What Is the Role of a School Public Relations Professional?
Former NSPRA president Lesley Bruinton, APR, shares her thoughts on the role of a school public relations practitioner.
An Outsider on the Inside
While many superintendents have been reluctant to add PR positions to their organizational charts in the past, the pandemic has caused us all to look differently at the issues at hand and ask who is best equipped to solve them. This moment in time—perhaps more so than any other in recent memory—calls for a strong communications strategy.
Families are looking to your district for answers as we all continue to navigate our new reality. This gives you an opportunity to think differently about engaging and connecting with stakeholders. So with a new crop of districts hiring dedicated practitioners to help them with their communications, the big question is: How can you utilize your PR professionals to meet the moment?
A school public relations professional isn’t there to make educational decisions but to serve as a guardrail for your district. Most likely, the person in this position doesn’t even hail from an educational background at all. Perhaps they have come to the district from public relations, advertising, or journalism.
That was my path. My first job was in local television news in Panama City, Florida, where I cut my teeth in journalism and built a very broad portfolio. I covered five municipalities’ courts, crimes, and local schools. In the process, I met a school PR person who took me under her wing and showed me the ropes.
After that experience, I thought if I ever got out of TV news, I would enjoy working in school PR. I ended up getting hired in Birmingham, Alabama, as a weekend sports reporter. But after getting married and having my first child, I wanted a schedule that would work better for my family life. So when the Public Relations Coordinator position in Tuscaloosa City Schools (TCS) became available, I put my name in the hat.
When I was first hired at TCS, some people treated me like the district photographer. If you look at a job description from that time—around 2007—the school PR role was largely based around the idea of going out and yielding good media relations. As a former reporter, I knew how to write news stories. I could call my friends who worked in television to get us on the air.
But I also knew I brought something more to the table: a unique perspective on the issues we were facing. To solve our problems, administrators would bring the best and brightest educators to the table—former principals, teachers, curriculum specialists—but I was usually sitting in the corner, listening to their conversation and thinking, Do they know how much I can help?
It took a while to gain the confidence to speak up in a group of folks who have spent their entire careers in education. But slowly and surely, I did my homework. I went to the meetings. I listened. I asked questions. The longer I was with the district, the more my voice was heard. The first step is helping administrators realize that this profession is about more than taking pictures, posting on social media, and planning parties. We are capable of far more.
Now that I’ve been in school communications for about 14 years, I’ve learned that a district public relations practitioner must have a seat at the leadership table. From this vantage point, we can craft strategic responses as well as determine the appropriate communication tools needed to deliver key messages to specific audiences. We have a unique perspective that can protect our leadership teams from groupthink. We can pose the thought-provoking questions that could arise at board or community meetings—not to challenge your leadership but to complement it. We give you the chance to iron out all the wrinkles before you roll out a message to your district.
Think of your PR person as your trusted counsel. We can only advise and anticipate if we have a strong working relationship with our school leaders.
A New Approach
I worked at TCS for about 19 months before the Great Recession led to the elimination of my position. But less than two years later, I was able to return to the district with a renewed idea of what school public relations could be. As I started this journey in my own personal and professional growth, I thought: What do I want my career to look like, and how can I contribute to the larger mission of the school system? How can I use what I know as a communicator to effect change for students and families in my community?
Communications is basically a management function; you’re working to build support for your schools. Needless to say, this work is strategic—your district’s success or failure depends on it. An effective communications strategy means establishing and maintaining relationships not just with those who already like and trust you, but also with those who aren’t so sure about you yet.
The best advertising is word of mouth—always. That’s why I spend a lot of time making sure parents and families have the right information, communicated in accessible ways. Good, effective communication and stakeholder engagement allow you to champion your school system and show your community the value of that investment.
Today, school PR professionals have more access to their communities than ever. The news media are no longer the gatekeepers between us and the public. While moving the needle on public perceptions once required positive coverage through traditional outlets, that’s no longer the case. Over time, people have transitioned from appointment viewing to on-demand viewing. At the same time, school systems have more tools at their disposal to communicate with the public. With social media, we’re the gatekeepers; we keep the information. Why not use that to our advantage to make sure we’re connecting with our stakeholders?
Connecting directly to your community can give you unique insights on how to build the buzz you need. Remember: Your stakeholders won’t have the same backgrounds as district administration and might not be familiar with the terminology we use around the leadership table. District leaders should frame their messaging with their communities in mind, making it easy to understand and process.
That’s where school PR professionals come in. A district needs communications specialists to ask tough questions and to consistently build and manage these relationships with the public.
A Different Kind of Content Specialist
Effective school communication involves so much more than a stand-alone hashtag or social media post. These things cannot yield improved results by themselves; the work has to be more strategic than that. Successful school communicators integrate their work into the district’s overall strategy, complementing major goals the same way instruction does.
Over time in this role, I started seeing the similarities between the work of strategic communicators and the work of successful educators. Strategic communicators use something known as the four-step process: Research, Planning, Implementation, and Evaluation. Teachers follow the same basic steps every day in the classroom.
These similarities are easy to see once you break them down. As a communicator, research is my first step. Likewise, any good teacher is going to do a formative assessment to figure out where their students are and what they need in order to grow. My second step is planning, and for teachers, that’s writing lesson plans. Next for me is implementation—the party, the social media post, the big event, the ribbon cutting—and for teachers, it’s the fun part: instruction. Finally, I always evaluate the effectiveness of my work as a communicator; for teachers, that’s a summative assessment.
Looking at communications this way not only helps me understand the work I’m championing; it also helps teachers and district staff understand what I do. When I explain to my colleagues how all this operates, I can see lightbulbs turning on. Now teachers, and even my superintendent, give me communications plans, structured exactly the way I need them to be. This makes my work faster and more streamlined, all while allowing me to build capacity in others to be effective communicators.
It’s in those connections that I see the evolution in what school public relations professionals can do. Once I realized this relationship between our separate practices, it was game on. I knew I could move forward with laying the foundation to collaborate with my educator colleagues. After all, we want the same thing: to take advantage of every opportunity to promote student success.
Putting It All Together
Using this four-step process, I provided my colleagues in TCS with the research necessary to create a high-interest summer learning program in 2017. While we’d always had a summer school program in the past, students weren’t enrolling or participating at the levels we desired.
As an outsider, I wanted to know what prevented families from sending their children to summer school programs. I started by surveying parents and caregivers on what they sought in a summer program. They overwhelmingly wanted affordable, full-day, enriched learning opportunities. This detail led our educators to answer the call and create a hands-on learning program that, to the kids, seemed more like fun than school. Meanwhile, my office promoted their work to district families to drum up interest.
The program rollout was so successful that, before long, we needed a waiting list. What’s more, some of our community and business leaders began donating unsolicited funding so we could serve even more students. With this collaboration between communicators and educators, we created an increased demand for something that we’d always supplied. Our initiative earned NSPRA’s highest award for strategic communication in 2018.
This kind of collaborative communication work is especially important to consider in the aftermath of the pandemic. The American Rescue Plan requires districts to dedicate at least 20% of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to making up lost instructional time through evidence-based efforts. This includes “summer learning, summer enrichment, extended day, comprehensive after-school, and extended school year programs.”
As you utilize available ESSER funding for this area, challenge your school public relations practitioners to help you strategize and register students. Invite them to meetings to help them understand your district’s offerings and to help you craft your messaging. Ask them for a plan to help you reach your district’s goals. They can do it; many of them have been waiting for you to ask for their expertise.
Serving the Ring
My mentor gave me the best advice I have ever received in this role: “You serve the ring and not the king (or queen).” Those words have served me well as I’ve worked with four different superintendents, reminding me that my responsibility as a school public relations practitioner lies with the office rather than the officeholder.
Superintendencies frequently change, but those of us in school PR often hold a fountain of knowledge with deep community roots. We have established the relationships, and we understand the needs of our districts’ stakeholders. This can be a huge asset to a new superintendent as they come aboard. Chances are, we know the folks on the local civic group and all of the little coffee shops and barber shops around town. We also often represent our school districts on local boards, so we can connect you to key leaders in the community. We can help facilitate those vital conversations.
If you’re a new superintendent with an existing school public relations program, here’s my advice: Set aside some time to get to know your district’s PR person. If you’ve underutilized them, consider putting in the work to build a relationship with them. We’re here to help the current superintendent be successful and effective in communicating his or her vision. That’s our job. We need to understand what you’re trying to accomplish so we can translate it to others.
Putting in the Work
Communications practitioners have to take great care to build relationships with school leaders, and we need the same from our superintendents. Whether you’ve been collaborating with a PR director or staff member for years or you’re just now hiring a communications expert for your district, the following tips can help ensure your mutual success—and, most importantly, success for your schools.
1. Develop a clear job description. A well-written job description will help you attract strong candidates who either have experience in school public relations or are equipped to do the work. This clarity also helps others in your district understand what this role entails and what it doesn’t. It shouldn’t be a catch-all position for “other duties as assigned.” You want this individual focused on supporting the district by clearly communicating decisions to internal and external groups. If you need help developing a clear job description, check out NSPRA’s Communication Planning Resources.
2. Give them a seat. Your communication professional needs to have access to the leadership table. That’s where decision-making happens. Regardless of the title you’ve assigned to this role, it is unlike any other in your district. To be successful, they need more than your decisions; they need to know how these decisions have been reached. This helps your comms person ensure correct messaging to avoid pitfalls and public backlash.
3. Treat them like content specialists. You likely have reading and math content specialists on staff whom you trust. Communication is no different. These individuals have a unique education, training, and expertise compared to your other staff members. Recognize these strengths, and challenge them to bring you their best guidance.
4. Support your PR staff with professional development. Like educators, communicators need continuing education. The good news is that resources are easy to come by. NSPRA is the leader in school communication with a nearly 90-year track record of providing professional learning, resources, support, and networking. This organization isn’t exclusive to school public relations practitioners either. District leaders should join and reap the benefits. Additionally, your state may have a chapter of this organization.
Visit www.nspra.org/nspra-chapters to get connected.
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