The following article by Colleen Newquist first appeared in Education World in 2004 and was updated in 2007. The principles outlined still apply to today’s schools for effective public relations.
Are you looking to improve communications between school and home? Do you want to get the media to pay more attention to the good things that are going on in your school? Do you know how to handle a crisis? Public relations consultant William Harms offers tips for school administrators looking to put their best foot forward.
Think your school can’t afford to devote resources to public relations? Think again, says public relations consultant William Harms, who counts among his clients a consortium of 30 independent Chicago schools. Good public relations begins with the cost-free investment of thoughtful evaluation, Harms told Education World.
Before you put financial resources into public relations, consider what the term means: “Relations with the public.” Public relations encompasses all interactions and communications with the public by everyone in your school district, from school secretaries to maintenance workers to teachers, principals, board members, and students. Good public relations is something everyone involved with a school should be practicing every day.
RETURN THOSE PHONE CALLS!
The biggest public relations budget in the world won’t matter if your school projects a poor image in its most basic communications. Before you hire a consultant or a public relations staff person or recruit a parent volunteer, begin improving public relations in your school district by evaluating everyday communications, Harms said.
- How are people treated when they call the school? Is the person answering the phone courteous, friendly, and helpful?
- Many schools have voice mail systems today. How well does yours work? Do callers get led through a frustrating phone maze? Most important of all, if a caller leaves a message, does the call get returned? Promptly?
- How often are meetings held? Are they accessible? Are parents and community members notified of meetings well in advance? Most important, is time allowed for audience discussion?
- Is the community notified of school events? Are parents given enough notice so they may arrange schedules to attend?
- How well do teachers and administrators communicate with parents? “The more parents know what’s going on, the more eager they are to support the mission of the school,” Harms said.
PARENTS WANT TO KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON
Communication with parents and the public is essential — and the communication must be meaningful, clear, and engaging. “Parents want to know what’s going on. The tricky part is knowing what parents really want to hear and what will be perceived as propaganda. Parents are astute at knowing the difference,” adds Harms.
For communicating with parents, Harms sees newsletters as primary communication tools. “A newsletter doesn’t need to be flashy. It’s not design that people are concerned with, but content,” he said. Whether it’s a simple typewritten page or an elaborate four-color job, be sure the information is relevant and timely, Harms stressed, relating that he once received a beautifully designed newsletter with irrelevant content — all the events listed had already passed.
As the editor of a newsletter for the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, Harms said he strives to view the product from a parent’s perspective. “We ask ourselves what questions parents would like to see answered in our publication. We know that parents want to know about their children’s accomplishments. And they want to know what’s going on with the curriculum but in a way that it relates to their interests,” by telling them about a project that students are excited about, for example.
Such communication is vital because you can’t rely on students to accurately relay what’s happening at school — if they tell their parents anything about school at all. “Some kids bring home news, others clam up. Anything you can do to explain to parents what children are learning will be appreciated,” Harms said.
For public schools, that communication needs to extend to the community as well. “When people are paying taxes to support your school, they want to know what’s going on,” said the former president of School District 125 in Alsip, Illinois. “Public schools need to let people know that their money is well spent.”
That, said Harms, is one place where the public relations professional comes in. “People want communication about their schools. It would be fun to think that teachers have time to do this, that principals have time to do this, but the reality is they don’t.”
A professional can also be immensely helpful with crisis communications and with fostering media relations, Harms said. But whether a school hires someone to manage public relations or decides staff members can handle it on their own, it’s important to give public relations the attention your parents, your community — and your school — deserves.
FOSTERING MEDIA RELATIONS
Why does one school get more media coverage than another? The answer may be as simple as their administrators pick up the phone more often. Schools often overlook the fact that getting coverage of events and accomplishments can be as easy as letting local newspapers, radio stations, and cable TV channels know what’s going on. Reporters and editors aren’t mind readers; they’re also very busy, and the squeaky school . . . well, you get the picture.
If you want media coverage, know thy media. Subscribe to all the newspapers that cover your area, listen to local radio stations or tap into a parent who does, and keep current on your local cable channel. Consider videotaping your school board meetings for local access cable television. Get to know people in the media — stop in and say hi. Take an editor to lunch. Learn what makes interesting photos and news stories.
The National Association of Secondary School Principals offers these great tips:
- Create a list with the names and numbers of key media contacts in your community. Remember to include “behind the scenes” people such as assignment editors (TV and radio), producers (TV and radio), people at the city desk (newspapers), as well as reporters. Get to know the people on this list and become familiar with their specific duties and what information would be useful to them. Keep their phone numbers, fax numbers, and mailing and e-mail addresses. Also get your name and information on their Rolodexes.
- When you hear a national news story, contact the people on your press list and let them know how it is affecting your school. Reporters are always looking for ways to put a local twist on a national story.
- News people love numbers. Keep statistics handy. Use them to illustrate your point. When you learn of surveys concerning areas relevant to your school, forward them (including who conducted the survey) to reporters on your press list and include a quote or two on how these compare to life in your school.
THE NUMBER ONE RULE ABOUT COMMUNICATING IN A CRISIS? — COMMUNICATE IN A CRISIS!
No matter how awful or how minor, if an incident has captured the attention of the school, the community, or the world, be prepared to talk about it — publicly and immediately. “Be prepared to tell the facts right away. Don’t let things stew and get out of control,” said public relations consultant William Harms.
The first people to communicate with? The faculty and staff. Keeping them informed builds community and elicits cooperation. Next, communicate with parents. Write a statement to be sent home with all students on the day a crisis occurs. Be clear in stating the facts of the situation, give all the facts you can possibly give, and tell parents how you intend to respond. More information is better — the sketchier the information, the more likely parents will be to fill in the blanks with rumor and speculation.
If you think an incident might draw the attention of the media, be prepared. Refer all media calls to one spokesperson. That person should be prepared with facts in writing to refer to. Be honest but don’t be lured into speculation. Stick to the facts. If you don’t know the answer to a question, admit it, and offer to get back to the reporter — and then do so.
Crisis communications aren’t always for bad news — good news can prompt a flood of media attention as well. In either case, instruct those answering the phones to collect complete information — name of person, name of news organization, phone number, and the reporter’s deadline — and prioritize phone calls to be returned based on that information.
A few things to keep in mind when talking to the media during a crisis:
- Never tell a reporter anything you are unwilling to see in print. “Off the record” is sometimes misunderstood and misused, so don’t rely on it to protect you.
- Listen to yourself speak. This helps you to speak slowly and it helps you monitor your statements for accuracy and clarity.
- If you are asked a question that is off the point, confused, or inappropriate, answer the question you wish you had been asked. “What’s important here is that . . .” Reporters are often satisfied to receive a clear, quotable statement, even if it is not perfectly responsive.
- Stop talking when you are finished — even if a reporter waits in silence for more. Don’t feel compelled to fill the silence, or you may say more than you intended.
- If you are angry or upset about an issue, try to postpone the interview until you regain a normal, calm demeanor.
Some additional tips, from the National School Public Relations Association:
Follow these steps within the first 30 minutes of a crisis:
- Understand the circumstances; define the problem.
- Consider the options; act decisively to ensure the health and safety of students and staff and protection of district property.
- Communicate with staff; keep the news media informed.
- Create a crisis assessment and information sheet to send the central office or another resource agency. Include this information:
- your name
- phone number
- fax number
- brief description of crisis
- number of people involved
- outsiders on site
(for example, police, media, ambulance)
- steps already taken by you
- anticipated next steps
- resources needed now
(examples include media relations, medical aid, clerical assistance, social/guidance counselors, food service, communications, insurance/claims, legal aid, transportation, safety assistance, construction)
ADDITIONAL SCHOOL PR RESOURCES ON THE WEB
School PR Resources
This resource from the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) includes articles such as “Getting a Public Relations Program Started,” “Sample School Public Relations Policies,” and “Samples of Exemplary School Public Relations Programs.”
Best Face Forward
This Education World story focuses on gaining positive public relations through the media. “Schools can live or die by public opinion, and quality public relations is the key to garnering public support,” says Les Potter, professor of educational administration at West Georgia College. Additional PR resources included.