Focus

Telling Your Story When the Media Won't

by Nora Carr

Like many public school districts across America, Charlotte-Mecklenburg's successes far outweigh its shortcomings.

Great teaching and learning are the norm in our classrooms, but chances are you won't find that out by tuning into the local news. As the news director for our community's leading television station explained, "We cover hard news—something with an edge. We're really not interested in features or good news stories."

He confirmed what educators have long suspected: Controversy and sensationalism sell. Award-winning teachers, strong school leadership, high-achieving students and engaged parents don't.

Bypassing Gatekeepers

That's why we're "going direct." Raised to a fine art during the Clinton presidential campaigns, going direct simply means bypassing traditional information gatekeepers, such as the mainstream media, to get your messages across.

Clinton's first appearance on CNN's Larry King Live is a famous example. In one evening, he went from unknown (the national media didn't consider an obscure Arkansas governor worth covering) to a presidential contender. President Bush recently used the same strategy when he announced aspects of his new education policy on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

For the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, going direct means doing a better job of telling your own story by leveraging existing communication channels more effectively and by creating new ones targeted to meet the needs of specific audiences.

Shifting Resources

As the nation's 23rd largest school system, Charlotte-Mecklenburg already had a variety of powerful communication resources—from staff time and expertise to cable television and the Internet—at its disposal. We just needed to use these channels more effectively.

So we revamped our communications plan and began the often-tortuous task of shifting staff time away from the crisis, deadline and request of the day to more strategic public relations activities and projects.

The district's cable television channel, for example, stopped doing "one shot" videos for school-based customers and community groups and started producing news and information programming about exemplary teachers, students, programs and initiatives.

Packaged in a 60-second "news break" format, the segments air during program breaks throughout the day and into the evening. Written in an "evergreen" fashion—without specific dates and timelines—CMS news breaks can be shown multiple times for a month.

CMS-TV also began producing public service announcements to advertise magnet schools, job fairs and the district's new, phonics-based reading program. Repeated hundreds of times on our cable channel, these power-packed mini-commercials are perfect for today's growing legion of channel surfers. The segments also are getting more air time on the region's network affiliates—and not just at 4 a.m. on Sundays.

Good news stories ignored by the local media also are finding a home on CMS-TV's new magazine show, which features fast-paced segments, snappy graphics, field-based interviews and a professional, in-studio anchor. Shown during prime time and repeated twice daily, the program lets us tell our story, our way, while projecting the look, sound and authority of mainstream newscasts.

Videotaped copies of CMS news breaks, PSAs and magazine segments then are sent to the featured employee or school for use at staff meetings, open houses and PTA gatherings. Such follow-up activities extend the "shelf life" of these productions. After all, the cost of a cassette tape is cheap compared to production time.

A Brand Image

Borrowing some concepts from brand marketing—in which consistency is the holy grail—we began using the same stories, images (photos, video and art) and messages on the Web and in our newsletters, fact sheets, Realtor packets, PowerPoint presentations, bulletin boards and, yes, media releases and tip sheets.

For example, each month our staff newsletter builds on our new "Prepare for Greatness" theme by highlighting a noteworthy employee. This same feature then is reworked for the CMS TV magazine show, highlighted with a digital photo on the CMS home page and pitched to local education reporters. The same photos may resurface in district brochures and publications.

Not only does this repetition help build recognition and awareness for the key messages we're trying to convey, it also allows us to do more with less. Why invest staff time in researching, writing, photographing and videotaping a story if you can't use it in four or five different ways?

Repetition and consistency are helping us leverage our limited advertising dollars more effectively as well. Now, even short-term campaigns can have a substantial impact. Reinforcing or simplifying a message is much easier than introducing one.

Radio spots, billboards, water bills and grocery store posters can shout simple messages like "magnet applications due Feb. 28" when the appetite for the product—in this case our award-winning magnet programs—already has been whetted with a community information fair, open houses, fliers, brochures, targeted e-mails and direct mail.

One-to-One Contact

Going direct at its purest means targeting communications to key stakeholders on a one-to-one basis. This is not as difficult as it seems.

Common sense—and good marketing strategy—holds that people respond better to communications that are crafted to address their individual interests and concerns. Made famous by Amazon.com, one-to-one marketing for school systems means bolstering mass media's one-size-fits-all messages and communications with more personalized approaches.

When Newsweek ranked 10 of our 14 high schools among the nation's "top 500," we did more than put out the obligatory news release while dancing around the central office. We sent personalized messages from our superintendent via e-mail, including a hyperlink to Newsweek's on-line version of the story, to more than 1,000 Realtors and community leaders.

The net result? Even though our local media deigned to cover this recognition, our mass electronic release, followed by a mailing of full color reprints a few months later, had key people throughout Mecklenburg County talking positively about the school district's strong academic program at the high school level.

CMS also uses this technique for internal audiences. When the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals partially vacated a lower court opinion regarding the district's unitary status, principals, teacher leaders, senior staff, department directors and education center employees all received talking points to share with parents and colleagues within a couple of hours via fax and e-mail. The information also was posted on the Web. Talking points were listed on the district's password-protected intranet while news releases, background information and related sites were highlighted on the CMS home page for all the world to see. As our database and technology infrastructure becomes more sophisticated, we're hoping to shave our response time from hours to minutes.

Our goal is to get there first with critical news and information to the people who matter most. Mailing lists and "dear colleague and dear resident" communications just don't cut it any more. We're dealing with the most educated and demanding consumers in world history. They expect 24-hour, seven-days-a-week access to high-quality information. If we can't provide it, they'll go "directly" to someone who will. And we probably won't be happy with the result.

Nora Carr is assistant superintendent for public information for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Schools, 701 E. 2nd St., Charlotte, N.C. 28202. E-mail: n.carr@cms.k12.nc.us