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Outsourcing Communication Needs:
A Viable Alternative For School Districts?

(article for the May/June issue of School Leader)

By Gail Fritz

Years ago there was a quip in The Reader's Digest that defined public relations in a most basic but surprisingly accurate manner. It went something like this, "If a circus is coming to town and you paint a sign saying, 'Circus is coming to town' that's advertising. If you put the sign on the back of an elephant and parade it around the town, that's publicity. If the elephant tramples the mayor's flower garden and you get the mayor to laugh about it, that's public relations."

 

The role of communications in the school district public relations or communications has a presence in every school district. For some it's a dynamic and evolving component of the district's overall strategic plan. The district's communication is proactive and planned. Whenever new policies are introduced or important issues arise, the question is always asked, "How will we best communicate this to our public?"

 

For other districts, public relations has an "other duties as assigned" role. It's often a back burner priority that is reactive, not proactive.

 

Public relations is rarely thought of, except in times of crises. In essence, it's a sleeping giant that is tip-toed around for fear of wakening. But unfortunately like the elephant and the flower bed, circumstances or issues such as re-districting, budget proposals, teacher strikes, unexpected crises are all too common. Without proactive and planned communication a crisis can trample a district's reputation overnight. A well-executed communications plan builds public knowledge and involvement so no matter what the issue, there can be a positive information exchange between a district and a public that increasingly demands accountability.

 

Ideally, to have positive, proactive communication each school district should not only have a comprehensive communication plan that is a working document woven into each aspect of the strategic plan, but also have at least one experienced professional dedicated solely to carrying out that plan.

 

In reality, only about 2,000 of the 15,000 public school districts nationwide have a specific person in charge of communications according to the National School Public Relations Association. And of the 600 school districts in New Jersey few have full-time designated communication professionals, according to Richard Vespucci, president of the New Jersey School Public Relations Association. For most New Jersey districts individuals who are responsible for communication have at least one other major area of responsibility. In some districts, communication responsibility falls on the shoulders of an individual or sub committee of the school board.

 

"The trend seems to be that more and more local school leaders are realizing the importance and need for having an ongoing communication plan and a designated person to carry out that plan," states Vespucci, who is also a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Education. Unfortunately, funding for such a position is difficult, if not impossible for many districts. If the funding is made available, finding the right person for the job can be another difficult hurdle. How can school boards an administrators meet the challenge of providing ongoing, positive communications within the confines of limited resources and manpower?

 

Outsourcing: One District's Story

Outsourcing, or hiring an outside "vendor" to handle all or a portion of a district's communication needs can be a viable alternative that is measurable, flexible and often cost-effective.

 

For one school district in adjacent Pennsylvania outsourcing their public relations and marketing needs not only fit their budget, but also added a variety of fresh and innovative avenues for promoting the district's accomplishments.

 

"In 1997 we got approval to hire a full-time individual to handle communications. After an extended search we were unable find a viable candidate to not only enhance our public relations but also help obtain alternative funding through grant money," said Dr. Tim Kirby, assistant superintendent for the Council Rock School District in Buck County, PA.

 

Kirby approached The Communication Solutions Group in Jenkintown, PA to put together a comprehensive proposal for handling the district's communication needs, after both he and the president of the group were interviewed for a local newspaper article. The Communication Solutions Group is a small public relations and consulting firm with extensive public and private school promotion and crisis management experience.

 

Leza Raffel, president of the Communication Group, and her team researched and developed a comprehensive plan tailored to needs of the Council Rock District. The proposal, which later became the basis for an eleven point contract with the district, outlined specific projects and associated costs.

 

According to Kirby, when the proposal came before the board they were split on the concept of outsourcing communications. Some felt they would have more control with their own employee while others saw the potential for getting "more bang for the buck" by hiring a pool of professionals. Since a strong candidate for the position had not emerged, the school board stepped out of the box, so to speak, and voted in favor of hiring Raffel's group.

 

"The school board initially approved a one-year contract. We recently signed a six-month contract so that contract coincides with our fiscal budget," said Kirby.

Since spearheading the district's communication needs Communication Solutions has increased coverage in the print and electronic media through ongoing pre and post event coverage, introduced a cable television program, added a quarterly residential newsletter, developed a number of printed information pieces and implemented a system to measure the value of the district's public relations coverage.

"Outsourcing to an agency with education and administration experience provides a district with a number of experts who specialize in various aspects of public relations such as news writing, graphic design and media relations, said Raffel.

 

"There was a time when public schools didn't need to be marketing savvy, when any positive publicity was nice but not necessary. In today's market where private and charter schools are fiercely competing for students effectively promoting and communicating a district's positive attributes is essential for public support and growth," Raffel adds.

 

For Council Rock, the Communication Solutions Group has worked out to be equal to or less than the cost of hiring a qualified, fulltime individual, including benefits, taxes and pension plan investment, according to Raffel.

 

In addition to being cost effective, the district has the flexibility of canceling the contract, with a 30 day notice, at any time.

 

The agency-client relationship has other advantages as well. Though already highly motivated to keep their client happy, with a contractual arrangement Raffel and her team consistently go the extra mile to be extremely creative, accountable and accessible to Dr. Kirby.

 

Outsourcing, however, still requires a point person in the district to work closely with the agency. Initially Dr. Kirby spent a couple of hours a week working with Raffel to set priorities and give input and direction. Today, however, Kirby says the process is "self-propelling" and requires very little of his time.

 

Points To Consider Before Outsourcing Communications 

For districts that have an opening for a public relations professional or can come up with some level of funding, outsourcing can be a short-term or long-term solution to meeting communication needs. Even outsourcing the development of a communication plan which will later be carried out by an in-house individual or team can jump start a district's communications. Outsourcing specific needs such as annual reports, brochures, media relations and crisis communication planning can be a worthwhile use of limited public funds.

 

When considering outsourcing all or a portion of your district's communication needs, Raffel suggests keeping the following points in mind:

  • Identify, prioritize and outline key objectives for the district's communication needs.
  • Invite two or three companies to address those needs by presenting their ideas to a core team of administrators, search committee or sub-committee of the board. Make sure there is not a fee associated with the intial presentation.
  • When hiring a company make sure they have specific education and administration experience and are familiar with the inner workings of a school district. This will save you time and money in the long run.
  • Look for a company that can not only meet your basic public relations and marketing needs, but can also inject creative approaches to the process.
  • Tour the company, meet all of the employees and talk with current or previous clients.
  • Have a contract that clearly identifies projects and cost, including incidental estimates (film development, printing, etc.) and responsibilities of both parties.
  • Include some protection in the contract, rights of renewal, limited
    contract extensions, etc.
  • Identify an administrative liaison who is responsible for working directly with a contact person at the firm to streamline communication.
  • Make sure there is a system established to measure and quantify activity.
  • As always, do your homework. Research the agency, make sure they are a good fit for your needs and follow through to ensure you are getting the most for your money.

Outsourcing can be an excellent alternative for building public knowledge and involvement. Partial outsourcing can even be a first step for a district that wants to establish an ongoing commitment to positive public relations, but has limited resources. But whether communication is spearheaded by an in-house professional or an outside expert, continuously and consistently building a positive image is crucial for a school district to thrive in today's competitive and scrutinized environment. Remember, like the elephant in the garden, it doesn't take much to trample a blooming reputation — a solid foundation of excellent public relations will help smooth any crisis, large or small.

 


 

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