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Public Relations for School Districts: Ten Best Practices

The educational landscape is constantly evolving. With each new generation of thinkers and creators comes a fresh set of challenges for school administrators. One recent challenge for education decision-makers has been communication. As public education critics have grown increasingly vocal, effectively communicating academic progress with the public is now essential.

If school districts and institutions want to accomplish high-level initiatives, executing multi-pronged public relations plans that highlight milestones and captivating stories must be a top priority. Public relations for school districts pulls back the curtain on proficiencies in the classroom and helps school districts engage with their community and key stakeholders in a complex post-pandemic world.

What Is Public Relations for School Districts and How Does It Work?

Before we dive into how you can improve community relations with a strong public relations plan, let’s get square on the fundamentals of public relations for school districts.

What is public relations? Public relations is the strategic communication that shapes the public’s perception of a school district and its administrators. This communication engages the audience with compelling content and stories through multiple channels. From earned media to social media, the goal is to get your target audience to know, like and trust you. The specific tactic you should take will depend on your district’s or institution’s goals. Taking a proactive approach to public relations can help build long-lasting relationships and increase trust community-wide.

Why Public Relations Is Vital for School Districts

Public relations is vital for public school districts and higher education today. Gone are the days of written-only communication placed in a backpack, a banner on the school website and social media pages. Now with online media inherently social, public perception is everything. School districts — and even higher ed universities and colleges — must now execute effective communications across multiple channels.

In addition to timely community-driven content, school districts also need a PR communication plan. One that supports high-level initiatives and drives earned media. There are three reasons why school districts should consider creating a comprehensive public relations strategy:

1 – Increased Channel Complexity: From face-to-face communication to handling media requests and creating print and digital media, school districts must address audience pain points in every channel — including text, social media, and digital marketing.

2 – Cynical Critics: Education is under fire. Hawkish voices in both public and private sectors have worked to erode trust in the effectiveness of public schools. Showcasing newsworthy milestones and progress made is paramount to influencing public opinion.

3 – Community Relations is Essential: An increased focus on public relations increases the PR workload and scope for a school’s PR person. Community relations programming — things like realtor orientations, breakfasts with Chambers of Commerce, and American Education Week Open Houses — provide a platform to gain support and solidify relationships in the community.

Many school communications teams are treading water as is, and so taking on the responsibility of executing good PR on top of it is overwhelming. Have a limited budget? Maximize it by leveraging a PR agency to streamline communication, manage public perception and make your job easier.

Benefits of PR for School Districts and How a PR Firm Helps

Many people believe PR is only for saving face amidst a crisis. The truth is that positive PR is a powerful tool for garnering awareness around district milestones, highlighting educator leadership, and telling student success stories the public finds captivating.

Since 2008, nearly 60 percent of reporters have lost their jobs. What does that mean for you? Securing media coverage is harder than ever before. One way districts can ensure that time and resources aren’t wasted trying to uncover what reporters care about is by partnering with a PR agency that specializes in education and has experience with promoting positive accomplishments of students, teachers, and administrators.

Below are five main benefits of good PR for school districts:

Boost District Reputation

Identifying trending headlines and what the community wants to hear affords the opportunity to place stories on faculty with a relevant area of expertise at a school, or highlight the excellence of certain school operations. Public relations helps boost reputation community-wide and pays dividends long-term with public opinion of expertise within programs, departments, and schools.

Highlight Thought Leadership

Do school administrators feel like they are constantly battling to prove their track record? Well-placed articles can highlight leadership wins and challenges overcome to bring a better education experience at the classroom level.

Drive Higher Student Enrollment

Hearing about current students and successful alumni can help elevate a school on a local and ideally national stage. Be vocal about academic and athletic achievements. Think your “hometown hero” story has the potential to warm hearts everywhere? This type of content is gold for attracting future talented students and faculty.

Stand Out in Competitive Markets

Not only is public relations excellent for standing out locally, but nationwide campaigns are essential for bringing in top students from out-of-state. With American colleges and universities predicted to bring in lower revenue growth through 2027, education leaders must lean into public relations to stand out from their competitors.

Shape Community Perspectives

Trying to gain traction on ideas within the community? Human interest pieces are excellent ways to highlight student success or the benefits of a program or a change, like this 4-day school week change in Colorado, and subtly promote the benefits to a larger audience.

People want to feel good about the schools that are a part of the community fabric. Highlighting the differentiators that your institution’s “brand” brings to the table can be effective in generating community pride and shaping how people feel and talk about your district.

10 Public Relations Best Practices for School Districts

Vocal cynics and austeric headwinds means school districts can’t afford NOT to have a strong PR plan. Without a PR plan, you risk losing control of your district’s narrative and reputation. With one, you turn wins and milestones into positive news stories seen by thousands. We put together ten public relations best practices for school districts to help build awareness, highlight progress and foster better relationships with their communities.

Utilize Email & Segment Audiences

A Marketo study found that 58 percent of people check their email first thing in the morning. Email continues to reign as one of the top marketing tools for businesses and education institutions alike. By segmenting your email lists and tailoring your communications to fit each audience (parents, faculty, students, policy-makers) you can ensure that you get the right message to the right people.

Plan for Crisis and Reputation Management Now

Scrambling for a PR response is one of the worst places to find yourself amidst a crisis. By having a proactive crisis & reputation management plan in place that dictates how school operations should work and ensure that you stay in control of the situation and develop the narrative that helps navigate the storm.

Stay CLEAR Headed

Ensuring you stay calm and create communication that gives you the most options to  unforeseen events comes down to the CLEAR model. Communications Strategy Group (CSG ®) employs the CLEAR model to be prepared and avoid mistakes that can compound situations where reputations are on the line.

Calculate – Assess the crisis
Level Set – Conduct due diligence and assign roles
Engage – Create and implement stakeholder-specific communication
Analyze – Monitor ongoing developments and coordinate with crisis team
Review – Debrief on the crisis resolution and wrap up lingering damage control
Cover Each Channel – The online media landscape has changed communication and the type of tactics used dramatically. There are key channels to consider when developing public relations for school districts including push notifications and text alerts, social media posts, district website updates, email newsletters, and earned news media.

Promote Notable Accomplishments

Any notable accomplishments, student success, or awards faculty or staff receive should be shared far and wide. The National School Public Relations Association gives out the 35-Under-35 Award that honors the work of 35 different public relations professionals making a difference for their school districts or education-related employers. This can then be promoted in local news media to highlight and recognize leaders in their field.

Undergo Messaging and Media Delivery Training

Anyone considered a spokesperson for the district should go through messaging and media delivery training. CSG helps districts create a messaging grid to effectively promote the school district in a way that protects its reputation and promotes its brand positively.

Measure Results and Adjust Accordingly

Feedback without measurement is useless. When determining the effectiveness of PR efforts, CSG follows a 4-step approach that helps achieve business outcomes through strategic communications.

1 – Document the demographic make-up of earned media readers
2 – Record social shares and platform-specific performance
3 – Uncover website referral traffic through Google Analytics
4 – Attribute earned media across all platforms

Pitch Stories Like A Reporter

If public relations professionals want journalists to find their stories compelling and newsworthy, then ensuring the pitch stands out from hundreds of other pitches reporters receive every day is critical. Here are three tips to stand out in your next story pitch:

  • Identify Trades and Mediums – Find out which trades and mediums your community consumes most often and get a sense of the type of headlines they run.
  • Hone In Your Target Audience – Before writing your pitch, ask yourself what makes this story an ideal piece for a journalist or their media outlet?
  • Be Ready To Deliver – Don’t overpromise and underdeliver with your pitch. Make sure a journalist has everything they need to get interviews and get the story live.

Establish Your “North Star”

With a variety stakeholders within a community that you will be speaking to, it’s important that your messaging articulates your district’s priorities and mission and engages your audience with compelling content marketing.

CSG helped EDUCAUSE, the world’s largest community of IT academic, industry and campus leaders, solve their “why” and strengthen their messaging which resulted in 20.6% more engaged social media users.

Align Communications Internally

If you want to make sure that your external PR communication hits the mark, set up a messaging grid that presents the district in a positive light. Ensure all faculty and staff are on the same page with how you talk about certain programs and accomplishments.

How to Improve Your School District’s Public Relations?

Before you make any big PR moves you must dial in foundational goals for your public relations strategy. Here are five steps you and your team should accomplish first:

1 – Define Your Goals: Write down your goals and what success looks like if everything goes according to plan.
2 – Identify Your Target Audience: Who are we trying to reach? Knowing our target audience will help ensure we are getting the right message to the right people.
3 – Designate Your School PR Person: Without someone (or an agency partner) at the helm to quarterback the public relations efforts, you can quickly grow overwhelmed, make mistakes, and lose control of the narrative.
4 – Record Deadlines and Time Frames: Goals are ineffectual if they aren’t time-bound. Knowing the deadlines will help keep you between guardrails and, when necessary, light a fire to get things done.
5 – Hire A PR Agency: Don’t have the bandwidth to do PR work or the budget to hire a dedicated school PR person? Hire a PR agency that can help create your PR plan, build brand awareness, and accomplish district communication initiatives. CSG works specifically with school districts to help amplify their brand and awareness of their institutions.

Want Public Relations Help in Your School District?

The truth is that effective public relations is one of the crucial tools school administrators should be leveraging in this fiercely competitive educational landscape. Not only is it productive for highlighting wins and accomplishments of staff, students, and school administrators within the district, but it’s essential to ensure the chants of hawkish education critics fall on deaf ears.

CSG specializes in helping school districts join critical conversations and highlight relevant thought leadership where it has the most impact. Get in touch to learn more about PR services.

FAQs About Public Relations for School Districts

What are the factors that influence school district public relations?

There are several PR factors that will affect your PR efforts. These factors includes crisis strategy, internal communications, media relationships, and parent correspondence.

What is the difference between community relations and public relations?

Community relations is the school district work done to garner goodwill in the community. Public relations is how you package up that story and present it to the media. Community relations is a smaller piece of the entire public relations pie.

What is the relationship between public relations and public opinion?

Public relations is the strategic communications a brand, institution, or business disseminates to shape the public perception of that organization. Public opinion is how the general public views and feels about a brand, institution or school district.

Where to get PR help for our school district?

CSG works to get the most impact immediately by getting engaging stories out to the right audiences and outlets and helping public school districts drive institution awareness, boost thought leadership, and ideally trigger increased enrollment.