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School administrators often are so busy or so cautious that they don't get to know their local reporters. But developing a good rapport with the media, as well as a solid plan for marketing a school district, are easy to do and can pay big dividends. Included: Tips for working with the media and promoting your schools.

If the sentence "A reporter is on the phone," makes you wish for a hastily-called staff meeting, you are not alone.

Many school administrators dread dealing with the media, either because of limited experience or bad experiences with the press.

But the truth is, investing time in learning to work with the press can pay off in terms of strengthening links to the community and getting out positive stories about the schools.

And now there is help for districts with limited funding and personnel for marketing. A new manual, Telling Your Story: A Toolkit for Marketing Urban Education, published by the National School Boards Association Council of Urban Boards of Education, outlines ways administrators can improve their communication and marketing strategies.

"Administrators often are so focused on the job and having things run smoothly, that they don't often think about expanded communication," Barbara Knisely, spokeswoman for the American Association of School Administrators told Education World. "At the same time, most people get their news about the schools from the local media, so there are advantages to reaching out to the community and the media."

MAKE COMMUNICATION A PRIORITY

Public Relations
How-To's

Nora Carr, author of "Telling Your Story: A Toolkit for Marketing Urban Education," offer this list of tips for developing marketing strategies and relationships with reporters.

Building relationships with the media takes more time than money, so if the district does not have a public relations department and the principal has no time, turn the job over to someone who does have the time.

Make friends before you need them. Get to know the local reporter before a crisis erupts. The worst time to meet a reporter is when squad cars are parked outside a school.

Start by sitting down with a reporter, taking him or her on a tour of the schools, finding out his or her deadlines, the best time to call, the preferred format for material, and follow up on that.

Return reporter phone calls promptly. If you don't have the answer to a question, say you don't have it, but will work on getting it.

Continued (see sidebar below)

The toolkit lays out how to develop a marketing plan, by first assessing a district's image and deciding what makes the district unique or better than other districts. Once the district's unique selling proposition, or USP, is developed, staff members can work on ways to communicate that to the public.

Even though the toolkit is aimed at urban administrators, the techniques are applicable to all size districts. The report focused on urban districts because they serve so many students, according to Nora Carr, the author of the toolkit and senior vice president of public relations for Luquire-George Andrews, a media and communications firm in Charlotte, N.C.

While many urban districts have image problems, a solid marketing plan can turn those around, said Carr.

"There are districts with every risk factor in the world that are seeing results much more exciting than schools taking upper middle class kids and not screwing them up," Carr told Education World. "These are very compelling stories that are not getting out."

Often administrators, even ones in districts that have public relations departments, don't realize the value of cultivating good public relations skills, added Carr, who is the former assistant superintendent for public information for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

"We have to change their thinking," she said. "They need to understand the business case, return on investment, and the benefits of being proactive. Not doing these things has a direct impact on the schools."

While most administrators have no background in marketing and public relations, those can be the skills that make or break their careers, according to Carr. "Often when school leaders fail, either at the schoolhouse or the district level, it's not because of education issues, but communication issues."

REACHING OUT

Many large districts do have public relations' departments, which often are over-burdened. All 64 districts that are members of the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS), among the largest urban districts in the U.S., have public relations' departments.

"We try to inform administrators of the impact of good public relations," Henry Duvall, director of communications for the CGCS told Education World. "Those who understand the value of good public relations usually are good managers."

The toolkit also is good for school board members, so they also realize the importance of public relations, added Duvall. "Unfortunately, public relations is one of the first things to go in a budget crunch."

Urban schools cope with complex issues, so the more the staff, the press, and the public understand about a district, the easier it can be to build support. "Good relationships go a long way, so reporters understand people and context when a negative incident happens," Duvall said. "It's also very important to have good internal communications, and arm employees with information about the school system or schools, so everyone knows what's going on. It reduces misinformation."

Knisely agreed. "It is important to learn to welcome reporters rather than treat them as adversaries; reporters often are looking for sources with whom they can work."

School administrators have to realize that interest about what is going on in schools and classrooms goes beyond the immediate school community, Knisely added. "It's important now since there are a growing number of people without children in school who are paying taxes and supporting the schools. This way, [with a public relations plan] they can reach more people, and emphasize the role of media in a democracy."

Having a cordial relationship with the media also can make handling an emergency easier. These situations can be very stressful for school public relations people, who are trying to balance the public's need to know with the district's concerns, noted Carr.

"The first priority [during an emergency] is the safety, health, and well-being of students and staff," said Carr. "Still, there is a lot of information districts can provide in a crisis. But if you can't, say so."

ONCE BITTEN...

More PR How-To's

Don't expect to be able to talk to the media when the news is good, and then run for cover when the news is bad. Answer questions as honestly as you can.

Don't require that all media inquiries go through the central office. Principals and teachers should have the flexibility to contact the press, especially now that there is a 24/7 news cycle.

Have district staff members research a story idea before pitching it to the press, so they will be prepared to answer questions and provide resources.

If no staff member is available to deal with the media, ask for volunteers from the community, particularly people with public relations experience.

Also use the school's Web site, an e-mail newsletter, and the local public access cable television station to get out positive news about the schools.

For marketing help, contact the National School Public Relations Association or the local chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. Often their members volunteer to help organizations.

While public relations' staff members for urban schools want to spend more time helping the press develop stories, they usually don't have the time or resources, and spend the bulk of their time responding to crises. "Often, they get in the reactionary mode," Duvall said. "There is a lot more press scrutiny of schools in urban areas, and also more acute problems."

"We can get all caught up in the tyranny of the urgent rather than being proactive," Carr added.

At the same time, bad experiences with reporters in the past may discourage some administrators from contacting them, said Knisely. The chief complaint Duvall said he hears from school public relations directors is dealing with television reporters, who often have no background about the district and incomplete information, because most local stations don't have education reporters.

Different ideas about what is news also come into play, added Carr.

"Unfortunately, just because of the nature of the news business, the fact that kids are learning and teachers teaching may be vital information for the country, but it is not news," said Carr. "The media often are looking for harder news. Urban districts say they sometimes don't recognize themselves in the news because the schools just look like chaos. That is a legitimate concern."

"There is an increasing burdens on school principals; some know how to communicate with people and the press, but not all do," Carr added. "We need to train principals or volunteers to do it."

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2008 Education World

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