Bring in an “outside” PR pro.
When I started as a full-time education beat reporter on a large daily newspaper, most K-12 school districts enrolling 2,000 or more students employed a full or part-time person with a background in public relations or journalism as its communications director.
Even a few of the smaller school districts had communicators on staff to pitch feature stories to the media, and tailor internal communications with special interest groups, like teachers, parents and community leaders.
As a reporter, I loved knowing a communicator in each district that I could tap for timely, insightful answers – even if my questions didn’t bubble up until I was writing after an evening meeting.
Many school public relations positions have not survived the economic recession. Often responsibility for getting schools’ good news out into the public, and crafting messages for stakeholder groups, becomes the “extra duties, as assigned” for school employees whose primary duties are something else.
When I chat with superintendents, they readily acknowledge their districts don’t have expertise in-house to handle every communications need that could arise. Whether or not they employ a communications director, they say there may be times professional communications counsel outside the organization is needed to strategically address an issue, or to roll out a special project.
How can a pro help?
To answer that question, I reached out to Kate Snyder, principal strategist and owner at Piper & Gold Public Relations (piperandgold.com) in Lansing, Mich. The firm’s educational clients include The Michigan Public Schools Partnership, Impression 5 Science Center, and Keep Learning.
I became a Kate fan after hearing her coach librarians how to create a sense of community through social media. Busy Kate also blogs at domesticslice.com.
Kate said a public relations firm could help organizations strengthen their reputations and increase their overall visibility by:
- Providing an external, objective viewpoint
- Bringing new skills to augment existing communications efforts
- Supporting crisis communications or a special project
- Critiquing how an organization’s policies impact communication goals
For optimal results, strategic communications planning should be part of a school capital campaign as it’s taking shape, Kate said.
“We live in a time when voters are skeptical and demand good reasons not to say no to anything that requires spending,” Kate said. “Bringing in someone six months to a year in advance can help shape the conversation. What information will people need? What are the potential pitfalls? Identify what people really care about and how to tap into that.”
Build your backgrounder
Before requesting proposals from public relations firms recommended by peers, professional associations and your own diligent surfing of the Internet, an organization has to be crystal clear on its what it needs and wants to achieve, Kate said.
Then the district should construct a “backgrounder” that includes the history of organization, its mission, key allies and opponents, special concerns, a synopsis of current and past public relations efforts, existing public opinion research about the organization, and budgetary parameters.
The backgrounder will help standardize RFP responses, making selection less subjective and, therefore, easier, Kate said.
Kate resonates with the Counselors Academy’s of the Public Relations Society of America’s Guide for Selecting a Public Relations Firm or Consultant:
- Pay special attention to any experience in your organization’s area
- Consider its range of services
- Consider the depth of professional qualifications of principals and staff
- Consider specialized skills you need, such as market research, design services, public affairs counsel, or crisis management
- Understand the fee structure
- Review a current client list to assure there are no conflicts of interest
Schedule meetings at the offices of a short list of firms providing the top RFPs. Does the person who would handle your account ask intelligent questions? Does the key account person have backup? Do you feel “chemistry” with the key players?
“You have to date a little before you commit to getting married,” Kate said.
Effectiveness is a two-way street
When you’ve got a good idea what firm would be the best fit for your organization, request a written proposal that outlines what services will be provided to meet specific goals and objectives.
Once your mind is made up, meet with the firm or person you’ve selected to discuss the initial length of contract, how often it will be reviewed and renewed, fees, how effectiveness will be measured, and so forth.
“Public relations is a partnership,” Kate said. “To be effective, the client will need access to information that’s updated, like any top-level employee.”
Rarely is there a one-size-fits-all option
Good external communications is hard work that often hinges on community engagement that must take different forms in different communities to achieve the results a client desires, Kate said.
For example, Piper & Gold helped the organizer of a group of Montessori-style charter schools plan several recruitment events before the buildings opened in fall 2013.
Events were tailored to appeal to young families in each community. In Macomb County, a block party with hip-hop dancing on the lawn got families engaged. In Battle Creek, most parents already knew about the Montessori Method because they were familiar with Montessori preschools. They mostly wanted to learn the educational results of continuing that method in later grades.
Focus on the “family” first
Because the focus of our interview was external communications, I was taken aback when Kate said “internal” communications should actually be the top priority of any school district’s communications plan.
“Districts can do all the external communications in the world, but if their internal people aren’t happy, informed and on board with what’s happening, all other efforts are futile,” Kate said. “Clearly and effectively communicating with teachers and parents are Job 1.”