A shortage of time, money, and expertise might be keeping the majority of school web sites mired in mediocrity, according to Patricia Swann, an assistant public relations professor at Utica College. While nearly all schools today now have web sites, few are allocating the resources needed to keep content fresh or use the web’s unique interactive features.

“Good web sites take the resources of time, money, and proper public-relations staffing,” says Swann. Swann’s recent study analyzing the content and interactivity of more than 100 K-12 web sites in New York state was featured in last month’s column (see “Study: School web sites not making the grade,“).

Another key issue hampering the “aggressive embrace” by school leaders of the latest web-based technology is the issue of control, according to Swann.

“If the school does not have public-relations input or control of the content and interactive features of the site, it is likely that the more sophisticated interactive features, [such as] fresh information, journalists’ format needs, [and] navigational features & may not be a high priority,” says Swann.

When a school web site’s content and format are controlled by programmers, technology coordinators, or teachers, the public-relations perspective of the web as a powerful tool for building and maintaining positive, lasting relationships between schools and their stakeholders might be lost or given short shrift, according to Swann

“Information and technology staff may not operate under the same perspective and knowledge of relationship-building that public-relations practitioners have,” says Swann.

Even when public-relations practitioners have control over content and interactivity or are able to work collaboratively with their peers in information technology or at the schoolhouse, too often they’re not given the resources needed to do the job right.

School web masters, many of whom toil as unpaid volunteers using their home equipment, face a similar fate. In desperation, many schools are turning to students for help.

“In school districts, resources are stretched,” says Swann. “I’m hearing anectdotally of school computer classes and clubs providing content and design for the school web sites. Can you imagine how their district newsletters would look and read if untrained, inexperienced students did this? Do you think this would be done in the commercial world?”

Not surprisingly, then, no matter who’s in charge, the web site simply becomes one more item on an already overcrowded “to do” list.

Faced with increasing competition, sensational news coverage, and higher expectations, school leaders really can’t afford to neglect the world’s fastest-growing communications channel.

For those leading public schools, the need to build communication bridges with stakeholders is even greater, given the growing threat of deregulation and privatization.

With more than 75 percent of American families now using the internet, school leaders need to pay more attention to how well their front door to the world is performing.

“Basically, schools need to commit at the highest levels–superintendents and school boards–and decide whether or not they are serious about their web site,” says Swann. “If they don’t have the resources–time, staff, and money–to do it professionally with public-relations input, then they should rethink their strategy.”

To understand just how potent a school web site can be, Swann recommends viewing the award-winning sites honored by the National School Public Relations Association (www.nspra.org) in its annual communications contest.

Currently, Swann is developing a web site audit checklist to help school districts redesign their web sites more effectively, and she’s conducting a national study of school district web sites. She’s also working with other organizations to survey parents about their information needs regarding school district web sites and is looking for sources of funding.

In the meantime, here’s a checklist we developed at LGA to evaluate web sites. If you find yourself checking “no” more often than “yes,” your school or district web site probably isn’t realizing its full potential as a relationship-building tool.

WEB SITE EVALUATION YES NO
Overall Image/Appearance/Branding:    
Ease of Navigation:    
Web Site Organization Designed to Accommodate Various User Styles/Interests:    
Relevance of Content to Audience(s):
    -Parents
   
    -Students    
    -Teachers/Staff    
    -Volunteers    
    -Community Members    
    -Realtors    
    -Journalists    
    -Other    
Content Formatted Specifically for Web; Limited Use of PDFs    
Quality of Images (photos, graphics, color, etc):    
Download Times/Ease:    
News You Can Use:    
Interactivity:    
Appropriate Use of Graphics,
Buttons, Animation, etc.:
   
Drill-Down Content:    
On-Line Services
(availability, ease of use, relevance):
   
Feedback Loops/Surveys/Data Capture:    
Basic Contact Information:
Organization/Department Name
Address(es), Cities, State, Zip Codes
Telephone & Fax Numbers with Area Codes
Email Links to Staff
   
Search Functions Embedded in Website    
Links to Pertinent Resources:    
All Links Active/Functioning:    
Currency of Information on Subpages/Subsites:    
Use of “Under Construction”:    
Sections Segmented by User/Audience:    
HTML/Coding Quality    
Site Picked Up Easily By Major Search Engines:    
Counter Broken/Out of Date?    
Target audience clearly evident:    
Resources/sources for additional information provided/easy-to-access:    
Site Maps/Index(es)/Archives Available; Easy to Use:    
Other Comments/Recommendations:    

Nora Carr is senior vice president and director of public relations for Luquire George Andrews Inc., a Charlotte, N.C.-based advertising and public relations firm. A former assistant superintendent for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, she is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications and marketing.