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."
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.
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.
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
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."
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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.