Posted At: March 21, 2013 12:15 P.M.
by Caroline Murray
Tweeting at parents? Buying ad space for touting strong academics? Measuring media metrics to prove worth to taxpayers, school boards and communities? Did you see your elementary school taking such measures when you were a student?
With tightening budgets and ever-changing school structures, K-12 schools are looking to communications experts to share strategic messages with the communities they serve.
“Public education is under attack, and, like private K-12 schools and public and private universities, the time has come for public schools to compete in the same market to prove its value,” said Mychal Frost, public information officer for the Clover School District in Clover, S.C.
Frost is one of the many public relations professionals across the country working to build and maintain the image of elementary, middle and high schools. Stephen Nichols, public information and community relations officer for Folsom Cordova Unified School District in Sacramento, Calif., said increased competition has, in turn, increased the need for these professionals.
“Because of competition from charter schools, magnet programs and specialized programs such as International Baccalaureate, parents are increasingly considering alternatives to traditional K-12 schools,” Nichols said. “Our strategy has been, as a result, to reinforce to the community that we have top-quality programs.”
The Challenges of the Education Industry
The job responsibilities of PR officers in K-12 school systems are similar to those of a PR officer in a business or nonprofit organization, but the stakes are higher.
“Certainly one of the most unique challenges of working in a school setting is the fact that our stakeholder groups have a very vested interest in everything we do, especially parents,” said Nichols. “That heightens things a bit as the gravity of our decisions affects their student’s educational opportunities and even their safety.”
The limited budgets of school districts create an additional challenge for K-12 communicators: limited staff.
“I wish I had a team, but like most who work in K-12 PR, I am an one-man shop,” said Frost.
Nichols fortunately has a team, but he said the district hasn’t always been so understanding of the need for communications.
“I didn’t always have a team; actually, I began part time,” said Nichols. “However, as the focus of my job shifted from simply internal/external communication toward a more comprehensive communication, marketing, PR and advocacy position, my superintendent recognized a need for program support.”
The Path to a Career in K-12 PR
Many professionals like Frost and Nichols who now work for K-12 schools did not necessarily have education in mind when they began the pursuit of their careers.
“I have always wanted to work in public and media relations,” Frost said. “To end up in K-12 education wasn’t necessarily my goal but I believe I have found my niche after spending the first years of my career in athletics media relations with Winthrop University (my alma mater) and professional sports teams, the Charlotte Knights (AAA-baseball) and the Carolina Panthers.”
Nichols agreed that career opportunities sometimes come from unexpected places.
“Between my junior and senior year, I got the awesome opportunity to be cast on MTV’s ‘The Real World.’ I thought it would just be a great experience and one that would help me have something to tell my grandkids,” Nichols said. “Well, that experience is what exposed me to television, and I developed a confidence speaking in public and on camera. Eventually that same experience lead me to become a guest journalist at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, which gave me the unique vantage point of being on the other side of the camera. Those experiences made me a qualified enough candidate to enter the job I currently hold. At age 24, I was the official spokesperson of a school district, literally less than two years out of undergraduate school.”
Even though Nichols has seen success in his position, the education industry still remains skeptical of the value of public relations.
“Those in education often take PR strategy for granted. I have faced several pedagogical challenges in getting support for PR; especially in light of the recession that really crippled public education funding in California,” Nichols said. “There have been times in public meetings where my position was called into question when considering cutting teachers or counselors instead of the PIO. Very scary times indeed, but a great learning experience, because I had to learn how to demonstrate value of comprehensive communication and PR programs.”
“Seeing magic happen every day.”
The National School Public Relations Association supports industry professionals in times like these. NSPRA provides PR professionals in education a network of peers, both through the national association and respective state associations.
Both Frost and Nichols serve as officers of their respective state chapters, and both said the organization is an exceptional resource.
“The organization provides a network of like-minded PR officials and makes available resources to guide and assist us in times of success and crises,” Frost said. “The network is an invaluable resource on which we rely in times of crises, most recently the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy in December. Within hours after the news hit, NSPRAmembers nationwide were collaborating on best methods to reach out within our respective communities. The camaraderie in the group is unparalleled in my professional experience.”
Nichols said although the field can be challenging, it is highly rewarding.
“This field is one of the most professionally rewarding out there, because you will be challenged to be creative in utilizing your unique skill set to tackle very complex issues,” Nichols said.
Frost said keeping the ultimate goal in mind makes all his work worthwhile.
“[The best part of my job] is seeing magic happen each day,” Frost said. “Being near the front line of our education system brings joy to my soul as I watch students come to life under the direction of fantastic educators. With that as the backdrop to my job, everything else falls into place. There is a constant reminder why those of us in K-12 PR do what we do – the students who will become our nation’s next wave of leaders.”