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The Importance of Public Relations

Module by: Lee Stewart. E-mail the author

Summary: The goal of this module is for you to become aware of the importance of public relations in elementary and secondary educational settings. Public Relations (PR) is, all too often, seen as something one gets involved in when something goes wrong. The following scenarios play out every day. The corporate world will hire a PR group to handle a public perception problem they are experiencing. A public figure will hire a PR group to take care of his or her tarnished image when the person behaves in an inappropriate manner. When something goes awry in a school, the principal or superintendent will begin working to insure the community that everything is being handled correctly; they are taking on the role of the PR person. This is not solely what public relations should be about; it should be about getting your message out and opening up dialogue with the community with at least one goal of preempting problems.

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This module has been peer-reviewed, accepted, and sanctioned by the National Council of Professors of Educational Administration (NCPEA) as a scholarly contribution to the knowledge base in educational administration.

Objectives

At the conclusion of this module, you will be able to explain why building solid positive public relationships are essential in public schools. You will also be able to explain what could happen if you fail to place the appropriate significance on public relations in public schools.

Introduction

As an instructional leader on a campus, you are the one who potentially has the most control over how people perceive the public school system in your area; particularly your campus. Principals who choose not to pay attention to this critical area, and think that building a good public image is not important, could experience problems with school and community morale. It has been said that people’s perceptions are reality, regardless of the fact that many times the perceptions do not match the reality. The duty of public school leaders is to insure the public’s perceptions match the realities at public schools. This will require an understanding of public relations.

One adage declares that people do not plan to fail, but they do sometimes fail to plan. Nowhere is this a greater truth than in the case of those who do not plan for public relations. You will need a plan to help assure there is a congruency between the reality of what is actually occurring at your school and people’s perceptions of events at the school.

What the Professionals Are Saying About Public Relations

What are the professionals saying about public relations? As you are probably already aware, Public Relations Programs are becoming something organizations cannot do without. The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), 2006 has suggested the reason public relations programs are flourishing is:

Elements are in place for impressive incremental growth and change in the next century: the spread of democratic institutions around the world; the growing importance of communicating with internal as well as external publics; the veritable explosion of one-to-one communication and the technology to implement it; and the steady advance of the public relations body of knowledge, especially analysis of public awareness and change in attitudes and behavior (http://www.prsa.org/_Resources/resources/pre21.asp?ident=rsrc6).

When one thinks about the section in the (PSRA) statement above concerning the proliferation of democratic institutions, one matter should come to mind. Schools are, or should be, democratic institutions. Since this is the case, one can see the importance of communicating with the publics, both internal and external, that have a stake in public schools.

The Importance of Developing a Public Relations Program

It is important to first understand the definition of a program before discussing the importance of public relations programs. One definition offered for a program is “a series of steps to be carried out or goals to be accomplished” http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&defl=en&q=define:program&sa=X&oi=glossary_definition&ct=title (Google, 2006). This definition helps to underscore the importance of developing public relations goals and then building a series of steps to reach those goals. In a public relations program, one will develop goals and then build steps to accomplish the goals.

The reason for developing and implementing a public relations program in public schools becomes apparent when one realizes there is a public character to schools; public schools are publicly held democratic institutions. In other words; the community has a right to know and participate in the governance of public organizations, because the citizens fund public schools (Gallagher, Bagin, & Moore, 2005).

The public should not be perceived as including only one or two groups of special people you enjoy. The public will include people who look, think, and act like you; and those who do not look, think or act like you. Consider who you would be most and least likely to open a dialogue with in your community; critically think about your answer. Honestly answering this question can possibly help you locate and serve everyone in your community. Every person, due to the public nature of our education system, has a right to know where their tax dollars are being spent and if their children are being cared for in an appropriate manner. This is the primary reason for developing and following a public relations program.

Policies Concerning Public Relations Programs

Due to the public nature of our schools, as we have previously discussed, it is imperative that schools have public relations programs in place. It is therefore important that public schools first develop board policies designed to build public relations. Policies should be governed by a few principles. According to Gallagher, Bagin, & Moore (2005), a written public relations policy should:

Harmonize with state laws.

Consist of a plan of action that is clearly spelled out.

The administrators should have a clear directive as to their roles.

It should emphasize building strong relationships and partnerships.

One way to guarantee a policy harmonizes with state laws is to have an attorney develop the plan. Have you acquired the services of an attorney recently? If a school board were to hire an attorney to build a document of this magnitude, it would be tremendously expensive. This is not generally the way school boards develop their policies. Most school boards develop their policies using an organization that builds a generic model for school districts to follow. The school can then add local elements to their policy; which is where the services of an attorney would be useful. The National School Board Association (NSBA) (2006) offers a list of school board policy services on its website for each of the participating states.

The California School Board Association (CSBA) is one example of an organization that offers these services. In addition to other forms of assistance, the CSBA assists local school boards in developing state required board policy. Their website is located at http://www.csba.org .

Another example is the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB). This organization works similarly to the CSBA in that a local school board can acquire their services in developing local school policies. TASB can be found at https://www.tasb.org/ .

A policy must be clear, if it is to be useful. Clearly spelling out what is to occur in a public relations program and who is to be responsible for implementing the plan is important. Policies vary from vague to specific; from weak, generic and poorly written; to strong, specific and well written. We will consider two examples in the next section of this module.

Administrators must have clearly defined roles and responsibilities. In the examples to follow, it will become obvious that some are clear in their expectations of who will be responsible for what, while other policies leave this clarity to chance. A strong community relations policy will indicate those individuals in the organization who have certain responsibilities.

Finally, a strong public relations policy will emphasize building strong relationships and partnerships with the community. Strong relationships between the school and the community are important, if not essential, for schools to be successful. Shannon & Bylsma (2003) suggests that one of the nine characteristics of high performing schools is developing high levels of collaboration and communication. Shannon & Bylsma asserts that there must be a constant collaboration and communication among teachers, parents and the community. Shannon & Bylsma emphasize that “families, as well as businesses, social service agencies, and community colleges/universities all play a vital role in this effort” (p. 41).

Using the information we know about good policy creation, it now should be obvious that there are some steps to follow in creating solid policy: 1) develop and articulate the desired goals of the policy, 2) define who will be responsible for implementing the policy, and finally 3) decide how the policy will be evaluated. Each of these steps deserves some attention.

The first step in developing a school-community relations policy is to determine the goals for the program. Goals need to be clearly articulated in the policy. These goals should emphasize the importance of building strong community relationships with the purpose of producing a high quality school system.

The next step is to define who will be responsible for implementing the policy. This cannot be left to chance. When no one is assigned the task, it is likely the job will not be accomplished. No matter what an organization chooses to do, it is imperative that someone be assigned responsibility for the task of following through with the goals set forth in the policy.

The final step in the process is to decide how the policy will be evaluated. The evaluation process should be consistent and should have benchmarks set. Benchmarks are used to determine if the policy is working the way it was intended. According to Coleman & Creighton (2005), an adequate program evaluation should ask two questions: (1) what do we want to know about the program as a result of the evaluation and (2) what is the purpose of this evaluation? Allowing these two questions to guide the evaluation will help to ensure the correct data is collected by the school leader. Policies which are evaluated in this fashion will ultimately lead to a greater probability of program success.

Policy Examples

As you consider the following two examples, note how one district has a policy embedded in the superintendent’s duties and one has a distinct standalone policy:

This policy is embedded in the superintendent’s duties. (Weak) http://www.tasb.org/policy/pol/private/212905/pol.cfm?DisplayPage=BJA(LOCAL).html&QueryText=COMMUNITY%20RELATIONS

This example is precise and is a standalone policy. (Strong) http://www.tasb.org/policy/pol/private/057905/pol.cfm?DisplayPage=GK(LOCAL).html&QueryText=COMMUNITY%20RELATIONS

Conclusion

When one begins to fully understand that public schools are funded by the public and serve the public, one will then have a better opportunity to understand the significance of keeping the public informed. Public schools should always be open and transparent organizations due to the public nature of public schools. Your primary responsibility as a public education official is to recognize your fiduciary duties. You have the public’s children and their money in your care; keep them informed about how you are caring for both.

Working with the Material

Think about the following:

Explain how your knowledge of public relations might be useful as you begin leading a school.

Explain how your knowledge of the importance of public relations can change the way you lead.

How can a strong public relations policy help your public school?

Resources

Gallagher, D., Bagin, D., & Moore, E. (2005). The School and Community Relations (8th ed). Boston: Pearson

Coleman, J., & Creighton, T. (2006). Catch it Now. The Busy School Leader’s Best Guide to Instructional Program Evaluation and Reporting. Lancaster, PA: Pro Active Publications.

Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). (2006). Public Relations Education for the 21st Century: A Port of Entry. Retrieved October 29, 2006, from http://www.prsa.org/_Resources/resources/pre21.asp?ident=rsrc6

Google, (2006). Retrieved October 29, 2006 from http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&defl=en&q=define:program&sa=X&oi=glossary_definition&ct=title

National School Board Association (NSBA) (2006). School Board Policies. Retrieved October 29, 2006 from http://www.nsba.org/site/page.asp?TRACKID=&CID=1134&DID=31220Retrieved October 29, 2006 from http://www.k12.wa.us/research/pubdocs/pdf/9charactfor%20SIP.pdf

Shannon, G., S., Bylsma, P. (2003). Nine Characteristics of High-Performing Schools. Olympia, WA: Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Retrieved October 29, 2006, from http://www.k12.wa.us/research/pubdocs/pdf/9charactfor%20SIP.pdf

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