Feature Article: Creating Effective Staff Ambassadors

Historic Start Date: 
Lyndon Johnson, the ultimate politician, said, “The best time to make friends is before you need them.” Forget “before.” Public schools need all the friends they can get — now! But even in the day of school web sites and regular e-mail bulletins to parents, it seems harder every year to make real connections with the community and help people appreciate all the good things going on in classrooms.

Learn From Krispy Kreme

How to tell your school’s story effectively? Take a lesson from Krispy Kreme doughnuts. The company does no advertising, but when they are preparing to open a shop in a new community, they put up signs inviting people to become Krispy Kreme ambassadors. Hundreds of folks receive information, T-shirts and coupons to give away. They’re out praising the product before a single doughnut has been sold!

If the general public can serve as ambassadors for Krispy Kremes, imagine what an effective selling job motivated employees can do for your schools! The beginning of a new year is the optimum time to make every staff member a PR ambassador. Research tells us that people learn and believe most in one-on-one situations with someone they trust. Every other form of communication lags behind personal contact. But too many districts have failed to utilize the potential ambassadors on their payrolls.

Who’s the number one source of information about education in most communities? Surveys say it’s the school secretary, followed by custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, classroom aides, teachers, principals, central office administrators and board members.

Surprised? Think about it — who talks with more parents every day, the secretary or the superintendent? Also, in many cases, more support staff than teachers and administrators live in the school community. For their friends and neighbors, they are the experts on education.

Ambassadors Feel Appreciated and Informed

Two things are necessary to create an effective cadre of school PR ambassadors. First, employees need to feel appreciated. Many surveys indicate that this rates ahead of a pay raise on the list of things employees want most. People who are dissatisfied on the job tend to complain to anyone who will listen.

One way of letting employees know you value and trust them is sharing information about everything going on in the district. This is good for morale and, ultimately, the district’s image. Not only teachers, but also your custodian answering questions in the barber shop and the cafeteria worker talking to her church friends need to be well versed about curriculum changes, the need for the tax increase and other hot topics.

Second, your staff needs to understand the importance of their role as ambassadors. Tell them that letting the community know about the good things going on in their schools benefits everyone — and that they are the people who can best do this through personal notes, phone calls and, especially, face-to-face conversations.

Instill the confidence to speak up politely with the facts when they hear someone criticizing schools unfairly. No school employee should sit quietly when someone in a group says that teachers are paid too much for working six hours a day, with a three-month vacation. Convince your staff they have the power to turn public opinion around.

Show Them How to Spread the Good News

Every full-time employee and substitute should attend in-service sessions on serving as PR ambassadors. Gay Campbell, APR, director of communications in the Everett (Wash.) School District, provides workshops that focus on what staff members say and — this is important! — how others hear it. For example, when staff complain that they need more supplies or their school is lacking in some other area, the public may view it as making excuses for not being able to do their job. Instead, staff should explain that there may be areas in which the community can help.

Brian Woodland, manager of communication services for the Peel District School Board in Mississauga, Ontario, has two favorite techniques to help the district’s 9,000 employees communicate effectively. First, he encourages each of them to be prepared to answer the question: “Why should I have my kid come to this school?”

Second, he suggests that all staff members have on the “top of their brain” three good things about their school to share at every opportunity. One effective way of ensuring this is to brainstorm “what’s right in our school” at staff meetings — sessions that include support staff. Encourage everyone to contribute, then pick three items to emphasize in every person-to-person contact during the coming month. Role-play how these facts can be easily worked into conversations with parents and other community residents.

Sometimes it’s important to reinforce the obvious. At student concerts and art shows, talk about the value of the arts to well-rounded youngsters. During conferences, remind parents that the basics are taught with an emphasis on how they’ll be applied in everyday life.

For parents, kids are the best source of school information. And what do most kids report they did at school today? “Nothing.” Suggest that teachers devote the last few minutes of the day to a discussion of “the most exciting thing we learned today” — sending home a class of mini-ambassadors.

(September 2001 It Starts on the Frontline)