Schools Wooing Public With Media Campaigns

By Anne Bridgman — October 10, 1984 7 min read

A New York City civic alliance has launched an aggressive, privately financed marketing campaign on behalf of the city’s public schools. The $90,000 drive will feature full-page advertisements in major newspapers and magazines, videotaped presentations in department stores in each of the five boroughs, posters on 3,000 public-transit buses, and a week-long celebration of students’ academic achievements.

In California, Safeway Stores Inc., the grocery-store chain, has distributed throughout the state 12 million shopping bags emblazoned with a “Parents Are Teachers Too” logo as part of a campaign by the state department of education to encourage parental involvement in education.

And the National Association of Secon-dary School Principals last month sent to its 34,000 members a kit of pamphlets, posters, bumper stickers, decals, and T-shirt order forms based on the theme, “Education ... a sound investment in America.”

Such tactics are part of a growing effort by public schools and community and business groups to increase public support. Hoping to strengthen as well as benefit from the current national interest in schools, educators are also increasingly turning to television spots and radio public-service announcements, the publication of polished annual reports, and other communications strategies to reach out to their local taxpayers--an increasing number of whom are not parents.

The new stress on public-information activities has developed from school leaders’ perception that, in the words of Claire Flom, chairman of the New York Alliance for the Public Schools, “the more people know about the public schools, the more satisfied they are with them.”

‘We Need To Do More’

“What we’re seeing is a greater effort to communicate on the part of the school districts,” said Virginia M. Ross, director of public relations for the National School Public Relations Association, a 50-year-old organization representing 1,600 public-information officers employed by school districts, state education departments, and state boards of education.

“There has been a growing awareness that we need to do more. ... We’d better do a better job of communicating than we are doing.”

That awareness, she noted, is in part a response to recent reports, including the National Commission on Excellence in Education’s “A Nation at Risk,” that recommended school-improvement measures.

“Many districts felt they had been [improving the schools] for some time,” Ms. Ross said. “I think they said, ‘We’re doing this, but the public did not seem to know we were doing this.”’

A second factor in the stepped-up public-relations efforts, Ms. Ross said, is the growing number of adults without children in public schools. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 72 percent or more of the adults in most communities fit into this category.

“This increases the need [for public awareness] because when you take that group of people and say, ‘Where do you get your information about schools?’ you find they get it from the media, they do not get it from the local school districts,” Ms. Ross noted. “Since those people are the ones whose tax dollars support the schools, there is the need for those people not only to know, but to be involved in their schools.”

As the nassp put it in an introductory pamphlet accompanying its public-awareness kit: “It’s not enough to say that schools are good and expect the public to accept that fact.”

Change in Profession

The shift from the public-information office’s traditional news-release function to active promotion of local schools is pervasive. The Baltimore County, Md., school system went so far last May as to make the change official by converting its public-information office into a marketing office.

“The whole profession has changed,” noted Ms. Ross of the school public-relations association.

Public-school campaigns and promotional efforts have not necessarily been costly for the districts, maintain Ms. Ross and a number of district public-information officers.

“I’m not seeing big jumps in budgets at all,” Ms. Ross said. Instead, she said, she finds an emergence of cooperative ventures involving school boards, parents, business representatives, and educators in an effort to promote the public schools. “Groups that seemed to move in isolation before are now forming coalitions,” she said.

The corporate sector is playing a major role in many of those coalitions, those involved with school public-relations programs note.

In the campaign sponsored by the New York Alliance for Public Schools, for example, the itt Corporation produced and underwrote the full-page print advertisements, Chemical Bank is promoting the campaign in branch offices throughout the city, and Time Inc. has provided funds for the publication of a quarterly newsletter for the alliance. An additional 22 corporate6sponsors have contributed to this month’s campaign.

Increased Involvement

Barbara Kudlacek, director of communications for the Topeka (Kan.) Public Schools, said she agrees that the new public-relations efforts need not be expensive.

“Actually, we’re spending less, if you adjusted it for inflation,” she said. “The switch is more toward involvement kinds of activities rather than publishing and sending information out.”

“The research tells me that ... to get people really committed to something, they need to be really involved in it,” she noted. “Very few people’s opinions change based on what they read unless they don’t have an opinion to begin with. If you really want to get them on the bandwagon, you have to find ways to involve them.”

The 15,000-student district’s efforts to involve the community in the local schools include an adopt-a-school program with area businesses, a volunteer corps of 5,000 people, and regular meetings between a school principal and a senior citizens’ group, according to Ms. Kudlacek.

“When I came here about 10 years ago, we focused on communications in general and just on parents,” she noted. “Because we have become more aware of the change in demographics--that only 25 percent of the population are parents--we have really stressed expanding our communications efforts to other groups.”

“Tax support to pay for the schools,” she added, “comes from the entire community, not just the parents.”

Parents, however, do continue to play a role in schools’ public-information efforts. For the 5.4-million-member National Congress of Parents and Teachers, for example, citizen involvement has always been viewed as a means of increasing public support for the schools.

“ptas should be helping promote the good things that are going on in the schools and telling the community about the progress that schools are making,” said Tari Marshall, public-relations director for the National pta “Our members are more aware of the need for such efforts now.”

In Dallas, where two-thirds of the adults living in the city have no children in public schools, the public-relations unit of the Dallas Unified School District has expanded its repertory in the last few years.

New Efforts

“When you start talking about going outside and communicating with people, a lot of the traditional things for us--such as a note sent home with students for parents--won’t work any more,” said Rodney Davis, director of information services for the district, which employs 50 people in public-relations and communications efforts.

“We’re looking for all kinds of ways to get people involved in the schools because people usually support that which they’re involved in,’' he said.

Among the district’s programs are a corporate adopt-a-schools project with 2,153 business sponsors; a volunteer program with 12,760 volunteers; a cable-television station that produces educational programs; a graphics and printing department; and 16 telephone lines to handle inquiries and comments from the public, Mr. Davis said.

Technological Aid

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has recently installed word-processing equipment to double its output of news releases to the local press, there has been a “tremendous” response to the effort, according to Eva S. Hain, director of the public-information unit.

The stepped-up coverage of education in the press and the resultant increased awareness of the public has paid off, Ms. Hain said. “Education has become a topic of general concern, and in the last two years, the California state legislature has given additional funds for improving schools and school programs. We are making sure from our end that legislators in the community know that that money is being well spent.”

“Building a high degree of confidence in schools and in educators among members of the general public is a goal of all of us,” wrote Dale E. Graham, president of nassp, in a letter introducing the association’s public-awareness kit. “If all of us spend a little time this year and in subsequent years to build greater support for education, students, educators, and the broader community will benefit.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 1984 edition of Education Week as Schools Wooing Public With Media Campaigns