PR and the Public Schools

Published October 1, 2001

How to announce poor test scores:

“The opening paragraphs should announce and explain an action plan and several paragraphs later, announce the scores. The point is to give the community something to be proud of and the impression that the problem is being addressed. The spin you put on it will be included [in subsequent news reports] 9 out of 10 times.”
Teresa M. Rafferty
public information coordinator,
Freehold Regional High School District,
New Jersey

Rafferty’s guidelines for announcing bad news were part of a presentation called “Communicating Proactively in Sensitive Situations” that she delivered at the annual conference of the National School Public Relations Association in Minneapolis, Minnesota. in July.

According to Mike Antonucci, who reported on the conference in several issues of his Education Intelligence Agency Communiqué, Rafferty said public relations officers have to “balance their act” between being honest with the community and strengthening positive public perceptions of the schools. When faced with bad news, no response is usually the worst response, she explained.

Spin Control

Fast response is best in a real crisis, advised Lew Armistead, president of LA Communications in Reston, Virginia. Public relations officers should be the first to discuss a crisis with the press and the public, because “then you control the communications agenda.”


Controlling the communications agenda?

PR for public schools?

Are there really enough public relations officers employed by the public schools to have a national organization and an annual conference?

“[T]here are over 1,000 school district public relations officers at this event, along with some superintendents and other school officials,” reported Antonucci, noting that people attending the conference “have been hired with your tax money for the specific purpose of presenting a positive image of the public schools to you, the public.”

“If you could see the lineup of people, resources, and money behind the effort to persuade you that all is well, you would be astonished that any negative or critical coverage appears anywhere, at any time,” he wrote.

Although teachers are rightly recognized as the most important element in improving student achievement, the fact remains that not only does public education employ fewer classroom teachers (48 percent) than other workers (52 percent), but public education’s non-teaching employees are, on average, paid more than the classroom teachers. Antonucci’s report makes it clear that public relations officers are an important contingent among those non-teaching employees.

Among the workshops and sessions at the NSPRA conference:

  • “Using the Media to Reverse Negative Perceptions”
  • “Dealing with Public Anger: New Approaches to an Old Problem”
  • “Survivor PR–How to Outwit, Outplay, and Outlast Our Critics”
  • “They Just Don’t Understand”
  • “Image Is Everything in Today’s Marketplace”
  • “‘Bribing’ Your Critics and Other Unusual Community Involvement Strategies”

Working with the Community

The latter session was conducted by David G. Clohessy, director of community services for Riverview Gardens Schools in St. Louis, Missouri. The “bribery” consisted of offering the district’s printing services, photography, layout and computer publishing skills, use of facilities and staff, and newsletter space for community activities and information. Clohessy also advised providing food at community meetings to boost attendance.

According to Antonucci, Clohessy spoke a little more freely than he should have. At one point, he referred disparagingly to a community group, then quickly corrected himself by adding, “No, no! We love them all!” He also admitted the monthly awards or certificates that his district gave to community members were not necessarily bestowed on the most deserving individuals.

“We choose someone from those communities where we need the most support,” Clohessy said.

PR officials also may choose to structure community meetings to deny any unsupportive community members the opportunity to convey their concerns to a wider audience. For example, Mary Louise Scheid, director of the office of school and community relations for the Indianapolis Public Schools, explained why she uses a facilitated small group discussion format for community meetings rather than a panel with questions from the audience.

“We didn’t want people stirring up emotions we’re afraid will make us lose control of the message,” Antonucci reported her telling the conference.

For more information . . .

Mike Antonucci’s reports on the July 2001 annual conference of the National School Public Relations Association are available from the Web site of the Education Intelligence Agency at The Agency is an organization that conducts public education research, analysis and investigations. A weekly Communiqué is available on request from [email protected].