Focus

Altering the Public's Image to Match Reality

PUBLIC RELATIONS by JON WEIDLICH


Test scores are up. Your journalism students just won a national award, and the middle school was named a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. Why then do you hear parents say that the school system isn’t what it used to be, and why does the local newspaper publish editorials about the sad state of public education?

If the community perception doesn't fit the actual results you are seeing in your schools, administrators may need to look at the district's image. The good news is that every district, no matter what size, can make an impact on its image. The bad news is that, if you're not making a conscious effort to positively influence your image, chances are that others' actions in your district are unconsciously having a negative effect.

Together with teachers and staff members, you can begin to guide the public's impressions about your schools to make them fit reality. Obviously, you can't convince people that the schools are something they are not. It's useless to present yourself as academically superior if your proficiency test scores are at the bottom of the state rankings. With a little attention, though, you can minimize false impressions and make people understand what's good about your schools.

Probe for Impressions
Every direct or indirect contact that an organization has with the public helps to shape its image. It may be contacts that you initiate, such as newsletters or open board of education meetings. Contacts happen when parents call the school or when buses bearing your district name drive through the neighborhood. They also happen indirectly, such as when parents talk on the soccer field or newspapers report on school events.

It's important to be aware of those contacts, because they are shaping the community's current perceptions. So the first step in making your image match reality is to find out what the current image is and how it came about in the first place.

Start by asking people what they know about your schools. Then ask them to ask other people. Then ask them what they hear other people saying. Don't worry about whether they are totally accurate. What you're most interested in is how they interpret what they hear and think they know. A district that spends relatively little to educate students might be seen as frugal and cost-effective, or it might be thought of as cheating students by not spending enough on them. You know the facts. You're trying to find out what people think of the facts. Be sure to ask teachers and staff members what they think, as well.

Then look at published materials. If you save newspaper articles about the district, reread them to find out what they say about the school system. Read between the lines. Pay more attention to the overall tone of the article than to whether specific facts are accurate.

Study the headlines as well. Sometimes that's the only part of the article that parents remember. Look, too, at editorials and letters to the editor about education in general. Even if they don't specifically mention your district, people will assume that the articles are referring to you.

Don't overlook your own published newsletters and materials. Make sure that they reflect an accurate picture of your schools and that they are reaching the audiences that you want to reach.

Succinct Descriptions
Once you've gathered this anecdotal evidence, try to make connections with activities in your district. Trace, if you can, the source of negative impressions. Are there unanswered rumors circulating? Are teachers and staff unintentionally giving incorrect impressions?

A 3rd-grade teacher may be unequaled in her ability to reach students, but if she sends home parent newsletters that contain typos or grammatical errors, many of those parents will assume that she's a substandard teacher. Buses that belch clouds of smoke may give neighbors the impression that school equipment is poorly maintained--and, therefore, the district is mismanaged. Administrators who are reluctant to talk to reporters let the reporters define stories and events--and not necessarily in your favor.

Eliminate as many negative images as you can. Then you are ready to start rebuilding your district's image. This is the hard part.

Find a few words or phrases that accurately describe the district, that reflect what's important to parents and students and that you want people to remember. For example, if your district has a high rate of volunteerism, opens its buildings to local organizations and is filled with parents for whom the community is important, you might say the schools are "committed to the community" or "connected to (name of the town)." If students typically outscore students in other districts on standardized tests and your teachers deserve credit for making it so, think about messages that emphasize strong academic programs and devoted teachers. Avoid overused words like "quality" and "excellence" because they will have less impact. The description you use should be accurate and easy to explain to employees and parents.

Fix that description in your mind, and make it a significant part of your school culture. Demonstrate that image in a variety of ways, through newsletters, public statements, conversations, photos and staff meetings. If you want people to understand that students are superior academically, for instance, ask your board to take time at each meeting to recognize students who have won academic competitions or who have high achievements. If you want parents to know that your schools are safe, invite the local newspaper to cover bus safety drills.

Finally, don't hesitate to correct inaccurate representations. After all, you are an educator. Part of your role is to educate the community about what they have to be proud of in your schools.

Jon Weidlich is director of school-community relations in the Lakota Local School District, 5030 Tylersville Road, West Chester, OH 45069. E-mail: j.weidlich@lakotaonline.com