Superintendents rank school public relations professionals’ ability to mitigate a crisis and perform well under pressure as their most important skills, according to a new survey published by the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA).

Reflecting the growing sophistication of the school PR profession, the survey also shows that school leaders place a premium on the ability to relay information clearly to a variety of audiences and communicate a positive image for the school district.

Public relations practitioners’ willingness to communicate honestly and fully, even if the information is not flattering to the school district, and their ability to build relationships with strategic sectors of the public also are prized by superintendents, according to the survey, which is available online (see link below).

“For years, communication professionals were seen mainly as publicists, but their jobs are changing as they are now more deeply involved in relationship-building and engagement activities for their school communities,” said Rich Bagin, executive director of NSPRA.

High-performing school PR pros are part of the management team and help plan a communication effort that helps school districts achieve their goals, according to Bagin.

“The age of just releasing ‘feel-good fluff’ is dying,” says Bagin. “Today’s accountability measures call for a stronger sense of public responsibility and accountability–and that’s what a majority of NSPRA members now provide.”

With public education under siege nationally, and with school leaders dealing with increasingly complex–and often divisive–social issues, superintendents need access to the same kind of strategic PR counsel more typically afforded to corporate CEOs.

Managing the media when a gun is found on campus, students walk out in protest, or an employee is arrested requires skills beyond crafting press releases and creating web site content.

School PR professionals also must develop winning strategies for bond and budget campaigns, recruit business partners, and find meaningful ways to engage a polarized citizenry in district decision-making processes.

Knowing how to gauge–and more importantly, shape and influence–public opinion requires understanding the more than 50 years of public-relations research that underpins today’s best practices.

That’s why school communicators who participated in the survey tended to rank offering strategic counsel to school leaders and issues management more highly than superintendents, many of whom still see public relations as a tactical, rather than a strategic management, function.

That’s not to say that excellent critical thinking and writing skills aren’t important. Clear writing reflects clear thinking, and few PR pros make it to the top without honing their ability to craft compelling messages and materials. Not surprisingly, both skill sets are rated highly by superintendents and communicators.

However, communicating issues so the community wants to solve problems, and not just blame the schools, requires first-hand knowledge in consensus-building techniques and grassroots political organizing.

Strong leadership is essential. Public relations professionals won’t last long at the management table if they can’t contribute ideas and argue persuasively for effective communication strategies and solutions.

Communication permeates all aspects of school leadership, from board policy to major initiatives in curriculum and instruction.

As Gary Gordon, the global practice leader for Gallup Poll, said in 2004: “It’s disappointing that less than half of Americans are satisfied with the quality of public education in the nation, but it is not surprising. Our attitudes toward the nation’s schools come principally from the news media, and most of this information is negative.”

When fewer than 30 percent of voting citizens in most communities are parents, school leaders have to find new and better ways of communicating education’s successes and challenges.

Principals and other school-based personnel need guidance, training, and support in partnering with today’s parents and family members.

Research by NSPRA and others shows that lack of planning by school leaders and poor mutual understanding between school personnel and parents are the biggest barriers to effective parent and family involvement.

Parents and community members need to be invited in, made to feel welcome, and given meaningful work to do if public schools are going to bridge the yawning gap in the public’s perception of public education.

Skilled communicators can help principals and other school leaders overcome the most common barriers to effective parent and family involvement, such as negative experiences with the school or language and cultural barriers.

Public relations professionals understand the power of potluck suppers and rolling out the red carpet for parents and community members, even when money is tight.

In communications, it’s the little things that often mean the most, and few schools are so broke they can’t afford to put out a plate of cookies and a bowl of punch when welcoming guests into their home.

Schools can be intimidating places for parents, and educators’ all-too-frequent use of jargon can be especially off-putting.

The best communicators understand this and can help translate complex terms and issues into everyday terms, metaphors, and analogies that resonate with parents.

Top PR professionals also know it’s much harder to get mad–or stay mad–at individuals (or the organizations they represent) when they have an ongoing and positive relationship with them.

That’s why the essence of communications management is focused on building relationships with the people who matter most to school and district success.

Link:

NSPRA’s Communications Accountability Project
http://www.nspra.org/cap.htm

Nora Carr is chief communications officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications.