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.
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
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
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, 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
"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,"
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
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.
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
- 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,
contract extensions, etc.
- Identify an administrative liaison who is responsible
for working directly with a contact person at the firm to streamline
- Make sure there is a system established to measure and
- 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.