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PR Ideas for PRincipals

Is it just a coincidence that the word principal begins with the letters PR? Many principals overlook the importance of strong public relations. But Education World's "Principal Files" principals recognize the important role PR can play in creating a "buzz" about their schools.

Take a look around at all the great things happening in your school.

Now take another look.

Are you missing each year dozens of opportunities to get good press?

If you are passing up all those great public relations opportunities, Rich Bagin says you could be missing a huge opportunity to create a "buzz" about your school.

"If you ever wonder why some schools have a great 'buzz' about them, but your school does not -- even though it performs just as well -- the reason, more often than not, is that the schools with great reputations have made a commitment to communication," Bagin, executive director of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA), told Education World. "In those schools, principals and staff members ask themselves, 'If we don't do this, who will?'"

That commitment to communication starts with the principal, said Bagin. "Leading principals know that the responsibility of 'building the buzz' rests on the shoulders of all staff and parent leaders in their schools. Great communication is practically the culture in schools with buzz. New staff orientation sessions place a priority on good school-to-home-to-school communication. Teachers, custodians, secretaries, and aides all know that communication is a priority in their school."

Once that PR momentum builds, a school is on its way to be being one of the sought-after schools in the community, Bagin noted.

BUILDING BUZZ THROUGH LOCAL MEDIA

Most principals recognize that local news organizations hold a key to some of their best PR opportunities. "Our local weekly newspaper and our local radio station are hungry for local interest stories, and they do a great job of promoting our school," said principal Duane Kline of Jackson (Georgia) High School. "The local radio station invited me to do a weekly radio spot, in which I update the community about events in our school," explained Kline, who also gets regular visits from the editor of the local newspaper.

"The best PR move I made this year was to put the area newspapers on my e-mail list," said Jean Williams, principal at Turner Middle School in Lithia Springs, Georgia. She sends copies of the school's newsletters, flyers, press releases, and bulletins to the community's newspaper editors; and she invites them to be guests at all school functions too.

"That is working out well," said Williams. "Our school is receiving more press attention and, if the media is unable to come to us, I write articles for them. I invite them to edit the articles as they see fit. I even take digital pictures and forward those pictures to them."

HAIR RAZING EVENT BOOSTS WEB HITS

At Orchard Hill Elementary School in South Windsor, Connecticut, area press has given some good coverage to the school's reading program. "The program invites community members who normally might not visit the school to read to children," explained principal Bridget Braney. "The visitors enjoy this program as much as the students."


"Principals who know and use proven public relations practices have schools where morale is high, parents are involved, and students have a real sense of pride. Good communication is the key to any friendship; it is no different in schools."

-- Jim Dunn, president-elect, NSPRA

In addition to news coverage of special events, the community's newspaper, South Windsor Life, publishes a monthly school section. "A teacher who retired from the system collects articles from all the schools and submits them to the paper," said Braney.

Who knows a district's schools as well as a retired teacher? And who would be as good a judge of what is newsworthy? Many communities have a retired teacher who would love to continue to play an active role in getting good press for the schools. With some minor editing -- voila! -- the local news editor has a column that is sure to draw a lot of interest and eyeballs.

"We have found that we also can use the Internet to communicate positive news and publicize our activities," added Braney. For example, one recent event at Orchard Hill didn't make the front page of the newspaper, but it did manage to pique a lot of community interest and drive a lot of traffic to the school's Web page. That happened when a long-time staff member offered an incentive to his students if they led in a school-wide goal of 3,000 hours of reading at home: he agreed to shave his beard. Needless to say, the motivation worked. "We posted a movie of the shave on our school Web site for students and parents to see," said Braney, adding, "Our Web site hits have increased significantly since posting it."

PUT GOOD NEWS UP IN LIGHTS!

The marquee that stands in front of many schools is another great spot for getting out the word about special events and recognitions. "We utilize our marquee and the marquees of our business partners throughout the community," said Jean Williams. If you don't think businesses in your community would be willing to post special congratulations on their marquees, then maybe you just haven't asked.

"Invitations and postcards go out to all our VIPs -- Very Important Partners-- for special events," added Williams, who currently is creating a brochure for her school. Business partners can be given a special spot on the school's Web site and in the school's brochure too.

GET ME TO THE CHURCH...

Sometimes it takes unique methods to get out the "good word" about schools. Web sites, marquees, and brochures are great tools to use, but have you thought of taking your message to the churches in your community? Principal Betty Peltier did just that.

""We are a school with a parent-involvement problem, so one Sunday I visited four church services to encourage parent participation in our school," said Peltier, principal at Southdown Elementary School in Houma, Louisiana.

That Sunday was an excellent example of the power of the it-takes-a-village concept, because church is such an important part of many families' lives. The safety and sense of community many people feel in church can be used to build bridges to schools. "All the pastors were eager to have me speak during their services, and the results were very positive," Peltier added.

HOP ON THE ELEMENTARY EXPRESS!

One of the most obvious ways to get out the word about the abundance of great things going on in a school is to publish a regular school newsletter. The timing of that newsletter is up to the school principal; it depends on where parent communication lies on the principal's priority list.


Tips for Dealing
With the Media

In The Administrator's Guide to School-Community Relations (Eye on Education, 1995), Dr. George E. Pawlas of the University of Central Florida shares a dozen helpful tips for building positive relationships with the media. The following tips are among them:

-- Get to know members of the media on a first name basis. Find out what their interests are; what deadlines they face.
-- Always avoid educational jargon.
-- Help the reporter get the story, but don't try to suggest how it should be reported.
-- Don't say anything "off the record."
-- Never ask a reporter to show you a story before it is published.
-- Take time to say "thank you" when your school gets good coverage. The time spent making a telephone call or writing a note is "money in the bank."

Pawlas is currently working on a new edition of the book, which will be available in 2005.

At Kirbyville (Missouri) Elementary School, parent communication is one of principal Addie Gaines's priorities. "Our newsletter, Elementary Express, goes home each Friday," Gaines told Education World. "A lot of people might think weekly is too difficult, but I created a template in Microsoft Publisher to ensure that the newsletter is quick and easy to put together. It takes me 30 to 45 minutes to create. Our school secretary proofs it, prints it, and duplicates it."

"I use lots of short articles and digital photos to capture what our school life is like," said Gaines. "I feature special happenings such as field trips, assemblies, and family nights, as well as everyday learning. I also include an ongoing calendar of school events."

Those newsy tidbits are supplemented with tips and articles aimed at helping parents support their children's education. "Last year, I wrote 'The ABC's of Success,' which each week featured a different component of student success: A is for attendance, B is for bedtime, and so on. I wrote each alphabetical essay ahead of time, so I had a collection that just had to be cut and pasted into the space in my newsletter template.

This year, a teacher -- Kirbyville Elementary's math facilitator -- wrote for the newsletter a weekly feature called "Math Minute." Another occasional feature, a five-part series Gaines penned about Missouri's state tests, was included too.

"Next year, our Reading Recovery teacher is going to write a series about helping students improve their reading skills," said Gaines. "The teachers who write the articles e-mail them to me and I just cut and paste them into the template."

Gaines posts color copies of the newsletter throughout the school building. Black-and-white copies go home. They are printed on blue paper so the newsletter stands out among all the other papers that go home.

"I have received a lot of positive comments about the newsletter from parents," added Gaines. "Students also are excited about the paper because of the photos of themselves and their friends."

Education World provides simple templates for creating newsletters for parents. Simply open the template and save it to a disk or your hard drive. Click the "headline" and "text" areas in the template to type in the desired text. See
Ten Parent Newsletter Templates: One for Each Month of the School Year
Newsletter Template Format 1
Newsletter Template Format 2

ON THE TUBE

Have you investigated the possibilities of local cable access channels covering school events on a regular basis? Most principals are missing that partnership opportunity. "I would advise any principal to make contact with the public or community relations departments of their local cable TV systems," Jean Williams suggested. "Emphasize how you can help them and how they can help you get out the word about the community's schools.


"I view public relations as a crucial pillar of school leadership. It is a practical means to build community support for my school, staff, and students.

"As James Tolley, former vice president of public affairs for Chrysler once said, 'All institutions live or die by public opinion.'

"Public relations has been successful for me because I see its true value. It is more than scrapbooking, it is an art form."

-- Jean Williams, principal, Turner Middle School, Lithia Springs, Georgia

"I've appeared on a local public affairs shows to promote school programs, to recognize students, to talk about our school and its goals, and to promote the need for parent and community involvement. I've even taped public service announcements (PSAs) to commemorate such events as American Education Week, to honor teachers, to recruit teachers, and to indirectly solicit business partners."

In some cases, Williams approached cable access officials. In other cases, they responded to school bulletins or press releases she sent to them. Then there were times when she videotaped student performances and sent them -- unsolicited -- to the stations. "Contact the stations directly," added Williams. "Make them VIPs."

Often Williams's TV appearances involve students discussing their community projects or celebrations in which students are involved. "For example," Williams said, "one student recited Dr. Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech from memory in Spanish, and our Sociedad Honorria Hispanica [Spanish Honor Society] induction ceremony was televised."

Prior to being appointed Turner principal, Williams was a teacher at Douglas County (Georgia) High School. There she and her students even created commercials for businesses and community partners. "Students and community members began talking, sharing ideas, and before we knew it commercials, billboards, flyers, and advertisements were being produced," Williams said. Students created commercials for a fitness club, a car dealership, several stores, a college offering ESOL classes, restaurants, real estate offices, and medical establishments.

"It got to a point that we were being inundated with requests. We had to actually form a board to decide which we could do and in what order," said Williams.

A FEW CAUTIONS TOO

Most news media reporters make the extra effort to present a fair and balanced news story, but keep in mind that what you read might not always seem to capture what you believe is the essence of the situation. You might think the newspaper headline was a little sensational, or that some important details were a little off or were omitted. "Your relationship with the press cuts both ways," Duane Kline told Education World. What can be a good mouthpiece for the school most of the time can sometimes take a different turn in the hands of an editor focused on selling newspapers.

Dr. George E. Pawlas, in his book The Administrator's Guide to School-Community Relations, offers a handful of situations that principals might try to avoid when dealing with reporters. Those include

  • clamming up. Silence is, at best, an invitation for a more in-depth investigation of a situation and can lead to speculation and rumors.
  • griping about small details that might have been omitted or reported, but being afraid to point out more serious errors.
  • submitting "stale" or "old" news. Get it to them when it's fresh.
  • trying to keep reporters out of a school.
  • making statements that you're not willing to be quoted about.
  • attempting to gloss over a situation.

THE BEST PR

Newsletters, media coverage, and Web sites are just some of the vehicles for getting out the good news about your school, but principal Les Potter believes that the best public relations comes from a much more direct source. "The best public relations comes from students and staff," Potter, principal at Silver Sand Middle School in Port Orange, Florida, told Education World. ""If they are happy, they tell others. What better positive comments could anybody hear than those from employees and kids?"

"Parents and community members don't always care about test scores as much as they want to feel good about their schools," added Potter. "Principals need to work on their school's culture and climate, and on their own visibility."

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Public Relations 101: How-To Tips for School Administrators
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.

Welcome to Idyllia: A Hypothetical Community Deals With School Test Scores
The release of test scores for schools in the hypothetical state of Idyllia has piqued the interest of almost everyone -- from school superintendents to realtors. How should school staff communicate news -- both good and bad -- about their scores? How should schools respond to the concerns of parents and the reaction of the media?

Share the Pride: Create A School Web Site
Many schools in the United States, and many more around the world, have access to the Internet. More and more of those schools do more than simply use Web resources. Schools everywhere are building their own school Web sites.

National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA)
This Web site includes PR case studies, the booklet Raising the Bar for School PR, and a variety of articles that are accessible to non-members. For further information about great school communication, click the home page link to "Sample of NSPRA Publications" to read a sample issue of Principal Communicator.

The Power of Public Relations in Schools


"Principal" Contributors to This Article

  • Bridget Braney, principal, Orchard Hill Elementary School, South Windsor, Connecticut
  • Addie Gaines, principal, Kirbyville (Missouri) Elementary School, Pre-K to 4
  • Duane A. Kline, Jackson (Georgia) High School
  • Betty Peltier, principal, Southdown Elementary School, Houma, Louisiana
  • Dr. Les Potter, principal, Silver Sands Middle School, Port Orange, Florida
  • Jean Carolyn Williams, principal, Turner Middle School, Lithia Springs, Georgia


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