Ten lessons in promoting public education

When it comes to public relations, Guy Kawasaki, chief executive officer of Garage.com and the former “chief evangelist” for Apple Computer, doesn’t mince words.

At a recent media relations conference in Washington, D.C., put on by “Bulldog Reporter,” Kawasaki urged PR practitioners to “avoid the dreaded bozo factor” of traditional news release “schlepping” by becoming missionaries for their company or cause.

Here’s a recap of Kawasaki’s powerful presentation, “Top Ten Lessons of PR,” along with some tips for applying this revolutionary thought leader’s ideas to my personal passion: promoting public education.

Lesson No. 1: Create buzz, not ink. “The secret to great PR is to create a great product,” says Kawasaki, noting that great products create buzz, and buzz creates sales. If, as Kawasaki maintains, having a great product to sell represents “90 percent of marketing,” how does your school or district stack up? If kids didn’t have to come, would they?

As the public education marketplace moves closer and closer to deregulation–remember, no one thought it would happen to public utility companies, either–it pays to be brutally honest about your product’s strengths and weaknesses.

You can create buzz by marketing what’s working well–and I’ve yet to see a school or school system that doesn’t have some stellar programs and performers–but you also need to fix what’s broken, or even just mediocre.

In my experience, the public isn’t fooled very easily. Taxpayers know which of our schools are producing and who the great teachers are, and what our weakest links are. They’re more likely to judge us by our strengths, if we’re more honest about our weaknesses.

Lesson No. 2: Be one thing to all people. Given the communications clutter out there, Kawasaki says, “you should be so lucky if the world recognizes you for one thing.”

When companies try to “extend the brand” by branching out into new products and services, they often fail, Kawasaki warns. “Volvo is known for safety, the Mac equals ease of use, and Amazon equals books,” he says.

Before you dismiss this PR tip as impractical for K-12 education, think again. While public education has traditionally been more of a “one size fits all” Sears than a niche market leader like the Gap, you can–and should–tailor your communications to reinforce one potent concept or idea.

For the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the nation’s 23rd largest school system, that one idea is “access to academic rigor.” For New City School, a small private school in St. Louis which has organized itself around Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, that one idea is that children learn best when they’re taught in a way that recognizes their learning differences.

Lesson No. 3: Position, do not be positioned. “I used to believe that you put your product out there and prayed,” says Kawasaki, unintentionally summing up most school marketing efforts.

PR success, however, requires that you define how your product or organization is seen in the marketplace, says Kawasaki, who absolutely requires all employees to use one simple phrase when describing Garage.com. “Before, we were known as an incubator; now, we’re known as a venture capital investment bank,” he says, noting that the phrase is now used repeatedly by technology reporters and other opinion leaders. “My duh-ism is that you can force your own positioning.”

If you want to see how this might apply to your situation, at your next executive cabinet or faculty meeting ask everyone to write down the one phrase that best describes your organization. If you get more than one concept back, you have a marketing problem.

Lesson No. 4: Cascade. Once you’ve clearly defined and articulated the positioning you want your product to have, you can’t expect employees to “pick it up by osmosis,” cautions Kawasaki.

“You have to communicate what you’re marketing to the rest of the executives and the rest of your employees by cascading the message down through the organization,” he says. “From the board of directors or advisors on down, you have to make sure that all people know what you want to be.”

Lesson No. 5: Cut the crap. Forget press kits with cute toys, fluffy news releases and faxes, says Kawasaki. Media relations needs to be targeted and personalized, preferably via eMail, on a one-to-one basis with reporters.

“I used to write for Forbes,” says Kawasaki, noting that as a columnist he often felt “carpet bombed” by news releases. “I know what it is to be inundated with crap.”

According to Kawasaki, most reporters just need a straightforward, two-paragraph eMail that covers the basics and succinctly offers a unique news hook or peg tailored to the interest of the reporter and his or her audience.

Lesson No. 6: Make friends before you need them. All reporters have to start somewhere. Only paying attention to the “big dogs” in your region and ignoring the smaller media outlets may come back to bite you.

In a “stage of extreme arrogance,” Apple decided it only had time for six major publications, Kawasaki says. Unfortunately for Apple, a reporter for one of the little publications it chose to ignore is now the West Coast Editor of BusinessWeek magazine.

School leaders can easily make the same mistake, favoring reporters from the local daily or television news ratings winner. Given the mobility of reporters, who jump-start their careers by changing cities, markets, and media outlets frequently, smart superintendents and other school leaders are going to build strong relationships with every reporter who shows an interest–positive or negative–in education.

Chances are, the reporter you befriend or the one you alienate will be the same one who follows you to another school system, or who is assigned by CNN or the New York Times to cover your district’s crisis.

Lesson No. 7: Block and tackle. Kawasaki says that the “nitty gritty” of proactive public relations is: (1) returning phone calls, both when you want “ink” and when you don’t; (2) answering eMails, and (3) never lying. “Telling the truth takes less energy,” Kawaski says. “Lying well is an art form I don’t have time to perfect.”

Kawasaki also cautions that reporters have an uncanny ability to sense when someone isn’t telling the truth, as well as a passion for exposing such discrepancies to the public.

When things get tough, and nowhere does it get tougher than for school leaders who must conduct all business in the public eye, the best thing you can do is take your lumps and get it over with–hopefully within one, 24-hour news cycle.

Lesson No. 8: Read then pitch, don’t pitch then read. Too many PR practitioners–and public information officers and other school leaders are notorious for this–approach reporters without having read, watched, or listened to a single article or report.

“This is the ultimate No. 1,” says Kawasaki. “Before you contact a reporter or a media outlet, you need to know exactly whose beat you fit into. Nothing’s worse than sending things that are totally inappropriate.”

Whether you’re focusing on your local media, national trade publications like eSchool News, or mainstream media that cover education on a national basis like the Washington Post or CNN, as the Music Man’s nemesis says, “you’ve got to know the territory.”

Lesson No. 9: Shoot bullets, not pellets. If you have a great product–and in my opinion, public education is a great product–then bring out the heavy artillery and sell it like an evangelist.

School public relations is a strategic management function that requires executive leadership at the highest level. The days when we could afford to have communications technicians–writers, editors, graphic designers, photographers, and web masters–at the helm are long gone. We need strategists and counselors who can target the right message to the right person at the right time, using the right medium for the right result.

Too much of school PR today is shooting pellets–spraying the “public” and other mass audiences with a barrage of information and praying that something, somewhere will “stick.”

Communications power, however, lies in engaging individual customers in the business of education and delivering highly targeted messages and services with laser-like focus on a one-to-one basis. Bullets, not pellets.

Lesson No. 10: Be a source. “If you help the publication, the publication will help you,” says Kawasaki. “The whole game comes down to can you get the media indebted to you.”

Like Garage.com, schools don’t have large marketing and advertising budgets. By taking a more proactive approach to public relations and being available to the media on “their deadlines, not yours” through the web and other means, school leaders can start turning the prevailing negative perception of public education around.


For a copy of Guy Kawasaki’s speeches, “Top Ten Lessons of PR” or “Selling the Dream,” eMail your request to speeches@garage.com.

For a copy of Nora Carr’s presentation, “Using the New Media to Market Your Schools,” eMail your request to n.carr@cms.k12.nc.us.

For more information about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, see http://www.cms.k12.nc.us.

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