School leaders have a powerful story to tell, yet often lack the PR savvy and marketing muscle to do so. That’s why the National School Boards Association is offering a free marketing toolkit on its web site (see link below).

Written by yours truly and designed specifically for urban educators, the toolkit has lots of tips that school leaders in districts of all sizes can use to communicate more effectively with the people who matter most.

While I certainly hope you’ll log on and download the entire guide, here are some tips that might come in handy as the annual school marketing season heats up:

  • Think of your school or district as a brand, and start treating it as such.
  • Define your brand by developing a USP–“unique selling proposition”–and use that key position as a platform for marketing and public relations.
  • Pay as much attention to your image as you do your words. Plan your visual image with care, and pay attention to your body language, non-verbal cues, and symbolic communication.
  • Less is more. One powerful image and a short, pithy statement–whether on the web, in print, or on TV–often communicates more than a 20-page print newsletter no one will ever read or a dozen brochures on the district’s display board.
  • Use white space. Quit filling every inch of your web site, newsletters, and brochures with copy, copy, copy–and use space and color to call attention to what’s really important. Cull the copy down and use heads, subheads, bullets, and other visual tools that make it obvious what’s important.
  • Base your communications on well-executed research and develop a strategic PR and marketing plan that focuses your efforts.
  • Leverage your resources. Most school leaders have a fair amount of PR power at their fingertips; they just don’t know how to leverage it. Every meeting, conference, open house, student performance, phone call, eMail message, fax, web site hit, and visitor represents a marketing “moment of truth.” Make the most of the opportunities you already have to tell your story.
  • One-on-one, face-to-face communication is still the most effective in terms of generating real understanding or motivating people to take action. Mass communication (your web site, press coverage, cable TV show, electronic newsletters) are best for building awareness. The best marketing plans have a mixture of both.
  • Bypass gatekeepers and go direct. If you can’t reach everyone you need to reach in 30 minutes or less, you don’t have the right communications infrastructure in place. Create databases with the eMail addresses, pager numbers, and phone numbers of key stakeholders–and set up a system so you can contact these folks with one phone call or eMail. You can either set this up yourself or use an outside provider. Frankly, I recommend outsourcing, because these services are relatively inexpensive and easy to use, while maintaining your own system can be very time-consuming.
  • Consistency is king. If you dump a pile of your materials on the table and they all look like they came from some place different, you’re contributing to your own brand confusion and communications clutter. Use consistent words, colors, photos, and art work.
  • Extend your resources. In addition to stronger branding (can you imagine Coca-Cola using anything but red?), consistency also enables you to extend your resources by using the same images and key messages over and over again. If you can’t get a least six uses out of every PR or marketing investment, think twice. For example, a photo for the web (if shot in high-resolution format for printing) may be recycled in a brochure, in an electronic newsletter, or on a bulletin board; sent with a press release to a small weekly newspaper; and sent to the person featured with a personal note from you.
  • Cover your own news and use your web site, cable television channel, and e-newsletters as 24-7 news channels. Quit fretting about negative news coverage and focus on the channels of communication that you control. Get there first with the good news–and the bad.
  • This might seem contradictory, but school leaders have got to start doing a better job of courting the press. For most large districts, it’s just not feasible or wise to have all media communications funnel through the central office any more. Round-the-clock news channels have made it virtually impossible for the public information staff to field all media queries. In addition, reporters prefer to talk to those closest to the action. Most routine media queries and good news pitches should be handled at the school building level. One exception: It’s essential that an organization speak with one voice during a crisis, and this is best left to the professionals. That doesn’t mean school leaders are off the hook, though. A good PR counselor will coach you through critical interviews.
  • Seek out training in public relations, marketing, media relations, and interpersonal communications from the National School Public Relations Association and other professional groups. If you’re still relying on the Communications 101 class you had in college, you’re probably already in trouble. Most school leaders lose their jobs over communication issues, not educational ones.
  • Invest in professional creative. Successful businesses and corporations don’t skimp when it comes to creating their brand image–and neither should you. Hire a professional firm to design your logo, brand positioning strategy, and brand creative (overall look, tone, feel, and manner), then use your in-house resources to execute the brand image through collateral materials, your web site, etc. The “loving hands at home” approach to school marketing doesn’t work with today’s savvy and media-saturated consumers. If you don’t believe me, check out what your competition is doing and see whether your stuff measures up.

    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.