With the current state of public mistrust in the media, and journalism in general, the words “public relations” often don’t inspire feelings of confidence today. But let’s look a bit deeper at the real intention of this thing we all call PR and find out what it is and how it works (or should work).
Public Relations, or PR for short, is simply a strategic process to help position your school in a positive light with your publics. My favorite explanation to help schools understand where public relations fits in the scheme of things is:
“When you pay others to tell parents how awesome your school is, that is advertising. When you tell parents why your school is awesome and show them how your school can help them achieve their goals, that is marketing. When someone else tells parents how awesome your school is, that is PR.”
School public relations carries more clout than advertising or marketing—and it’s often less expensive. Done right, that means your strengths are highlighted, your positive stories are shared, and your heroes are applauded. Everyone can root for the winners and is happy to be a part of the winning team (school), which turns into trust, loyalty, and pride.
Why does PR matter for your school?
Public relations, especially in our digital age, is a critical aspect of school communications. Or, to quote Rudyard Kipling, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”
If your school doesn’t select the words and the stories you share, someone else will. But, you may not like the result. PR is all about choosing how to present your school. It should be done with a strategy in mind. In a perfect world, you promote your competencies and successes while continuing to work on and strengthen your weaknesses.
Typical school public relations goals are to help your customers (parents, students, staff, community members, and alumni) to feel proud that they are associated with your school and to trust in your expertise and experience. You want their support, and they want to be a part of a school where great things are happening. However, the only way they will know about those great things is if you provide them that information.
Effective school public relations establishes trust, builds a respected brand, and establishes your school’s expertise. It is a powerful tool in your marketing and communications arsenal, so put it to work for your school.
The challenge for most schools is that they seldom have the staff to dedicate to the tasks required to create or manage a PR plan. However, we’ll show you how to start gradually by creating a plan and implementing those strategies over time until, before you know it, you have a solid school public relations plan that makes a difference.If you care about your relationships with the public, then school PR matters. It includes all the interactions you or your school staff have with the public (in any capacity). It begins with every interaction, including those first visits to the website, phone calls, or the first office visit. It is an ongoing project and part of effective communications. Public relations should be a major focus for every school leader.
Developing a PR plan
There are several steps to getting started, so let’s jump right in.
Step #1: Define your school’s mission
Take a look at your school’s mission statement. Is it still relevant? Does every single one of your staff members know what it is and what their role is in making that mission a reality? It should clearly describe what your school stands for and its values. It should be the guide for the behaviors demonstrated daily by your staff and students.
This may require that you involve staff, students, and parents in developing your mission statement (if yours needs some work). Avoid jargon. Write it so your goals and culture are clear. Here are some ideas for developing an effective, sincere mission statement. Where is your school going?, ASCD Developing a vision and mission, 5 keys to an effective school mission.
Step #2: Select initial goals
There are a lot of options for public relations and communications goals, but if this is your first attempt at a strategic plan, then be sure your goals are important to your school at this time (something that will provide immediate benefits). Select goals that are realistic and quantifiable. We recommend creating SMART goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic (and results-based), and time-bound. Some examples of common PR goals that produce noticeable, positive results include:
- Implement or increase social media engagement.
- Increase/improve messaging around targeted programs.
- Highlight successful students, programs, staff, or alumni.
- Establish or increase promoted school stories (via social media and websites).
- Redesign the school website.
- Start an administrator’s blog.
- Improve internal communications efforts.
Step #3: Develop a campaign
Any good PR plan is going to have three common elements, an objective, a target audience, and key messages. The objective is the simple, long-term goal for what you want to achieve. This will drive your plans moving forward. Here are a few example objectives:
- Establish and maintain a social media presence for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram including weekly posts and responses to comments.
- Gather and promote classroom and student success stories using our website and social media channels.
- Develop four videos this year to help communicate our mission, vision, and values with evidence of how we apply those values in our school.
Each target audience will have different needs, which our campaign must reflect. Some campaigns will be directed at staff, others target existing parents, another targets prospective parents. It is critically important to identify and understand the concerns and needs of your audience in order to design an effective strategy. This may require focus groups, surveys, or other methods of learning about their specific concerns.
Your key messages are what you want your audience to remember. They should be repeated in all your communication, written and verbal. They help ensure your message’s clarity and consistency. All messaging should be open, honest, and support the communication plan objectives while being aligned with the school mission. Using key messages will give your school one unified voice, which will help you manage your school’s image, brand, reputation, and culture.
Step #4: Create deadlines and assignments
Once you’ve selected your campaign goal, drill down to the specifics. You’ve already determined the objective, the target audience, and your key message, so now you need to decide how to deliver those messages. You will use a multi-prong approach and incorporate as many channels as available. This could include your school websites, social media, school newsletters, local media, video, online ads, parent messaging systems, brochures, parent groups, or any other resource you have.
Now, look at your school calendar to see what recurring events or activities you could utilize to support your goal. Are there synergies you can take advantage of in furthering your goals—like an open house, back-to-school night, awards assembly, or meet the teacher event? Anchor those dates on your calendar and use them to frame your campaign task deadlines. Now make a list of all the tasks involved to complete this campaign, including writing copy, graphic design, photos or images to gather, new articles to write, social media posts to compose, and give them realistic completion dates.
Step #5: Pick your partners
Select those who can help assure your PR plan’s success, and recruit them to your cause. Provide them with the information they need. Show them how they can help and how their help will benefit them or the school. Make assignments and provide deadlines. Then, be sure to recognize their contributions and the success they help to create all along the way (and let others know about their contributions as well). Sharing the glory of a successful PR campaign will go a long way in future campaign recruitment.
These partners can be staff members, parents, community members, or anyone who can contribute. This might be as simple as asking for a testimonial you can use on the website or social media that supports your campaign objective (from students, parents, alumni, staff, etc.). It could be someone who can help you edit a video, create a graphic, or take photos. Maybe it is recruiting teachers who will start gathering their best classroom stories for you to use (including pictures). Help can come from many places, so keep your eyes open for possible resources.
Get everyone on board with your school’s PR efforts
Remember that your school’s public relations efforts are in fact the combined public relations efforts of everyone at your school. From your friendly, welcoming receptionist to your passionate, incredible teachers to your engaging, caring principal and your knowledgeable, outgoing superintendent, make sure everyone is aware that the relationships they build are a reflection of your school and your school culture.
Get everyone on board with your efforts to share positive news and accomplishments happening on your campus with your staff and students.
One of the biggest problems facing our schools today is not necessarily a lack of information or knowledge about what to do to make your school shine and how to do it; it’s finding the time, manpower, and budget to get it all done. Your focus is (and should be) on education; at School Webmasters, our focus is on providing the manpower and experience to help you with the communications and public relations support at a price to fit your budget. So if all of this seems daunting, give us a call at 888.750.4556 or email Jim@SchoolWebmasters.com.
Bonnie Leedy, CEO, School Webmasters, LLC.