When it was revealed over the summer that the Detroit Public Schools had spent $1.5 million on marketing and public relations, the story made national news.

I say, “Hooray for Detroit.” It’s about time school leaders start combating the overwhelming negative press public education receives by aggressively telling their stories directly to the people who matter most.

The cost-benefit analysis is clear. While the Detroit schools had to battle the expected concerns from citizens and teachers about “wasting” taxpayer dollars on public relations, the truth is that the district only had to recruit 217 new students to pay for the entire campaign.

If the district keeps those 217 for just three years, it’ll recoup another $4,481,484 in state aid—dollars that will go a long way toward funding teacher salary increases and new programs designed to boost academic achievement, both of which are sorely needed. With competition for students increasing daily and the “failing public schools” serving as one of the mainstream media’s pet phrases, administrators and school boards need to start boosting their communications budgets and staff expertise—as quickly as possible.

In addition to recruiting new students and families, strategic public relations and marketing campaigns can pay for themselves by helping to pass bond issues, attract great teachers, and garner community support for technology upgrades.

In my view, however, a hefty share of those new marketing dollars should be devoted to database development, the web, and other forms of electronic relationship building.

While billboards, radio spots, and other traditional advertising forms can help you get attention, it’s your relational database that’s going to help you communicate on a daily basis.

While customer relationship management (CRM) software packages may be purchased off the shelf for under $300, don’t underestimate the importance of putting some time and money into building—and maintaining—an accurate database of the people you want to communicate with on a frequent basis.

Although the needs of each school or district vary, your database for external communications probably should include:

• PTA/PTSA officers (or equivalent);
• Top realtors and relocation specialists;
• Realtor associations;
• Superintendent advisory committees or groups;
• Chambers of commerce (executive staff and board members);
• Education advocacy groups (executive staff and board members);
• Other economic development organizations;
• Ministerial alliance leadership;
• Executives of major employers;
• School-business partners (executives and liaisons);
• Professional organizations and unions (executive directors, officers); and
• Education, business, and relocation reporters.

To jumpstart this process, pull a marketing committee together with representatives from various departments and ask everyone to brainstorm answers to the following questions: (1) Who are we close to now? (2) Who do we need to get closer to? (3) How fast and in what ways can we reach them? (4) What do we need to do to improve this process?

Once you’ve identified whom you want on your lists, a little detective work is in order. Does someone already have this data buried in a file folder or on a PC? Is the contact information current? Does it include eMail, fax, and cell phone numbers and preferred method of contact?

Warning: Don’t dump a lot of files or lists into your new database without getting rid of duplicates and outdated information first. When it comes to building an effective database, it’s better to start slowly with a list of 10 accurate names and correct contact information, titles, addresses, etc. More definitely isn’t better, and the data entry axiom, “Junk in, junk out,” should become your mantra.

Given the hectic pace of most school leaders, public information officers, and school webmasters, I highly recommend hiring consultants or highly qualified temp staffs to help you chase down these lists, verify information, and enter the data.

Database consultants also can help you personalize off-the-shelf software to include special fields and add reporting functions and other programming details that will make the system easier for you to use. Staff training also is essential.

After you or your outsource team have created a workable database, writing “quick and dirty” eMails once or twice a month with a three-line positive news item about your schools is all you need to do to personalize your communications to PTA presidents, realtors, business leaders, ministers, education reporters, and other opinion leaders in your community.

The goal is to create a positive community buzz by feeding your friends and advocates a steady stream of 10-second news bites they can share at staff meetings, luncheons, and receptions.

You can add pizzazz to this message by including a hotlink to a page on your web site that packages the news with a feature story, fact sheet, and lots photos of teachers, students, and VIPs. (To see an effective example of this strategy in action, check out the newly redesigned Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools web site.)

eMail also can be a very effective strategy in driving additional traffic to your web site and cable television stations, both of which probably could benefit from additional funding and marketing savvy.

Too many school and district web sites still do not include basic information that parents and realtors have come to expect. The goal is to help parents find the information they need so they can find schools that meet their children’s unique needs.

These items include school and class sizes, student-teacher ratios, bell schedules, average teacher salaries and years of experience, per-pupil expenditures, special programs or themes, instructional strategies, student achievement data, graduation rates, SAT and ACT scores, scholarship dollars, child care, clubs, sports, and co-curricular activities.

Marketing means more than providing data, however. Use photos, text, subheads, bullets, pull quotes, photo tours, personality profiles, and testimonials (either written or digitized video clips) to make your web pages—and your schools—come alive.

Choosing a school is an emotional, as well as an intellectual, decision. Your communications need to convince parents that your schools are the best launching pad for their children’s hopes and dreams.

It’s a daunting task, but well worth doing. The future of public education just might depend upon whether we start marketing as well as we teach.

Links:

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
http://www.cms.k12.nc.us

National School Public Relations Association
http://www.nspra.org