As public school marketers, we’re dealing with the most educated consumers the world has ever known. Speed, packaging, and convenience are the digital economy’s new currency.
We’re also dealing with chronic shortages of funds and a fundamental industry-wide reluctance to get fully engaged in marketing, communications, and public relations.
Since this means that most of us are going to have to do more with the resources we have, here are a few tips to get you started working smarternot just harder.
• Focus, focus, focus. Since none of us has any time to waste, we have to target those programs and activities that will yield the greatest results. This means saying “yes” to relationship-building activities, one-to-one marketing to opinion leaders, engaging citizens in decision making processes, and targeted communicationsand using the web, eMail, and database technology to help you manage it. This also means saying “no” to time destroyers like departmental videos, mass mailings, multiple meetings, press releases, “one-size fits all” publications, and special event marketing.
• Follow the “Five Times” rule. If you can’t get five or more uses out of your time, don’t invest it. For example, if you’re going to invest time and resources in “covering” a school event, make sure you can use the digital photos, video, and write-up: (1) on the web; (2) as a “good news” segment on your school or district cable station; (3) as a feature story for a local weekly; (4) in a newsletter for parents; (5) as part of a school marketing video; (6) as part of a district publication; (7) as a “good news” eMail to key constituents; (8) as ads in targeted print or radio outlets; (9) as part of a 60-second video public service announcement, etc.
• Consistency is king. Accept as a given that what you can fit on the head of a pin is the amount of information you’ll be able to drive home consistently to staff, parents, senior citizens, and other school customers. Picture what your eMail and office in-box look like after a week’s vacation (assuming you didn’t tap in from the beach) and you’ll quickly understand what marketers mean by “communication clutter.” Cutting through this glut of information is going to take compelling, clear, concise messages, themes, and images that are repeatedagain and again and againon the web and in eReleases, fax broadcasts, web casts, and online publications, as well as in more traditional communication channels.
• Target your communications. An oft-repeated public relations truism is that “an invitation to everyone is an invitation to no one.” Start building a database of key people who are critical to your school or district’s success. Get their names, addresses, eMail addresses (at work and a home), fax numbers, phone numbers, pager numbers, and web site URLs. Look for those “E.F. Hutton” types (when they talk, people listen), recognizing that when you communicate with one of them, you’re really reaching 10, 20, 30, 50, or more people at a time. Contract with a web company like Listbot.com or another low-cost provider to manage your data and eReleases. Listbot.com, for example, charges as little as $99 to maintain a basic eMail database for a year.
• Market your communication channels. Too many of us practice what I refer to as the “Field of Dreams” approach to marketing. Hollywood aside, if you build it and don’t market it, they’re not gonna come. You may have the coolest web site in the world, but if your constituents don’t know it exists, it’s not going to be very effective. Register your site with key search engines (many education-oriented ones are free), link to appropriate sites, and imbed meta-tagskey words and descriptions that help search engines find matches. Fewer than 10 percent of all web pages use meta-tags in their hypertext markup language coding, which means that 90 percent of us are missing a major marketing opportunity. (For more information on building and marketing your school web site, see the National School Public Relations Association or The Image Group web sites.)
• Do “PR for PR.” In an era of belt-tightening and budget cuts, don’t assume that everyone recognizes the impact your communications are having. For example, when you’re eMailing the “good news” article you placed in the local newspaper to your “E.F. Hutton” list, make sure to include your superintendent, board of education, senior staff, and department heads, as well as the people, school, or program featured. Briefly point out how such strategic publicity placements are working to support the budget-adoption process or another key school or district goal, and what it would have cost to buy that space at commercial advertising rates. If 100 people have eMailed input to a new board policy or participated in a community-wide opinion poll via telephone or the net, make sure that input is shared with the board and is counted as part of the official record.
Remember, we’re working a group that is basically marketing-phobic. It’s our job to help educate our administrators and other key staff about the power of proactive public relations and communications in today’s highly competitive, choice-driven school market.
Today, more than ever, public education needs effective school marketers. Winning in the court of public opinion and in the competitive choice marketplace requires new skills, expertise, and knowledge. But I’m convinced that if we can sell our country on Beanie Babies and cigarettes, we should be able to sell something as critical to our democracy as public education.
National School Public Relations Association
The Image Group