ANALYSIS: MEDIA RELATIONS; Schools get a lesson in the benefits of PR

Both state and independent schools are now looking at public relations as a means of countering an abundance of negative images in the press

Both state and independent schools are now looking at public relations

as a means of countering an abundance of negative images in the press

Last week’s stabbing of a 14-year-old at the school which Learco

Chindama - headmaster Philip Lawrence’s killer - attended, is just the

latest example of a school grabbing the headlines.

And it seems that schools finding themselves in the media spotlight are

beginning to turn to PR for the salvation of their reputations.

In September the William Penn school in Dulwich, earlier snubbed by

Labour health spokeswoman Harriet Harman who lived locally but sent her

son elsewhere, relaunched itself as the Dulwich High School for Boys

with the support of PR firm Shandwick Consultants.

And last week the local authority responsible for the troubled Ridings

school in Halifax, called in Green PR and Marketing to handle its media

relations and implement a research project.

In recent years, higher education’s spending on PR and marketing has

spiralled. So do these unusual moves by secondary schools indicate a

rich new source of PR business?

The answer lies in understanding the factors behind this apparently

sudden interest in PR from schools.

‘The Ridings was a case of crisis management,’ says Mark Payne, senior

consultant at Shandwick. But couldn’t the same be said of Dulwich? ‘No,’

he replies, ‘the Harriet Harman affair happened several months before we

were called in.’

One national education correspondent has noticed a new trend in schools’

relations with the media. He says: ‘Headmasters are more savvy in PR

terms, sending me press releases and making themselves available for


Fran Abrams, education correspondent for the Independent, says: ‘As a

result of league tables and independent choice, schools now feel a need

to sell themselves. It’s good that they think about how the outside

world perceives them but they are being forced to compete with one


Roger Eames’ Top Class PR specialises in the independent sector with six

schools as clients. He provides media relations, crisis management, the

production of brochures and media training.

‘The independents have suffered from falling applications due to the

recession and outdated perceptions. A school charging pounds 12,000 per

pupil per year has a lot to gain from getting its publicity right,’ he


But despite the fact that the Independent Schools Information Service

(ISIS) has been urging schools to undertake PR for years, Eames says

business growth has been slow. ‘The average headmaster is still

suspicious of the image of professional PR people,’ he says.

John Dunford, headmaster of the Durham Johnston Comprehensive says PR in

his school is handled by one of the deputy heads and that this is

typical in the state sector.

However Dunford, formerly president of the Secondary Heads Association,

recognises the necessity for PR at a generic and individual level.

‘Stories like The Ridings are depressing for those who work in state

schools and have to read about what is really one or two schools with

grave difficulties,’ he says. For this reason Dunford is currently

trying to set up an equivalent information body to ISIS for the state

sector, to talk about its achievements.

His school also approaches local media with positive human interest

stories to counteract the media’s tendency to concentrate on the


Shandwick’s Payne believes the same issues apply to PR activity, whether

for independent or state schools. For the relaunch of Dulwich, Shandwick

urged the school to acknowledge the problems in perceptions and to look

forward, rather than back to the criticisms.

But as Payne also points out: ‘We are dealing with an area where

resources are tight. To undertake an effective programme a school needs

to spend at least the equivalent of a teacher’s salary.’

This is a central question when considering the PR business opportunity

presented by schools. The Ridings’ local authority was criticised by one

Liberal Democrats councillor for the expense of hiring a PR firm, and

this was in a state of crisis.

So how can a state school justify spending its already meagre resources

on PR?

‘These days a school’s survival will depend on its ability to attract

pupils and avoid the downward spiral of a poor reputation. Public

relations could be a good investment,’ says Payne.

More food for thought is that similar questions were asked in hospitals

several years ago, and this is now a lucrative PR sector.

Schools In The Headlines

December 1995, St Georges School, Maida Vale

Headmaster Philip Lawrence is stabbed while defending a pupil

January 1996, William Penn School, Dulwich

Harriet Harman decides against sending her son to her local

comprehensive in favour of St Olaves in Bromley

April 1996, Glaisdale School, Nottingham

Staff threaten strike action after a 13-year-old is suspended for

allegedly attacking both teachers and pupils, but is returned by an

appeals panel

October 1996, The Ridings School, Halifax

Staff threaten strike action over 60 uncontrollable students

October 1996, Manton Junior School, Nottinghamshire

Staff strike over a 10-year-old accused of attacking other pupils. Head

teacher closes school indefinitely on health and safety grounds

November 1996, Quintin Kynaston School, North London

14-year-old boy is stabbed at the school where the killer of headmaster

Philip Lawrence was a pupil

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