ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
Practical PR: School public relations professionals build bridges
by Bridget McGuiggan
Bridget McGuiggan is community relations coordinator for Orland School District 135 in Orland Park, Illinois, and the president of the Illinois chapter of the National School Public Relations Association.
When someone asks me what I do for a living, I reply: “I am responsible for public relations in Orland School District 135.” This is almost always followed by another question: “Why does a school district need a public relations person?”
I am delighted to answer this question and educate family, friends and community members about the work of a school public relations professional. The National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) is a 75-year-old organization with 32 chapters throughout the country. A “Getting Started” section of their website (www.nspra.org) identifies 11 functions typically handled by the PR person/department:
• Public relations counsel/proactive strategic planning
• Communication with internal and external publics
• Media relations
• Budget/bond issue campaigns
• Communications planning/crisis communications
• Public relations research, surveys, polls
• Imaging and marketing
• Student/staff recognition
• Information station
• Public relations trainer
• Community relations liaison
Indeed, public relations can include all of these roles and more. The PR person is ultimately responsible for ensuring that school district communication is working two ways, with messages not only going out to the public, but that the public’s messages are also getting back to the district. In essence, we are bridge builders.
I am doing my job when there is understanding, a free flow of information, and active support of the district from both internal and external audiences. This goal cannot be overestimated.
In a time when education is under fire like never before, the need for positive messages to be shared is as great as the necessity for accurate and timely information about critical issues. Additionally, a level of obligation exists that board members and their school districts must consider: Taxpayers have the right to expect the transparency and accountability that a public relations professional helps to provide.
Hiring a PR professional
One could argue that public relations is everyone’s job. Consider, though, that being fiscally responsible is also the job of all staff, and yet it is a rare district that doesn’t employ a business manager or designate those duties to someone with financial skills.
Likewise, someone needs to be at the helm of the public relations function, using the most effective strategies to build bridges of understanding throughout the community.
An argument could be made that a district should not spend taxpayer dollars for a “spin doctor,” i.e. someone who is paid to make the district look good and hide its problems.
A true PR professional has strong ethical principles first and foremost and is truthful in all action. A true PR professional also knows relationships are built on trust, which is earned over time and easily lost with dishonest communication. “Spin” is a four-letter word in PR language — one we never say and certainly never use or do.
If public relations and community engagement are important to a district (and should be a tenet of any public entity’s strategic plan), district leadership would be well served to recognize what they can get for the investment — increased parent involvement, increased public support, increased staff morale — in the ultimate goal of increased student achievement.
Additionally, in an important referendum or bond campaign, the PR professional can guide communication efforts that result in a direct return of dollars back to the classroom.
In a district that is cash-strapped or perhaps too small to warrant hiring its own PR professional, alternatives exist. Sharing the role with a neighboring district or making the position part time are just two alternatives. The important thing is that the board and administration devote what they can afford for this vital service.
A management function
If the board of education and superintendent agree that public relations is important and worthy of having its own director or coordinator to guide PR efforts, the board must take one additional, critical step. The PR professional needs to be part of the superintendent’s cabinet or administrative team.
When the superintendent meets with administrators, business services, human resources, curriculum, technology, buildings and facilities all will be represented. Public relations needs to be there, too, to give the perspective of staff, students, parents and the community in operations and policy development.
In the organizational chart, the PR role is typically below the superintendent, in line with other district administrators, reporting directly to the superintendent.
School districts interested in creating or expanding their public relations role can contact the Illinois chapter of NSPRA for help.
INSPRA provides topical sessions known as “Tips and Tactics” throughout the school year, in addition to hosting a communications contest, an education foundations conference and distinguished service awards.
Members also regularly lead panel sessions at the IASB/IASA/IASBO Joint Annual Conference each November in Chicago.
You can find INSPRA online at www.inspra.org.
Together, we are all partners in support of student achievement. On behalf of INSPRA members throughout Illinois, thank you for your service to education.
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