Public school of thought

Multiple choice is testing public schools' PR prowess.

Multiple choice is testing public schools' PR prowess.

There was a time when your local public school was to education pretty much what Ma Bell was to telephone service: the only game in town. But with competitors cropping up seemingly everywhere, public schools are finding themselves in a new world, one in which they have to market their services. More and more, PR professionals who work for public schools are engaged in the same activities as their colleagues in the private sector - marketing and reputation management. Parents in many areas have an array of choices for how to educate their kids: private, parochial, and charter institutions, as well as schools outside their own district and home schooling. Increasingly, when children opt to attend a different institution, the tax dollars earmarked for their education go with them. The US Supreme Court's recent decision to give Cleveland's voucher program the Constitutional nod will no doubt further that trend. So in a real sense, the work of public-school PR practitioners is to hold onto both students and funding. Urban retention marketing Perhaps because they've borne the brunt of the complaints about the state of public education, urban schools tend to be more advanced in marketing than their suburban and rural counterparts. But even Janay Wittek-Balke, coordinator of communications and public engagement for the Franklin, WI public schools - Franklin is a Milwaukee suburb with 4,000 students - says she will begin working on a marketing plan. "We aren't seeing declining enrollment, but we're gearing up for taking competition more seriously," Wittek-Balke says. "We have to make sure people continue to choose our school district, because they have so many other choices. "Everyone in school PR has started to think in a different paradigm," she adds. "Schools need to continue building relationships with PR, but marketing is a whole new concept in public education." Milwaukee itself is one of the most advanced districts in terms of using PR and marketing. That's because the city has the first voucher program, begun in 1990. In addition to its communications office, the system has a marketing department, called School Marketing and Pupil Recruitment Services, that helps individual schools in their efforts. "We had two choices," says Don Hoffman, director of communications and public affairs in Milwaukee. "We could compete for each and every kid, or lose them to choice and charter." Hoffman, who has been in his job for almost two years (he was previously a TV news reporter), adds, "Ten years ago, you wouldn't think of a public school having to buy billboards and TV. The reality is, with the competition we face in Milwaukee, if we don't do that we'll be left in the dust." Much of Hoffman's efforts have been focused on trying to get the local press to stop beating up on the school district by meeting with reporters and demanding corrections when they get things wrong; he estimates the negative stories have dropped by 25%. "I represent a school district that is predominantly African American, as are most urban school districts around the country," Hoffman says. "I am not going to allow my district to be treated any differently than suburban schools." Milwaukee launched a major image campaign last year - the theme was "Choose a Leader. Choose MPS" - that included everything from media outreach to direct mail to an infomercial to 177,000 McDonald's tray liners. Hoffman says the district thought it would lose kids last year, but gained 1,200. "We think the campaign turned it around," he says. Holding back on marketing Alan Seifullah, chief communications officer of the Cleveland Municipal School District, at the center of the Supreme Court ruling on vouchers, says the district does not feel pressure to do more marketing because of vouchers. Instead, it wants the state to find funding for the vouchers rather than penalize public schools. "Most of our effort is aimed at informing the public about what's available in the Cleveland school district," Seifullah says. "We have been maligned with much justification for decades. It's pretty much been viewed as a system of failure and incompetence. It's hard to get people to realize that the school district of 2002 is vastly different from the school district of 1992 and 1982." Seifullah, who has been with the system for two years, points out that in 1997 the state legislature gave control of the schools to the mayor. "We've been progressing. We still have a long way to go, but we've turned the ship around. Whenever we have an opportunity to mention the progress of the last four years, we do." Catherine Sullivan-DeCarlo, director of communications for New Haven Public Schools in Connecticut, says her job entails getting the schools' messages out through a variety of media, which are similar to (though maybe vaster than) what many other school districts use: a cable TV show, quarterly newsletter, yearly calendar, website, monthly advertisements in newspapers serving minority communities, and general media relations efforts. New Haven is fortunate in that its local ABC affiliate devotes time in each newscast to education stories. New Haven's schools have been garnering press lately, including a National Public Radio piece in July, for its new "shared accountability" program, which grades parents as to how involved they are with their children's education. The unusual notion of giving parents a report card has helped draw attention, Sullivan-DeCarlo says. Test scores speak for themselves Accountability - mostly through standardized test scores - has moved front and center as an issue for the schools, adding to the communicators' workload. Parents, taxpayers, and legislatures want to know how the schools are faring. This year, President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, which will impose sanctions for school districts that don't measure up. "Our test scores outpace the state in every measurement," says Rick Kaufman, executive director of communications for Jefferson County Public Schools in Colorado, with 80,000 students. "In most cases, we can move the state average by two percentage points because of our results. If a school district can hang its hat on a performance promise or unique curriculum or innovation," that's a great marketing tool. Kaufman, who is president-elect of the Rockville, MD-based National School Public Relations Association, says a parochial school in the area last spring delivered a four-color brochure, flyer, and videotape to hundreds of area homes. "It was great work," he admits. "I imagine that was not cheap." (Kaufman became known nationally because his district includes Columbine High School, and he was lead communicator after the April 1999 shootings. Violence continues to be a perception problem for public-school communicators, who call it a misperception problem). But not all taxpayers are happy about spending money on PR, so public-school PR pros find themselves in a Catch 22: forced by choice to compete, but criticized by some for spending money to publicize themselves. In July, The Detroit News ran an article highlighting the $1.5 million Detroit Public Schools spent in the past year on PR to attract more students. More than one-third of the money went to four PR firms: Berg Muirhead & Associates, Nedd/Worldwide Public Relations, Caponigro Public Relations, and Positive Impressions. The article quoted a parent critical of the spending, and noted that the money was allocated in "a budget-tightening year that saw 700 staff members laid off and schools cutting expenses 10%." Kaufman says that confronting the skittishness about public schools marketing themselves often begins internally. "Part of it is educating our own staff that when it comes to marketing, sometimes you have to spend money to make money." --------------------- Akron makes the grade In 2000, Akron Public Schools in Ohio were going through a tough time. The Akron Beacon Journal criticized the schools' quality and ran a series questioning whether African-American children were getting an equal education. The superintendent had resigned, and the school board was taking a long time finding a replacement, painting itself as indecisive. The school system had long faced many for-profit community schools (eight at the time), and in 2001, state test results put the district in "academic emergency." The mayor threatened to take over the schools if he didn't see improvement. "It seemed like everything that could happen to a school system was happening," says Karen Ingraham, Akron public schools' executive director of communications. To make matters more delicate, the district needed to ask the taxpayers to pass a ballot initiative for new money (the first such request in seven years), but the public wasn't receptive. The education board dedicated $250,000 to PR to improve the schools' image in anticipation of the vote. The campaign, called "Your Success is Our Success," ran from March 2001 through the summer, ending just prior to the fall tax-levy effort. Ingraham and her team put together a campaign that relied heavily on testimonials from famous and not-so-famous graduates of the Akron schools, interviewing them and using their high school pictures. "We talked to graduates, and it was amazing how loyal and proud they were of the Akron public schools," she says. Celebrities included actress Melina Kanakaredes, singer James Ingram, college football coach Ara Parseghian, poet Rita Dove, and CNN news anchor Leon Harris. Surprisingly, even the critical mayor - a graduate of the school system - participated, as did the police and fire chiefs. The campaign used radio and TV spots and a four-color A-to-Z booklet profiling 26 graduates, from an automotive dealership owner to a zookeeper. It also had billboards, bus signs, and movie theater slides. To save money, Ingraham did everything in-house. Once the campaign got rolling, the district received donated space on billboards and buses. In September 2001, a pre-levy survey showed a 45%-50% chance of the public approving the tax. This was greater acceptance than previous surveys, and gave the district hope for a positive vote. The survey also showed improved perceptions of the schools. In November, the campaign was credited with helping the district pass the $8.9 million operating levy by 10 percentage points - the largest margin in history.

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