Public Relations in Schools
This article presents an overview of public relations strategies and concepts for public schools. The role of public relations in public education began with higher education applying public relations methods used in business to promote their programs with competitors. Public relations involves far more than publicity. "Educational public relations" means genuine cooperation in planning and working for good schools with the community. Collaborating with internal and external publics becomes a two-way process by means of the flowing of ideas between school and community. Through thoughtful design and engagement public relations builds the basis for mutual understanding and effective team work between the two.
Keywords Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP); Branding; Constituents; Educational Public Relations; External Publics; Internal Publics; No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB); One-Way Model; Public Relations; School Leadership; Two-Way Symmetrical Model
Educational Public Relations is a planned, systematic management function, designed to help improve the programs and services of an educational organization. It relies on a comprehensive, two-way communication process involving both internal and external publics with the goal of stimulating better understanding of the role, objectives, accomplishments, and needs of the organization. Educational public relations programs assist in interpreting public attitudes, identify and help shape policies and procedures in the public interest, and carry on involvement and information activities which earn public support and understanding (National School Public Relations Association, 2002, p. 2).
Public relations have always played a significant communication role in society. Businesses utilized it to promote and inform the public, and higher education soon began using it to gain public support. Education leaders recognized that public relations are a necessary tool in making their needs and programs known. The twentieth century saw the birth of the first public relations firm with Harvard University being the first client (Maher, 1997). The forerunner of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) was formed in 1935 and by 1948 educational public relations was being promoted by The National Association of Secondary Principals (NASSP).
Initially, the role of educational public relations was simply a form of publicity. Some even viewed it negatively as propaganda. The higher education institutions were competing for students and program recognition as well as financial support. The goal was to inform the public about their activities, specific benefits, and programs and since they were patterning their approach to public relations after the business arena, they did not solicit feedback from the public regarding their institutions. This was referred to as the one-way model of public relations.
The influences of the Depression, war, and the advances in industry in the U.S. brought the importance of education to the forefront. Education leaders realized that they needed the community to understand the importance of education and its role in the future of our society. There needed to be an avenue of open communication between the community and the schools, a two-way flow of ideas to build understanding and to work together to advance the quality of education. This became known as the two-way symmetrical model of public relations.
Inviting the public to be a part of shaping education elicited the need for educators to take the initiative in developing the purpose of educational public relations. School leaders and boards must be aware of current and new issues. They are responsible for developing specific plans to inform and provide understanding to the parents and community which will lead to a collaborative approach to implement a new program or encourage achievement. "In 1950 the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) reported that if the public is to support education, education must be visualized as an investment. The best way to accomplish this was for the public to receive accurate and well-reported information from the schools" (Maher, 1997, p. 8). Education is not a "stand-alone" entity. It is an important element for a thriving community and the future of our society. School leaders and boards are established to oversee the education process. However, the entire community is responsible for supporting the education of their children. Educational public relations was initially and is still today the means of providing our citizens with an understanding of the education system and its needs as well as seeking their involvement and support in maintaining and developing quality programs and opportunities for the students.
Communication is essential for the success of any organization or project. It is important that parents, businesses, and the community understand the educational process along with the purposes and goals of programs necessary to provide a quality education for their students. Public relations management procedures provide an effective means of informing and receiving input from the community at large to attain optimal results and achievement. It is important that the school understands the needs and desires of the community, develops a plan of action, keeps parents and the community satisfactorily informed, shares information in a simple direct way to ensure understandability creates positive communication, builds confidence in the school system and its goals, and establishes avenues of open communication.
The role of school leadership is crucial to successfully incorporating the school into the community and eliciting the community's contribution to the school. Clearly defined roles and responsibilities are essential for a productive and collaborative effort to strengthen and advance the education system. Regardless of the size of the school the superintendent is ultimately responsible for oversight of this endeavor. The active support of the board, administrative staff, and teachers are vital in the implementation of the public relations strategies and in the on-going observation of its reception and scrutiny by the community and parents.
Too often the difficult and negative aspects of the education process are exposed and dwelt on by the media and parents without recognizing the positive qualities and achievements of the educational experience. This is a major concern as the educational leaders strive to provide current programs and opportunities for the future leaders of our society. Recognizing that even the smallest comments and daily situations influence the perception of school is key to accurately portraying the school, its staff, and students.
It is important to be cognizant of the fact that the public schools are public institutions directly accountable to the public and that they rely on support from the public. Providing information and understanding is integral to effective on-going growth and development of the educational system for our students.
Public education in America is under attack as educational issues and questions are prominent in magazines, newspapers, and television across this country. An attitude of declining support for public education is debated from the grocery aisles to state capitols to the floor of the Congress. Successful management of school public relations is proactive rather than reactive in nature. The main role of “school public relations is to maintain mutually beneficial relationships between the school district and the many internal publics and external publics it serves” (Carr, n.d., p. 28). The carrying out of this role functions in a unique way for each school district. However, the only common element found in every public relations program that proves to be successful is that they are strategically planned. Careful planning and creative management are essential to the coordination of projects and presentations of a district.
The National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) sets out a simple framework for the development of a detailed plan involving district public relations. An exemplary public relations program follows a basic four-step public relations cycle or process:
Step 1Research. The up-front analysis on where the district stands in regard to all publics it wishes to reach. This may be accomplished using a district-wide survey or meeting and talking with a few patrons of the school system. Discover what information is needed and how it will be used.
Step 2Action plan. First develop public relations goals, objectives, and strategies that fit cohesively with the district's overall mission and goals. Secondly, target the audience you desire to reach and give them information they really need.
Step 3Communicate. To carry out the tactics necessary to meet the objectives and goals requires information along with deciding who and how: is it one-way or two-way, internal and/or external (NSPRA, 2002).
Step 4Evaluate. Review the actions taken to determine their effectiveness and what changes are needed in the future by taking the time to measure the success, follow-up surveys, and talking with groups (Carr, n.d., p. 25).
The effective management of a school's public relations calls for a collaborative systematic approach beginning with the local district's board of trustees, to the superintendent, and the faculty and staff. Pinelli & Dugger (in Maher, 1997) listed five essential ingredients of public relations of which the leadership must not lose sight:
- "Public relations" is both a philosophy and a function of management.
- "Public relations" is expressed in policy and manifests it-self through actions which are designed to promote understanding.
- "Public relations" is an active process...
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