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Best Face Forward

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.

"With ever-increasing public scrutiny, conducting effective school public relations campaigns is no longer a luxury--it's a necessity," writes Michael Savino, director of communications for the Northeast Regional Center and author of "Public Relations Strategies for Communities and Schools.

What is effective public relations? More than knowing how to manage the media in a crisis, although that aspect shouldn't be overlooked. In "Getting the Media on Our Side" (Education Digest, January 1997, Vol. 62, No. 5) Potter offers ample advice to administrators on managing media relations, including this note on putting a positive face forward: "Don't wait until there is a problem to establish and nurture good media relations. Invite reporters and editors to special functions to show them 'good news' in action."

Where to start? Learn to look for the good news.

Consider your school or district in terms of three categories: mission, events and people, advises Ray Wyman Jr. in "Promoting Your Organization."

"Under each, apply names, dates, places, messages, and whatever else seems relevant. Include even seemingly negative and trivial things in your lists. Now stand back and take a good look. Each one of the items you wrote down is a possible angle that may be worthy of reporting. You can use an angle to create an interesting story or to make an old story seem new. Use personal events, changes in your program, unexpected benefits, surprise aftereffects--anything that passes the 'NIM' test: new, interesting, and memorable."

Take a cue from students: Is there a class kids are clamoring to get in? What makes it so special? What about courses where students do particularly well--is it because of a teacher's innovative approach? Look beyond school-related activities, too. A story about a teacher who's also a star on the local theater circuit, or photo essay on a student who participates in Civil War reenactments benefits the school even though the activities aren't directly related to the classroom. Any positive association with your school or district is a plus.

"Keep in mind that public relations is not product-oriented. Instead, it addresses the concepts of image and perception," writes Savino in "Public Relations Strategies for Communities and Schools." The more times positive mentions of your school or district appear in the media, the more the public will perceive your schools in a positive light.

But above all else, he cautions, "remember that no matter how comprehensive a public relations campaign is, there is no substitute for a good product."

In the event of a crisis . . .

What if a crisis occurs? Be prepared for the eventuality. As Savino points out, a situation need not be dramatic to require crisis communications management. A school district could come under fire for such issues as:

  • the elimination of student programs or services
  • poor student test results
  • a divided school board/school committee
  • a work action by an employee union
  • a change in administration (especially during mid-year)
  • teacher/staff layoffs
  • building facility problems

A plan for crisis communications in such situations is essential. "Anticipating a crisis is next to impossible," Savino says. "But anticipating the questions, and planning your organization's reaction to the crisis is not nearly as difficult if a crisis communication plan has been developed."

Related Resources

  • Public Relations Strategies for Schools and Communities A throrough public relations reference guide for administrators from the Northeast Regional Center for Drug-Free Schools and Communities; includes crisis communications.
  • Promoting Your Organization. A guide to public relations, including descriptions of who does what in media organizations, plus a sample press release and backgrounder/fact sheet, from NetDay, a grass-roots volunteer effort to wire schools for connection to the Internet.
  • How to Establish a Public Relations Campaign Geared toward business, but contains information relevant to any organization; from Edge Online's Business Builders series for entrepreneurs.
  • Press Kit Although intended for schools participating in NASA's Live From Mars project, this site offers excellent guidelines on publicizing school projects.
  • Publicity Strategies Although created by Church World Service for its emergency response programs, the information could be adapted to a variety of situations.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 2006 Education World