You never know what’ll pop up on the radio.
Tom Gould was tuned into a local radio newscast on his Monday morning commute to work at Howell Public Schools when he heard a story about an elementary student who was raising lunch money on behalf of a classmate.
According to the story, the student was not served lunch in the school cafeteria because his account was in arrears.
Tom – then Howell Public Schools’ temporary and part-time public relations director – did not feel good about this feel good story.
He immediately phoned to station manager to report that no student is ever denied lunch. However, if there is no money in the student’s lunch account, they are served something inexpensive, usually a cheese sandwich.
The station manager apologized. The noble student’s parents had not given (and probably hadn’t known) that detail when they pitched the story to the station over the weekend.
If the story had “broken” during the workweek, when the newsroom was better staffed, Tom surely would have received a call to verify the story before it hit the airwaves.
Broadcast and online versions of the story were immediately corrected to reflect that the student was indeed provided a meal.
Yet Tom spent a lot of time over the next two weeks addressing community challenges to the district’s non-existent policy of denying food to children whose parents haven’t pre-paid.
This was Tom’s initiation into the world of K-12 school communications.
The making of a school PR professional
Despite the occasional “rough” day when he has to correct a persistent misunderstanding – or explain and re-explain to media outlets why student privacy laws prevent him from revealing disciplinary actions they argue the public has a right to know –Tom says being a school communicator is highly satisfying.
And that’s not just because Howell Public Schools has removed “temporary” from his position and made him full-time last fall.
Sure, miscommunication happens, Tom says, but seldom because of malicious intent. Opposing views usually coalesce around the idea of doing what’s best for kids and their learning.
Perhaps Tom feels at home as a school communicator because school is where his interest in public relations started.
Tom learned to use a graphical design program to paginate pages as a member of the student newspaper staff at Lamphere High School in Madison Heights. The drama club asked him to use that skill to design their playbill. Liking his work, the club then asked him to write a press release for their upcoming show.
“I had no idea what a press release was,” said Tom, who graduated from Lamphere in 2002. “So I went to Rita Lewis, then the school district’s communications director, and she taught me. Seeing how she worked got me thinking about a career in public relations.”
Tom says that was seven years of fun work, including lots of product demonstrations at grocery stores around Michigan. Yet, when he spotted Howell Public Schools’ posting for a public relations director, he was tempted — even though the position was advertised as part time and temporary.
He considers himself lucky that his wife Jennifer Gould, a special education teacher with Ann Arbor Public Schools, encouraged him to apply in Howell, anyway. Since a school setting is where Tom learned to love public relations work, why not return?
School PR is a unique animal
Tom says differences between working in corporate and public relations environments were apparent from his first school interview. Private businesses would never appoint a panel of 10 people representing different facets of the organization to conduct a first interview.
He’s had to postpone promotional campaigns that he believed should start immediately because school boards have to approve any expenditure more than $5,000, and they only meet once or twice a month.
“I felt like we were ‘tipping our hand’ because our spending for promotional mailings had to be a matter of public record,” Tom said. “In private business you would never disclose an ad campaign to your competition. But I got over it.”
Howell Public Schools competes for students with four other Livingston County public school systems and charter academies. The area birth rate has declined. All school districts want to stabilize enrollment and grow, if possible.
Before piloting the part-time public relations position in the 2013-2014 academic year, Howell spread out communications responsibilities among many district employees.
In hiring Tom, district officials hoped to launch an integrated public relations plan with a unified voice.
What’s it take to be a school PR superstar?
Tom’s work can bring him into contact with Howell’s 7,500 students, 400 teachers, 15 school administrators, and reporters and editors at a dozen media outlets throughout southeast Michigan every day.
Obviously, a person who may interface with that many people needs to be articulate, have great interpersonal skills, be creative, and have strong writing skills.
Beyond that, Tom says the essential skills are:
- Ability to be flexible. You never know what the day will bring when you work in ta K-12 world. Being flexible and knowing that you may not be able to accomplish every item on your to-do list will alleviate stress. There are days that my calendar is open all day and by 8 a.m. it has completely filled. Teachers and administrators are very busy and they often don’t remember to let the PR guy know that something is happening until it is happening.
- Ability to remain calm. The unexpected can crop up when you work with a diverse group of people that ranges from kindergarteners to teenagers, and from support staff to professional staff. Keeping your cool will help you as you navigate any situation.
- Willingness to learn: New social media platforms. New software applications. New state assessments. As a school communicator, you must often put on you student hat to keep up with the changes.
- Be resourceful. Like many school communicators, I am a one-person office. I cannot be everywhere and do everything myself. Students in our high school digital imaging class help design ads. Students in our high school social media class cover events around the district. This collaboration frees me up. It also gives students a real world work experience.
- Learn to say, “I don’t know.” Not having the answer is O.K. as long as you get the answer and relay it in an acceptable amount of time. It’s better to admit that you don’t know the answer than to guess what the answer is.