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Seeking Reform Role, P.R. Officials Pitch Clear Communications

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Seattle

A new group of experts is stepping up to the plate in the school-reform movement.

School public-relations professionals say the time has come for educators and other reform advocates to focus on better communicating their proposals and goals to parents and the public.

Members of the National School Public Relations Association, here last month for the group's annual meeting, say that all too often,reform proposals have been defeated because education advocates have not taken the time and effort to explain them in language the public can understand.

Members of the N.S.P.R.A., most of whom are communications or media-relations officials of school districts, also say that a communications strategy to promote and build support for reform plans is often an afterthought. Reformers have been outflanked by well-organized interest groups opposed to changes in school curricula.

"We really believe school boards need to better communicate what they are doing," said Richard D. Bagin, the executive director of the Arlington, Va., association.

"Unfortunately, most educational leaders, such as principals, superintendents, and board members, still think marketing is a four-letter word and not part of their jobs," he added. "We provide a professional way of doing it. The days of winging it are over. There is a court of public opinion, and [school leaders] need professional counsel there."

The group's annual conference revolved around the challenges of promoting school-reform ideas and contending with opposition, which in many communities has been led by religious conservatives.

Opposition Underestimated

Julia Stanfill, a public-relations consultant hired last year by the California Department of Education to promote its new student-assessment program--known as the California Learning Assessment System--recalled that proponents of the program were blindsided by staunch opposition led by Christian conservatives. Critics of the CLAS program argued that its questions invaded the privacy of students and failed to test for essential academic skills. Gov. Pete Wilson of California vetoed the program last year, citing those criticisms and others.

"Don't underestimate the opposition," Ms. Stanfill said during a session that served as a post-mortem on the failed assessment plan. "When we first started getting opposition, they were kind of labeled as nuts, as religious-right fanatics, and they weren't taken seriously."

Opponents spread much mis~information about the contents of the assessments, Ms. Stanfill contended, "but I blame us from the school community for not allowing our moderate middle [contingent] of parents to get enough information. We allowed special-interest groups to fill the vacuum."

Ms. Stanfill urged educators to make their basic message about any new program easily understood. One way that California educators failed, she said, was by using jargon that did not make sense to the general public.

For example, in materials describing a writing assessment, advocates of CLAS insisted on using terms such as "rhetorical effectiveness" instead of content and "conventions" instead of grammar and spelling, Ms. Stanfill said.

When they were urged not to use such terms because they were not easily understandable, "some of the reformers said, 'Parents have just got to learn those words,' " Ms. Stanfill said.

Out of Sync

Participants at the meeting here also discussed the results of a survey by the Public Agenda Foundation that has had a wider impact than most reports about education reform.

The report last fall by the New York City-based research organization found that many school-reform ideas favored by government and business leaders are out of sync with the public's chief concerns, such as safer schools and a return to the academic basics. (See Education Week, 10/12/94.)

The majority of respondents to the survey supported the call for higher standards for education, but they rejected many of the methods proposed to reach them, such as new assessments and cooperative learning.

Deborah Wadsworth, the executive director of the foundation, told the public-relations group that the public "is literally bewildered that schools are not delivering the basics."

"Whether we agree or not," she added, the public's views about the schools "are deeply held."

School-reform advocates clearly need more effective public communications, Ms. Wadsworth said.

"By more effective communications, I am not thinking of spin control," she said. "Today's public, given the mood of distrust, won't blindly follow what the experts propose."

Among the strategies mentioned repeatedly at the meeting was to search for common ground that school-reform advocates might share with their opponents, as well as to include opponents in any changes. School leaders also should pay more attention to improving their internal communications with staff members and students, who are often a primary source of information for parents and other community members about what is going on in the schools, participants said.

Attracting More Specialists

School public-relations professionals are seeking to boost their status by promoting themselves as trained communications experts who can develop more sophisticated strategies for promoting reform.

"That's the niche for us--no one in school management really has a background in communications theory," said Jennifer Grossman, the communications director for the Colorado Association of School Boards.

Mr. Bagin said about 60 percent of the N.S.P.R.A.'s membership hold such job titles as director of communications or public-relations director for school districts. The rest of the group is made up of superintendents, school board members, association officials, and independent public-relations consultants.

Among the district public-relations officials, an estimated 65 percent are women, Mr. Bagin noted. And while the professional background of such jobholders used to be split evenly among former journalists and former teachers, the job is now attracting more people who have always specialized in public relations.

While many small districts do not even have a public-relations officer, larger districts have a staff of several people working on media relations, publications, and outreach to parents and the community.

Ms. Grossman, in her session titled "How To Make Yourself a Valuable Asset to Your Organization," asked participants why they chose to get involved in school public relations.

One woman said she enjoyed being an advocate for children; another said she would like to return to corporate public relations soon to "help bridge the gaps between business and education."

Rebecca Snyders, a communications specialist with the Monroe, Wash., school district, said she entered school public relations a year ago after nine years in similar positions in the health-care industry.

"I didn't want to stay so focused in one segment of P.R., she said. "I was very excited about the changes going on in education."

"There are a lot of audiences we need to communicate these changes to. There is definitely a need for some more sophisticated ways of doing it."

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