Educational establishments have historically been separated from public relations (PR). There was an idea that apart for the odd note left in pupils’ satchels for parents, or a noticeboard in the common room, there was no need for communication beyond school walls. But as attaining education becomes more financially competitive and government policies drive institutions to a more business-orientated model (i.e. Academies), institutions are finding that they have to be more accountable and vocal about what they deliver and develop better skills in communicating within and without their organisations.
Educational PR is a multifaceted function and its practitioner should possess the fluidity of water in order to conceptualise, and communicate intuitive planning for establishments – as each may differ in the way in which it delivers similar products – education.
PR here is a deeply relationship-building function – perhaps more so than other organisations because of the life-changing impact education (i.e. the product) can have upon people. Of course, as with all relationships, its quality is tested during crises or problems.
So, where does one start? It’s best not to begin, as is often the case in education, by asking an already laboured teacher to ‘do a bit of PR-ing’! Often this approach is taken as a means to ‘save’ money. Such moves often prove to be false economies. Even if a professional practitioner/agency is engaged as an interim measure or employed to train staff, this decision will form a more solid platform from which to wield the PR craft. When considering which professional to approach, it’s good to attend prospective meetings with some clear aims, objects and outcomes. These are outlines where education is all too familiar if only because they’re default headers on lesson plans. Start to ask some questions around areas to include the following:
How does and what methods do staff use to communicate within and without the organisation? What is the image that you want to communicate between each other and to the outside world? These ideas should incorporate a brand-led discussion (more on that below).
How well are you communicating your ethos between core stakeholders; i.e. parents, teachers, pupils/students governors? How can you improve communication between wider communities i.e. local council, local businesses, local charities and other educational establishments? These are key stakeholder relationships, which should be regularly nurtured to build trust, understanding. Added advantages to this are that stakeholders will more readily support you during times of crisis.
How well do you communicate during crises and what lines of communication do you have during such times? These should be well rehearsed. Know your establishment’s strengths and weaknesses. No really, know what those weaknesses are because if you don’t, you can be sure someone else will and they will remind you of it, usually at an inopportune time.
Considered, and rightly so, a minefield for education. Do you have strong policies for staff and students alike and how often do you update these policies to keep abreast of the changing nature of social media? Don’t forget to think about the hardware of social media and the Internet i.e. desktops, tablets, smart-boards and of course mobile phones.
Think carefully about the social media apps/platforms you wish to be placed. They are numerous and little upstarts are being added almost as soon as you get to grips with understanding the last software you added. You don’t need to be on all the platforms as they’re not all a relevant medium for your product. The trick is to know your product in order to think about the way in which you communicate what you do to your audiences.
The humble email has developed to become a successful marketing tool (as well as sms/texting). Think about how this can be included in your marketing strategies. You can include newsletters and there are exciting software tools which enable this in a creative way.
This aspect of PR includes ideas about the emotional attachment your stakeholders have to your institution. Often, these emotions include trust. Trust and the building of trust, is based on a series of actions. So, if you’ve a consistently high grade via Ofsted for a particular part of your delivery, your actions have made it this way. Think about how best you could use this strength. One successful branding tool is via audio-visual platforms where staff delivers tutorials in good practice. If this is marketed well, this can build your reputation and raise your profile in your field. It can help to establish your institution as an authority.
Be clear that you will need financing for PR and practitioners can work reasonably well with whatever budget you earmark. But be realistic. You cannot expect a branding campaign to the standard of say Harvard University if you’ve a budget for a local school fete.
An obvious one and as discussed above, these are relationships which need regular nurturing. Consider your local press, local broadcaster/radio, and local magazines. We say local here because the national press may only be interested in a story as a major one-off. Your locals will always be around and to some extent have a vested interest in you.
This is where you can go back to those areas, which include outcomes. Try to give your practitioner a clear vision of your wishes. Between you, you can align expectations and outcomes. Educational institutions are well versed in evaluation and assessment methods and this task is a key element in PR.