Families & the Community Opinion

Opportunities Lost

By Sally Leonard — November 12, 2003 8 min read
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A few pointers on PR from an educational marketer.

Have you ever gone to a public school district budget presentation in another system? You should try it sometime. I attended one recently with my daughter- in-law, who was asked by her area school board member to represent the neighborhood association. Both her attention and mine centered on the public education available for one soon-to-be 5-year-old. As a former educational administrator and current trainer in educational marketing, I was also curious about how this district presented information to its community.

Based on my experience, I knew we were in for a rather long and not very interesting affair. First, we sat through more than an hour of children singing and the school band playing. You’d think that would have drawn crowds of parents. It didn’t. The gym had room for lots more. Once the music program was over, they set up a long table under the basketball goal. The area school board member and budget team sat behind the table with their backs to the wall. The first row of chairs for the audience was about midcourt, half the room’s length away from the presenters.

The typical pie charts and handouts were used for the presentation. Then the meeting was opened for questions. A parent went to the microphone and very nicely said, “I just have one question. What did you do with the money last year?” Sitting in the audience next to me were two school administrators. (Their titles were on their nametags.) They commented: “What kind of question is that? Who is that idiot?”

That idiot was one of many in the room made to feel stupid by the way the budget was presented (and not presented).

As the architect Mies van der Rohe was fond of saying, “God is in the details.” So far in this meeting, the details had worked against the district. School officials created physical distance by positioning themselves away from the audience. They created intellectual distance by using vocabulary that obfuscated the presentation. They created emotional distance by not anticipating questions and by not promoting a positive attitude among school administrators. “What did you do with the money last year?” was a reasonable question. The response—"We’ll take that under advisement"—was not.

How could this presentation have been improved? After all, they were talking about the budget. We could start with a few questions: Why did the presenters sit so far away? By simply moving the table closer, they could have connected better with the audience. Why did they rely on acronyms, educational jargon, and impersonal data to get the message across? More important, what was the message? And why did they present the budget (beyond the fact that such public presentations are required)? Finally, why didn’t the presenters have answers to obvious questions? Were they in a hurry to get it over with? Please tell me that “we’ll take that under advisement” was not the only answer they could think of.

School officials should think about the receiving of the information, not just the giving of it. Why not present the budget as it affects individual students? Tell stories. What does it cost to educate Joe in the 3rd grade or Mary in the 7th? What do supplies, equipment, teaching staff, busing, food, clean buildings, and so forth cost on a per-student basis? Make the budget message personal and relevant, not general and dry.

Why not create a targeted, student-centered, curriculum-focused, relationship-building marketing video? Get a camcorder. Let students videotape competent teachers, well-stocked media centers, new bus tires, waxed-to-a-shine floors, busy administrators, new instructional materials, and happy students (viewed from the back for confidentiality sake). Add information on how much everything costs. This could create a “teachable moment” for your community. An opportunity. Copies of the video could be in every school’s front office for checkout. The tape, shown at civic meetings and in real estate offices, and given to business partners, could have a life beyond the budget presentation. It could speak continually to the ones who pay for public education.

All groups in your community deserve to know the details of where and how their money is being spent.

All groups in your community deserve to know the details of where and how their money is being spent, whether they have children in your school or not. One group often overlooked by districts is retirees. They no longer have children in school, but in my state, these retirees do two things important to public education: They vote and they pay property taxes. They are an important audience, aren’t they? Do you provide memorable, positive, interesting information targeted to them? How often are retirees in your schools, so that they can see what is going on and participate? Here is another opportunity.

What other audiences are we overlooking? What other means of communication? We lose so many opportunities, never to be reclaimed. The bad press rolls on and on, without our hearing or knowing how disconnected the public is from our actions. Details shared within the community—over coffee, over the back fence, at the beauty parlors and barbershops—stick. How do we get our public education message into those settings, so that they stick, too?

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell speaks of the three kinds of people needed to get our message out effectively, people he characterizes as “connectors,” “mavens,” and “salesmen.” Harry Beckwith, in Selling the Invisible (another business marketing book educators can adopt), emphasizes building relationships with our internal teams and our community audiences. Marketing is about building relationships—ahead of time, continually, face to face. For a school, that requires the effort of every staff member.

Staff members are out in the community. A school’s bus drivers, lunchroom personnel, janitors, and clerks, as well as its teachers and support staff, frequent the coffee shops, fast-food counters, and other places people in the community routinely gather. We have an important message to get out, a message that is student-centered, curriculum-focused, and targeted. All of our staff members—all school employees—need to know the details of our curriculum and our latest curriculum emphasis. How can such a diverse group know what is happening with the curriculum and the students? Through cross-job training, classroom tours, videos, participatory activities, student presentations, Web site FAQs, and much more.

Face-to-face, continuous communications. Student-centered, curriculum-focused targeted marketing. We don’t do enough of these. We think our public knows what is going on in public schools. They don’t, and we don’t provide a planned, targeted way for them to know. We use our jargon to separate us from others. We talk our talk, mostly to ourselves. We ignore many audiences—audiences who own public education and who contribute to its success or demise.

Go online and check out www.publicagenda.org especially the publication “Where We Are Now: 12 Things You Need To Know About Public Opinion and Public Schools.” Read what teachers, superintendents, parents, professors, and business leaders say about public education. What sources of information helped form these opinions? Rumors, conversations with staff members, interactions with students and parents? Or mission statements on school districts’ Web sites and letters sent home with students?

We think our public knows what's going on in pulic schools. They don't.

I recently sent out a questionnaire to Georgia school superintendents. It was interesting how many of them didn’t have e-mail addresses listed on their Web sites. And when present, many of the e-mail addresses weren’t current. Does this indicate something to people? How do we feel, for example, when we try to contact a business and can’t even ask our questions, much less get an answer?

Take every opportunity to focus your message on the curriculum. Are you pushing reading this year? How can the community be engaged? Consider giving students, staff members, and all visitors an adhesive-backed note when they come into your school. Have everyone list what they are currently reading and sign their names. Stick the notes on the wall in the foyer. Keep them up the entire year. Include adults as well as students. The emphasis on reading will be apparent, abundant, and may well be messy ... who cares! These notes visually demonstrate to every person coming into the school the importance of reading. How much does it cost? How many “needs assessments” have to be conducted? How many staff-development hours are involved?

And if reading’s so important, here’s another idea: Why doesn’t the superintendent have a book club? Oprah does. Could the superintendent partner with the students to choose a book per grade each year? Comments and reviews could be posted on the superintendent’s Web page.

How powerful are these strategies? Little details are memorable. Everyone in the community has an opportunity to be engaged, centered on students, and focused on curriculum. But it takes a different perspective, an approach that pays attention to details.

Schools are a service organization, one that people can choose to support or deride, participate in or walk away from. But their money, so far, is still going to this institution of public education.

Communities would like to know of, participate in, brag about, and be a part of the schools. Telling stories and making data personal and relevant can engage all of us. Paying attention to details closes the physical distance, changes the words we use, and creates positive personal relationships. By paying closer attention and minding the details of school life, we can quit losing opportunities to make life brighter for our students.

Sally Leonard, a former educational administrator, is now an educational trainer and marketer in Thomaston, Ga. Her e-mail address is llett@alltel.net.

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