have identified. Also employ written invitations, face-to-face invitations, second party invitations, and electronic invitations.
    • Invite as many people as your space will accommodate.
    • Provide childcare, snacks, and transportation.
    • Send easy to understand background information that will help participants know more about the issues.
    • Provide translation services for non-English speaking populations. Translate all materials developed and provide translations at all meetings.

    Planning:

    • Organize participants into stakeholder groups at tables of 6-8.
    • Ask what their hopes are for communication and engagement practices in their school or district.
    • Building on the identified hopes provide a short lesson on best communication and engagement practices.
    • Ask participants to identify what they think the key issues are in the school/district.
    • Ask what they want to know about those issues.
    • Ask what they need to know to help all students be successful in school.
    • Ask how they want to be informed.
    • Ask how they want to be engaged in addressing issues.
    • Ask what will they need to see/experience to know the school/district is communicating with them and engaging them in decisions, which affect them.

    Post-Planning:

    • Review all the information you have received and develop your strategic communication/engagement plan to reflect your stakeholder needs and your expertise. Align with your school/district priorities and goals.
    • Review the plan with the small pre-planning team; make any changes suggested.
    • Post plan on website or e-mail/mail it to planning participants.
    • Implement.

    Joe Krumm, APR, director of community and government relations, North Clackamas (Ore.) Schools

    “An Effective Two-Way Communications Program generates enthusiasm and energy. It is the catalyst for relevant, effective initiatives that contribute to the bottom line of student success. It builds ownership in the community for the challenges we face, and in turn, develops partners who work with the schools to meet the basic and advanced needs of kids.”

    Jacqueline Price, NSPRA past president and retired assistant superintendent, Capistrano (Calif.) Unified School District

    “The school PR professional is the one single individual in the school system who is uniquely positioned to influence key decision makers to consider the points of view all key constituent groups, internally and externally. While this is not always easy to do, it is critical to the credibility and effectiveness of the Superintendent and Board. It frequently requires telling them what they need to know and not merely what they want to know. The PR professional is in essence the social conscience that every educational institution needs to survive in today’s marketplace.”

    Jeff Nash, executive director of Turning Point Solutions, Inc. and School Administrator

    “I once asked my all-time favorite superintendent for a quote that I could use on an award application. Expecting a very routine mention of my department’s work as the district mouthpiece, his actual response forever changed my approach to school communications. He admitted his dependence on us to be the eyes and ears of the district!”

    “Up to that point, I focused entirely on what was said or written. However, for the past dozen years, I have accepted the challenge of constantly measuring the pulse of my community, legislators, employees and all other entities. I even began producing for him a periodic ‘Eyes and Ears’ report containing observations and "word on the street" tidbits that I thought he needed to know.”

    “If a communications plan is going to bring success, then it must include strategies for gathering information. Outgoing communications are dangerous if not grounded in research. Take the initiative to be the eyes and ears for your superintendent, your district and your community.”

    Gay Campbell, APR, C & M Communications of Washington

    “In this world of over-communications, we all too often see the results of unplanned, off-message statements that wreck havoc on good intentions and eventually take on a life of their own. School systems cannot afford to be ravaged by negative messages rapidly replicating themselves on Twitter, You Tube and other social media. A communications professional who truly understands messaging and other intricacies of communications is no longer an option. It is a necessity.”

    “A strategic, data-based communications plan is your blueprint for building unwavering community dedication to supporting the success of every child who enters that community’s schools. In this news-every-minute world, building and carrying out an effective communications plan requires a communications professional.”

    Richard C. Thornton, APR, CEO of Global Communications, Louisville, Kentucky

    “Superintendents want to communicate to those key stakeholders in their community and may reach for the ol’ shotgun and send out a newsletter or get on Facebook and “hope” to reach everyone. Usually, that is a waste of time, ineffective and hoping for the best. A better path is to develop a public relations program using your public relations professional that is based on research. Who needs communication and how do they like to receive it? The research will target areas of need, reduce costs and prove more effective. Follow-up evaluation of any communications can prove the district’s efforts are making a difference or show a course correction might be needed. This research-based PR program will evolve into various public relations plans that come with focused direction, focused techniques and are custom-designed for those stakeholders discovered in need. Public Relations Programs will most likely change depending on annual or ongoing evaluations of the multiple plans developed.”

    Frank Kwan, communications director, Los Angeles County Office of Education

    “Having a public relations plan gives us the ability to be proactive, and respond to situations with a focused and coherent message. Building positive public perception is an ongoing everyday process that involves the entire district working from a comprehensive plan. This is particularly critical during a crisis or emergency, when communication makes or breaks a district and its administration.”

    Ann Houston, APR, community relations specialist

    “A communications plan solidifies the goals and strategies desired by an organization. By going through the process of using information and data to determine need/gaps, visualizing and writing down desired outcomes and planning for evaluation methods to determine the level of success or failure is a tangible means of bringing wishes, hopes and dreams into a do-able reality. If ‘it’ is written down by the team investing in the plan, the odds are greatly increased that ‘it’ will happen.”

    “Only by hearing and knowing of issues as they develop or are anticipated by management can a PR director effectively advise and develop communications strategies of conveying messages and information to targeted and/or concerned publics that will be carried out. One example is how to prepare information and reach the 54 brand new legislators, due to term limits, who will be making decisions that affect our system, and how to reach the them in a manner they will be most receptive.”

    Jim Dunn, APR, president, Jim Dunn and Associates

    “A PR plan brings order and structure to the chaos of public relations. It directs my efforts to measurable and attainable goals, forces me to work ‘big-picture,’ and helps other people understand my role in education. We have been able to put the first things first. We have been able to look into the future and respond to the important things while we take care of day-to-day issues. It provides the school board and public with a clear picture of what we are trying to do and how effective two-way communication benefits the public, teachers, and most important, the students.”

    “You will not succeed anymore with a good old boy system, no matter how talented and dedicated, running the school system. It no longer works in any other organization - young people will not tolerate it, and parents cannot be bullied. Learn why every major corporation has a communications officer sitting in an equal seat of power at the table where big decisions are made.”

    Patti Caplan, APR, former director of public relations, Howard County (Md.) Public School System

    “An organized public relations/communications plan ensures that a school district gives targeted attention to building relationships with all stakeholder groups. It also provides a process for strategic communications and a means for ensuring consistency of message. The PR director can counsel school officials and boards about the value of building relationships and the most effective ways to involve various stakeholder groups in decision-making. Something as simple as making sure all appropriate stakeholder groups are represented on committees can make a big difference in whether the outcome is accepted or meets with resistance.”

    “In this day and age, school districts cannot afford to have at least one position dedicated to communications. For public schools to survive, we must know what our communities value and be able to show them how their values are reflected in the work of the schools. Open, two-way communication is critical to maintaining public relationships. Using a variety of sources and strategies enhances a school system’s ability to communicate effectively and thoroughly. Someone in the district must have responsibility for this function if it is to be strategic and effective.”

    Gretchen Haas-Bethell, executive director of communications, Union Public Schools, Tulsa, Okla.

    “Our communications plan serves as a roadmap for building and maintaining positive relationships with our students, employees and patrons. Our crisis communications plan offers a comprehensive means of gathering and disseminating important information needed during natural and man-made emergencies.”

    “The success of any school system depends almost entirely on the relationship and support it builds with its patrons and employees. Strong relationships and support don’t just happen. They are achieved by a conscious effort and a deliberate plan that includes continued research, action and evaluation. Formalized communication is a full-time job. It is an investment that reaps both tangible and intangible benefits. Ironically, those benefits are not fully appreciated until they are lost. Public relations professionals are a powerful asset to most any organization, but especially to school systems.”

    Gary Marx, president, Center for Public Outreach

    “A public relations program should provide research, thinking, counseling, and services that help shape the organization to meet the needs of the environment. At the same time, the program should work toward shaping the environment to meet the needs of the organization.”

    “Everything starts with relationships, including relationships among people and relationships among ideas. It is not just a matter of ‘getting our story out’ or ‘making the boss look good.’ Public relations has been diminished by making ‘PR’ the operative term. The result has been that ‘PR’ has often become synonymous with corporate arrogance and cover-ups. We need to emphasize both words. We need to be concerned about the public’s interest and to build relationships...again, among both people and ideas.”

    Jennifer Reeve, former director of communications, Colorado Association of School Boards

    “It helps forge a vital connection between the community and its schools and helps create an environment of support that is necessary for student achievement. I don’t work for a school district, however, if I did, I would say that it connects the district’s public relations efforts to the district’s overall mission and goals.”

    “The PR director can play a very important role in just getting the outside community to the table. Good PR can help bring voices in that don’t often get heard. The biggest barrier is always helping people understand what PR is and is not and that it is a research-based science, not just fluff.”

    Rick J. Kaufman, APR, executive director of community relations, Bloomington (Minn.) Public Schools

    “Though often overlooked by school district leaders, pr and communications plays an incredibly important role in helping to position the school district in the community. Communication efforts beyond newsletters and brochures must be an integral part in the everyday operation of a school district in order to achieve success, acceptance and support of the community.”

    “From time to time the barriers have been superintendents and Boards of Education who do not understand the value of public relations and communications, and therefore do not accept the strategic work, that is so critical to the success of schools. I overcame it by working with principals and other school-based folks who are closest to kids and parents. Principals can’t live without us and we’ve done everything to ensure our success by helping principals, schools and departments.”

    “For those without pr programs in place, I would use examples - and there are so many from across this country — of how successful school public relations and communications programs have helped schools earn the trust, support and involvement of communities. I would also show how communications has saved schools and districts from incredible embarrassment as a result of crisis, and how communications and engagement has helped school districts become the ‘go to’ school or district in an era of ever-increasing choice.”

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    Get Involved now

    NSPRA is dedicated to helping members make the most of their school public relation investments. NSPRA membership gives school executives access to the largest network of leading school-communication practitioners in North America. Its annual seminar spotlights new information and research on best practices. Its publications offer support on a broad range of school communication issues. It services, such as communication audits, give school leaders real-world advice on building school communication initiatives that work.

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