The role of school public relations is to maintain mutually beneficial relationships between the school district and the many publics it serves. Each school district has its own unique way of carrying out this role, but there is one common element of all successful public relations programs: they are planned.
A well-thought-out public relations plan will help ensure that a school district carries out its mission and meets its goals with the support of its staff and community. But where do you start? This tip sheet, developed from the resource files of the National School Public Relations Association, provides a basic framework process for developing a district public relations plan.
The four-step public relations process
Exemplary public relations programs follow this basic four-step process:
- Research - up front analysis on where the district stands in regard to all publics it wishes to reach
- Action plan - developing public relations goals, objectives and strategies that go hand-in-hand with the district's overall mission and goals
- Communicate/Implement - carrying out the tactics necessary to meet the objectives and goals
- Evaluate - looking back at actions taken to determine their effectiveness and what changes are needed in the future
Keeping these four basic public relations tenets in mind, you can follow this step-by-step process in developing a public relations plan for your school district.
Public Relations Planning Process
Use a variety of assessments. Begin by meeting with the superintendent and school board to discuss their priorities for district public relations objectives. Know the district mission and goals and be prepared to discuss how your program can help achieve those goals.
Internal and external research. Before structuring the plan you must be aware of where the district stands in the eyes of both staff and the community. There are a variety of questions to answer: Who are our publics? What are our publics' overall perceptions of our schools? What "hot issues" are circulating among staff and community? What issues affecting other school districts may soon be coming our way?...the list goes on and on. Base your research on your district mission and goals and use several methods. Tactics to consider: national studies, census data, telephone logs, media reports, interviews with community opinion leaders, focus groups, written or telephone surveys. (More information about research and strategic planning are posted under the Research tab.)
Develop public relations goals and objectives. Thinking first and foremost about facilitating achievement of district goals, develop short-term and long-term public relations goals to accomplish. It is advisable to develop these with input from a committee representing board, staff, parents and outside community members. Remember, to make the objectives timed and measurable so you will know if you achieved them.
- Example: By the end of the school year, 75 percent of the district's teachers will be involved in projects to improve teacher/parent relations.
Identify target publics. These "targets" are the groups of people that need to be reached in order to achieve the goals. Primary publics are those most important to achieving goals. In schools, they are often students, staff and parents. Secondary publics are those who could be reached if money or time permit, or those who are indirectly reached by public relations tactics.
Identify desired behavior of publics. This is a critical step! In order for the plan to be successful, you must decide what you want the program to do. Do you want to provide information? Or do you want reinforce or change the behavior of certain publics? These questions must be answered before tactics are created.
Identify what is needed to achieve desired behavior. Using research data, decide what actions must take place to create the behaviors you desire. For example: You could find out by taking attendance that only 50 percent of the parents at your school attend the Fall Open House. The desired behavior is to increase this number. A follow-up written survey could help you identify the reasons 50 percent do not attend. Then you can decide what actions to take to change this percentage.
Create strategies and tactics for reaching publics. Strategies are overall procedures, like developing a media kit that provides general information about the school district. Tactics are the actions that must be taken to carry out the procedures, like writing the press release or printing the folder for the district media kit.
Put your plan on paper. This is where you develop the budget, create a timeline and assign responsibility for all strategies and tactics.
Implement the plan. After management/board approval, put your plan into action. Keep your committee involved, and prepare to refine along the way.
Evaluate your efforts. Using the same methods you used in the research phase, evaluate your plan. First, evaluate the planning process itself: what worked and what didn't. Continue to evaluate your program as it is implemented to determine what revisions may need to be made. Finally, measure your goals and objectives to determine whether you have reached them.
(Source: Jennifer Reeve, APR, Director of Communications, Colorado Association of School Boards)
Sample School PR Job Descriptions
Mesa Unified School District #4
Position Title: Director III
Division: Educational Services
Work Year: 12 Months
Department: Community Relations
Location: Administration Center
Salary Schedule: Administrative
General Statement Of Responsibilities:
The Department of Community Relations provides communication/public relations services to the district, each department and school. The director functions as a communications coordinator during emergencies on district or school levels, establishes in-service training sessions, produces components for specific programs and activities and publishes a newsletter for school district patrons periodically. The department publishes an employee publication on a regular basis.
- Serves as information liaison between the total school system and the community at large, represents the district within various community organizations.
- Sets annual objectives for and evaluates the district's community relations program, to include budget planning for meeting those objectives.
- Serves as liaison person between the district and the news media and supervises the production and distribution of news releases.
- Serves as district spokesperson in areas of sensitivity or controversy.
- Cooperates with district administrators and other staff members, as appropriate, in publicizing and promoting performances, exhibitions, displays, dedications or special programs sponsored by the schools and open to the public.
- Provides professional public relations counsel and assistance to the administration, Governing Board, schools, parent groups and student groups.
- Oversees the writing and production of the employee newsletter.
- Prior to final publication, reviews and edits all district publications which will be disseminated to the general public.
- Recommends innovative avenues of communication for external and internal audiences.
- Solicits feedback through formal and informal means on activities, products and purposes of the community relations program and the school district in general.
- Develops and maintains accurate records of the district's public relations program.
- Provides logistical support for all meetings of the Governing Board.
- Expedites responses to inquiries and complaints received by the department from citizens, news media and school personnel.
- Conducts recognition programs for employees and students \
- Coordinates and manages city, state and national campaigns and programs.
- Conducts information campaigns for district elections.
- Researches and writes articles and speeches for the Superintendent and Governing Board.
Position Title: Director of Community Relations
- Provides professional assistance in the development of various publications (brochures, newsletters, letters, information bulletins) for school and departments.
- Provides in-service training as required on public and community relations.
- Performs other tasks as assigned by the Superintendent.
- Bachelor's degree in public relations, mass communications, or equivalent experience
Professional experience in a full-time public relations position
- Working knowledge of internal and external public relations programs
- Mastery of communications skills
- Understanding of the importance of two-way communication
- Experience in planning, implementing, evaluating, budgeting and personnel management
- Good health, physical stamina, fitness and vitality
- Accreditation by the National School Public Relations Association or Public Relations Society of America preferred, but not required
- Evidence of adherence to the code of ethics of the public relations profession
Supervision Received: Superintendent of Schools
Supervision Given: Community relations specialist and secretary to the director
Sample School PR Job Description
Job Title: Communications Specialist
- Bachelor's degree in PR, communications or related field.
- Two years of related experience in public relations and/or media work.
- Previous experience working with public schools preferred.
- Knowledge of the unique district community.
- Excellent verbal written and interpersonal communication skills.
- Proficiency with current technology for performance of duties; including graphics design and publication/print software.
- Excellent analytical and critical thinking and judgment skills a must.
- Disseminate information to the public and school district staff.
- Evaluate and coordinate requests for community use of facilities, as well as approval of event promotional materials.
- Serve as editor/writer for district web site, newsletters and other publications
- Generate newsletter stories
- Coordinate layout, design and production of web site, newsletters and other publications.
- Serve as communications liaison between the media and the district. Prepare and distribute news releases, arrange media interviews and conferences and respond to requests for information
- Photograph district programs and events for publications and slide shows.
- Determine appropriate communications for target audiences.
Source: Ohio School Boards Association, California School Boards Association, and North Penn (Pa.) School District
What's Right With Our Schools
Forget about the "good old days" that never were. We've got plenty to be proud of.
It can happen just about anywhere these days: the supermarket checkout line, the stands at a Little League game, or the orthodontist’s waiting room. It happened recently for me at my ten-year-old’s soccer game.
A cluster of "soccer moms" (the kind of folks that some pollsters claim were instrumental in the last presidential election) were chatting about schools and how they "just aren’t as good as they used to be." A few grandparents also jumped on the bashing bandwagon, which prompted me to shed my "Clark Kent" image and change into an aggressive, high-flying champion of what’s right with today’s schools and the educators who serve them.
I hit them with some of my best shots:
- Schools are better than ever and scores prove it;
- Public education is a real bargain, even for senior citizens;
- Schools do more for all children than ever before; and
- Schools are the best and safest places for children to be.
I also asked three questions, which normally knock the wind out of school-bashers’ sails.
- How do you know what you are saying is true? Answers normally fall into the range of "I heard it on a talk show," to a neighbor’s comments, to a single unresolved personal experience. Most negative comments typically are based on a local grapevine fertilized by media attacks on two critical issues of public education—achievement and money.
- When was the last time you were in school to see learning in action? The bottom-line answer to this question is that most people have not witnessed the positive, daily learning that is going on in our schools. Many of our harshest critics have not been in a public elementary school for many years — even decades. However, some parents who do participate in our schools have not been given the opportunity to see meaningful learning taking place. That’s our fault, and we have to get better at providing those opportunities.
- How can you talk about your schools if you don’t know what you are saying is true, or you haven't even visited them to see what the truth is?
The gossip at Saturday morning soccer games may never be the same, but I feel better about standing up and shooting down unsubstantiated attacks on my local schools. The real tragedy of public education these days is that too many of us who know the truth, and have witnessed great learning taking place, remain silent while schools are being bashed.
I realize that schools are not perfect and that some of the criticism rings true. But we need to respond to those criticisms by involving our communities in an effort to fix the problems that do exist. A community should be known by the schools it keeps, and to criticize them without offering solutions is a get-bad-quick approach that can eventually result in lower property values, higher taxes, and aborted business and community growth. Not a nice place to live.
In my opinion, the time has come for principals, teachers, and other school leaders to lead the way in speaking up on behalf of education and the future of our nation. We’ve all heard the story about the teenage clerks at McDonald's who couldn't make change when lightning shorted out their registers. True? Who knows, but it sure convinced many people that schools were not teaching the basics. We have to counter such canards by sending messages like these to your communities:
Schools are among the safest places kids can be.
Last year, four shooting incidents in schools and 11 resulting deaths produced a 700 percent increase in the reporting of school-related shootings. But there was actually a 30 percent decrease in these incidents. While every child's death is an unacceptable disaster, our critics need to realize that every two days in America 11 children die from family violence, abuse, or neglect. The likelihood of violent death in school is far less than in the workplace, where each year almost a million people become victims of violent crime.
Schools are better than they used to be.
One of my favorite anecdotes is a New York Times story which noted that, "A large majority [of incoming college students]...could not identify such names as Abraham Lincoln....Some students believed that George Washington was president during the War of 1812...and St. Louis was placed on the Pacific Ocean, Lake Huron, the Atlantic Ocean." Sounds like today's typical bashing, doesn’t it? But guess what — this New York Times story was published in 1943! So maybe the schooling that some are yearning to return to was not quite as good as people remember it.
Today’s test scores, by most accounts, prove that our students are learning more, taking many more advanced classes, and are better educated than ever before. More students that ever are taking national tests and showing improvement. Almost a third of those taking the SAT in 1997 were minority students — up from 22 percent just ten years ago. These students were virtually invisible in the "good old days."
Today's schools also attempt to meet the needs of special education students. In the "good old days," these children were given very little attention, but now we have learned ways to help make them contributing members to our society.
Today, more students are staying in school longer and graduating than ever before. And many more are pursuing education beyond high school. Our brightest students continue to do extremely well in tests, in colleges, and in life. And although critics claim that we don't stack up well in international competition, respected researchers like David Berliner and Gerald Bracey tell us differently.
The bottom line is that schools are much better today than they were in the past. One of the better ways to prove how much your students are achieving is to have the media and community leaders sample a standardized test, and see how well they fare. That should be an eye-opener.
Today’s schools offer value to all tax-payers.
I don’t know anyone who likes to pay taxes. However, when you put local public education under a financial microscope, you should be able to prove a major value for tax dollars.
Again, let me use a personal example. I have two sons who, if everything goes well, will spend a combined total of 26 years (K-12) in our local public schools. Last year, these schools spent $6,670 per student — including instruction, transportation, and administrative costs. If I use that figure as an average for all 26 years, $173,420 will be spent on my sons' education.
I estimate that $3,800 of my property and income taxes goes to local education. Using that figure as an average, I would need to live in my house and pay taxes for more than 45 years before I could repay the cost of my sons’ education.
Public education is a real value — not just to parents but even to "empty nesters" who may have grandchildren in public schools. Today's schools offer value for all taxpayers, and we need to remind them of that fact as frequently as we can.
Business uses more supervisors than education does.
Many of us have heard the maxim that schools should be run more like businesses. But if we did that, in at least one category we would most likely catch the wrath of even more critics.
A recent study by the Educational Research Service indicates that public education has 13.5 staff members per supervisor or administrator — the highest ratio of the ten industries studied. Compared to all manufacturing industries (6.2 to 1) and public administration (3.5 to 1), education's ratio of 13.5 to 1 means that we spend less on supervision—a fact that explodes the perception that we have too many administrators.
According to U.S. Department of Education figures for 1995-96, the total central office administrative and professional staff of America's public school districts comprised just 1 percent of the total staff. Even if you count principals and assistant principals, you only add 2.4 percent, and 3.4 percent is a far cry from being bloated and top-heavy—a fact that escapes most critics of public education.
Schools serve the community.
Let's not forget the value that schools bring to their communities. Whenever hurricanes, tornados, floods, or fire threaten the community, where do many residents find shelter? When election day rolls around, who welcomes voters and even cleans up after them? Where do the scouts meet? Where do seniors learn computer skills? How about providing facilities for those budding Michael Jordans, Mark McGwires, and Dominique Daweses? And don't forget the collections of clothing, food, and funds for the needy.
Schools fill a number of service roles, and your community is better today because of their efforts. Remember to mention them when talking about the accomplishments of your schools. More people need to know and appreciate the fact that school and community indeed one and the same.
Now that you have some talking points about what's right with education, do something with them! Get your staff to help you come up with some things that you are proud of in your school and begin getting out those messages any way you can. Remind your staff that we are all in this together. If we can mobilize everyone involved in public education, we may finally be able to make education a positive discussion point for all Americans — especially at Saturday morning soccer games.
- Rich Bagin, APR, Executive Director of NSPRA (This article was written for Principal Magazine, published by The National Association of Elementary School Principals, Alexandria, Va.)