Beyond Image: Learning-Based Communications

School public relations should influence perceptions by explaining what schools are about by Brian Woodland

Does your school district's public relations program include the following image-building activities:

* glossy district newsletters with a prominently placed photo of the superintendent and filled with good old news about schools;

* a website with a giant image of the district office highlighted by a message from the superintendent;

* parent communications that mention little or nothing about student learning; and

* brochures telling your community how generally fabulous the district is and how fortunate the residents are to pay taxes?

If your public relations or community relations staff spends most of their time on these or similar activities, stop it now. It's a waste of time and money.

The unfortunate reality is that school districts often devote their scarce resources to image-building. Recently, for example, I saw a job description for a lead PR person in a major school district that lacked a single mention of schools, students or learning. If that is what school public relations is about, cut it from your budget. Take the savings and give it to schools. Image does nothing to help achieve school or student success.

Open and Accountable

Instead, we need to spend more time explaining what schools are all about and less time trying to convince people that what we do is right. We need to be open and accountable with the information the community demands, such as relevant and meaningful test results. We need to delight our customers, to share with parents ways to help children succeed, to focus on our internal communication processes. These are not easy things, but they remain the core components of a successful PR program.

Good public relations is not about making everyone think you are wonderful—that's an election campaign goal. But your PR investment can result in real and tangible benefits. Unfortunately, the one overriding, paramount reason to do school PR is the one most overlooked. Simply put: To encourage parent involvement in the education process and support student achievement.

Research says that better communication, stronger involvement between home and school, is the most powerful way to improve student success. And that is our bottom line.

A Student Mission

My job overseeing communications for the third largest school system in Canada is not about making the district or schools look good. It is about supporting student achievement. Our department mission reflects this belief: What have you done for students today? This is the filter we use to decide what does—and what does not—get done. That is the simple reason that district PR needs to be about learning, not image.

The National School Public Relations Association points out that 90 percent of school image is based on quality service: in the association's words, "doing a good job." Seven percent is listening, actively seeking out input from your communities. Only three percent is about telling, and that doesn't mean telling people what you want them to hear. Rather, it means delivering essential messages to targeted audiences. In other words, it is telling people what they want to know or need to know.

If your schools are not successful, if kids aren't achieving, no amount of public relations will help. If you want a great image of the district, the trustees, the superintendent and the schools, develop successful students. And communicate the success and how you got there.

How do you direct scarce resources, whether or not you have PR staff, to focus on learning? Based on my experience, three key areas require attention: Start at the top, talk to your people and focus parent resources on learning.

Start High

Effective communications begins with the district or school leader. Do a self-check: Are you an advocate for openness and transparency? Are you the system champion for engagement and honest two-way communication? Is it something you model?

In my district, the superintendent or associate superintendent often will raise the issue at a meeting, saying, "How will we let people know about this?" They have included me on the cabinet, so I am involved in the decision-making process, not just communicating the final decision. I have an equal voice as a member of senior administration. And they appreciate and listen to that advice. In fact, sometimes my suggestions have been counter to what the superintendent and associate have believed and they still said, "We pay Brian for his insight; we need to listen."

This approach helps us to get ahead of issues, to highlight processes that may not have enough consultation or where we have potential landmines. As an organization, we have learned that the short-term pain of being out there first with an unpopular issue is far better than the long-term pain of the issue seeping out without a discussion or plan. And every issue/crisis/problem makes itself public in a school system.

Recently, for example, we were considering a program reduction. The decision was to go out to the community and explain the proposal in community meetings. Some colleagues wanted to call them "consultation sessions." I asked if there was any chance we might actually do things differently through the consultation. The answer was no. So we honestly called them information evenings and said the decision was set. Sham consultation is worse than none at all.

It is the system leader who creates the sense of an open organization. My superintendent has made it clear that transparency, openness and good service are organizational expectations. There is support to bring people together to discuss major issues, to provide resources to support schools, to keep the focus on learning.

He demonstrates that commitment in high expectations for my team. It is understood, for example, that any major initiative coming to the board must have a comprehensive communication plan attached.

The leadership on the board of education has to believe that image is built on school success. That means we do not have a photo of our district office building on our Web site. Instead, the Web site is structured around learning.

Similarly, our publications do not feature a vanity message from the superintendent. His views are expressed through the work of the system and the success of the system.

This approach takes courage and commitment. Sometimes when you go out first with the information, focus on learning, avoid image-building and demonstrate a commitment to openness, the result is tremendous. The bad news is diminished, and the organization is praised for its openness.

Occasionally, though, you still get a rough go in the news media. People still stream to the board to complain, and your image takes a beating. So why do it? First, because it is the right thing to do. Second, as much as people might criticize an unpopular decision or action, they cannot raise the classic attack on school systems: secrecy.

If you don't know where your organization rates in terms of public relations effectiveness, consider a communications audit. Just as a financial audit judges your financial health, a communications audit will tell you what you are doing right and what you need to do differently in communications. Use someone reputable, such as the National School Public Relations Association, and you will end up with a clear blueprint for next steps.

Value in Talking

Quite simply, without a core priority on staff communication, your district image is doomed. The 1988 Phi Delta Kappa Commission on Developing Public Confidence in Schools found that news media is the least influential information source about schools. The study determined school employees rank first as sources and their impressions are the most powerful. Teacher attitudes rank highest in influence with administrators second.

What are your people saying about their schools? No communication vehicle—no video, brochure, fridge magnet, newspaper article—ever will have the power of one-to-one communication. That is why my district sees internal communication as priority one.

The goal of all internal communication programs is to help people do a better job, not to convince people they are lucky to have a job. What helps people is information they need, when they need it, in a format they can use.

Also, we know our people have tremendous influence, and we want them to be able to tell the story of our organization. For example, a new policy on safe schools, sent without context, is explained at the school level as "one more thing the district tells us to do." Done well and given the proper tools, the message can be "this is another way we work to keep schools safe." Which would you choose?

Information Sharing

We keep our commitment to internal communication in two ways. We focus on getting information to people and we also provide tools and resources.

For us, it started with eliminating the "good old news" district newsletter. The pace of change is too rapid, people do not want to read about the fun fair that took place at another school two months ago. It doesn't help them do their job.

Use the time and resources that had been committed to the newsletter and apply them to rapid information sources. For our district, that means a far greater reliance on electronic communication—e-mail, electronic resources, a FaxBack service and voice mailboxes—all of which combine to get information out quickly in a large school district.

We also have a "no surprises" policy. We make sure our people have important information—news releases, government announcements, organizational changes, test results—before the public does. When a major government report is issued we do instant analysis for system leaders and usually a camera-ready article that day for staff and parents.

Our slogan is simple: Now serving instant communication.

People do not want yesterday's news. Staff want the news before it is news. Our staff, for example, get an electronic newsletter called Briefing the morning after each board meeting. True to its name, Briefing is a very short plain language account of the major decisions and actions of the meeting the night before. That is what helps staff members do their job and tell the story of education.

The Right Tools

Our school and district leaders, they usually do not have any communications training—not in preparation to become a teacher, not in training to serve as a principal and not even before assuming the superintendency. Then we ask them to effectively communicate the new elementary curriculum. It won't work.

And even if they have the skills, they do not have the time. The solution? Give them what they need ready-made. When we want to communicate a new curriculum idea or budget proposal, schools receive a communication package with information on how to run a parent night, a sample agenda with speaking times, a template script, prepared overheads, a flier to use as an invitation, a parent tip sheet and an evaluation form. Schools, system leaders and board members all use these packages.

This approach—ready-made, effective, turnkey templates—is a key way to get information to our people and to have an impact on public opinion and on learning. In the same way, we do not want 193 principals taking the time and effort to interpret every major decision of the board. That's why we send a package of between five and 10 camera-ready articles to schools every month to give to staff and include in newsletters. Plus, additional articles are sent electronically when there is a crisis or breaking issue.

Schools receive other tools to create a welcoming and service-oriented school. They get an award-winning multilingual welcome poster to create a good first impression. Schools have template letters on-line to respond to crisis situations. We provide specific resources to help reach members of the diverse community we serve.

Beyond the packages, we provide practical communications training. Members of my team are out every week training staff and community members on effective communication, good newsletters, parent involvement, media relations and more. We also do school communication audits and work one-on-one with schools to make them effective communicators—and we leverage these experiences into resources for all schools. This investment of time has a powerful payoff in organizational effectiveness.

In everything we do, the focus is first and foremost on service to schools. That is how we support student success. We meet each month with appointed representatives of the principal groups to get ongoing feedback on how well we are in meeting our mission. We have a stated policy that we will never say no to a school. (Even our policy on accessing graphic design service reflects the school focus.) Priority one, the schools. Priority two, the work of our department for schools. Priority three, the superintendent.

Parent Resources

Take a look at the print materials you produce. Can you honestly say that most of them are directly related to helping parents help students? We can, and many of our awards are for such materials. Every time we do research the result is clear: Parents want to know how to help their children succeed.

All of our parent resources share the same characteristics:

* written in clear, plain language,
* short with many entry points for reading,
* focus on a stated need,
* avoid "selling" the district, and
* strong design to support the written message

A brochure we produced on multiple intelligences, Nurture Your Child's Intelligence, is a good example. It is a runaway best seller with parents. The brochure is two sides of an 8½-by-11"-sheet with a chart on specific ways parents can help kids.

Do your principals answer a lot of parent questions about homework and spelling? Ours have ready-made and easy-to-copy parent fact sheets on these and other topics. What do you give parents when school breaks for the summer? Ours get a "How To Support Learning in the Summer" tip sheet, one of many parent tip sheets.

In a large system with limited resources we focus on pieces that are inexpensive to produce. The fact sheets are photocopied at the school level--or we do a color brochure and sell a non-logo version to get funds to support the Peel version, as we did with the welcome poster and the brochure on intelligence.

Every communication plan also addresses the needs of our diverse communities. We translate as many of our materials as possible into at least 15 languages. We maintain regular contact with community groups and host information/consultation meetings with these groups at least four times a year.

In addition, our website (www.peelschools.org/) continues the learning focus. In the section titled "Parents Boost Learning," you not only can read all of our tip and fact sheets, but anyone can subscribe for a free monthly electronic package of day-by-day tips to support learning at home. The site is an increasingly important part of our communication program. For example, we extend the Briefing e-resource to the community after the staff receives it. We simply send it later that day through a free on-line subscription. Members of the public also can subscribe to board agendas and news releases. Thousands have done so.

Much to Learn

Do we do it all right? Not by a long shot. Some weeks our mission is lost in the myriad of brushfires to douse, issues to manage and crises to solve.

But we never lose sight of asking "What have you done for students today?" It is our guiding light and our reason to come to work each day.

Recently, an independent commission reviewed every school district in the province of Ontario and issued a report on each. Many results were not very favorable when it came to the issue of communications. In our report, the Education Improvement Commission noted, "The Peel District School Board has a sophisticated, highly developed two-way communications system, directed by a well-organized communications department. In fact, Peel has one of the best communications … systems seen by review teams to date. The board understands that good communications can be a means of improving student achievement."

This comment was not a reflection of the success of my team—it was a reflection on the success of our 9,000 staff who do an amazing job of telling our story and creating student success. We simply have learned how to go beyond image to support them in their efforts.

Brian Woodland is manager of communication services for the Peel District School Board, 5650 Hurontario St., Mississauga, Ontario L5R 1C6. E-mail: brian.woodland@peelsb.com