An intense comms push is helping the National Education Association display its human side
The 3.2-million-member National Education Association (NEA) has a few seemingly simple stated priorities: Improve the quality of teaching and schools from pre-K to graduate school programs, as well as increase student achievement.
But in practice, the activities of the NEA are complex, including helping members negotiate contracts, lobbying state and federal lawmakers for funding for programs or projects its members hold near and dear, advocating particular political candidates seen as supporting NEA's goals, and much more.
These various activities create plenty of internal communications challenges. As such, everything from e-mail newsletters, print publications, and blogs to national conferences and other meetings are used to keep all of the many members informed and active in NEA's collective effort.
They also present external communications challenges. As the 800-pound gorilla in the educational field, the NEA risks being branded as simply a political animal, associated with big debates such as the one over the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, for instance, or other legislation to which the group devotes its extensive lobbying.
But a number of nationwide PR efforts greatly help keep NEA human, notes its PR staff, reminding both NEA members and the public that the US' largest professional employee union has the ultimate goal of providing, as the NEA's motto states, "great public schools for every child."
The most prominent and successful of these efforts - which are mostly handled in-house - has been Read Across America (RAA), a day-long event held every year that gets parents, teachers, community leaders, celebrities, politicians, and others to participate in a kind of "reading celebration." This year, RAA drew more than 32 million participants and broad media coverage, including major papers and TV outlets like Today.
"What it's done is position the NEA and its members on the side of reading," notes NEA national communications manager Steve Grant. "In polls we've done, when people are asked if they've heard about the NEA, they'll say, 'I know they do something with reading.' For me that was an 'ah-ha' moment - that this program can have a really strong effect on what the average person knows about the NEA."
Other significant NEA communications efforts include Books Across America, in which NEA members and students this year donated more than 365,000 books to Gulf Coast public libraries damaged by the 2005 hurricanes, as well as National Teacher Day.
Now, the NEA is not seen as being only interested only in protecting the interests of its members, with all of the negative connotations often attributed to unions - in 2004, then-US Education Secretary Rod Paige called the NEA a "terrorist organization" for its aggressive campaign against NCLB. Instead, its ongoing initiatives more effectively connect the NEA to altruistic goals such as better students, teachers, and schools.
"I think some people would be surprised to hear how much PR work is coming out of NEA, which they associate as a labor union," Grant says. "Branding ourselves with non-political action brings far greater good for the long term."
Lipman Hearne VP Patrick Riccards, who works with many education clients, says streamlined, effective internal communications will always be a challenge for the NEA given its large and diverse membership. Still, he notes, it has probably the most sophisticated communications shop of any union.
"They take no prisoners when it comes to [seeking] media attention," Riccards says. "[RAA] is probably the most successful non-member program they're out there
talking about. They've done a tremendous job in getting that out there and having the right advocates and spokespeople out in the field to talk about that."
Andy Linebaugh, director of the NEA's PR department, notes that PR is just one of several departments in the NEA that handle communications. There is another department devoted to speechwriting and op-eds; a 501(3)C organization called the Health Information Network that helps schools cope with crises such as shootings and issues such as bullying; a government relations department; and more.
The communications department remains a work in progress, he adds, with a strategy for using blogs, podcasts, and other types of new media still to be worked out. In general, however, the department has made big strides since an overhaul that began in fall 2005, when Linebaugh got permission to hire some 23 new staffers, many with PR agency and political PR experience.
But while the NEA has a relatively big communications staff and budget, results stem not so much from sheer spending - the budget for RAA is less than $500,000, for example - but innovation, says Linebaugh.
"The success is because of the staff," he explains. "It's their creativity and dedication to the mission of the organization."