Most school board members and administrators recognize the importance of building connections to their community. Citizens want to know what’s going on in their schools, and they need to understand how important decisions involving their children and their tax dollars are made.  Similarly, districts need to hear constructive input from their communities.

Good communication is the basis of any productive and healthy school-community relationship. School districts that have good communications programs provide timely information to all stakeholders and are successful in building a sense of trust and community in their districts. They also have a cordial relationship with the press, and can quickly provide local newspapers and websites with comprehensive and accurate information when asked.

As many school districts have found, public relations professionals can help with this process.

But public relations, too often, is missing from many New Jersey school districts. It’s not from a lack of enthusiasm, commitment or professionalism of those in the field, or because of the economy, budget cuts or inflated salaries. And, it’s certainly not due to a lack of support from our colleagues in other states and from the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA).

No, the biggest challenge for the state’s school PR pros – individually and collectively – continues to be the misinformation and misunderstanding among school boards and administrators, even in our own ranks – created by the regulations promulgated after the 2007 passage of the School District Accountability Act.

Those regulations have left the false impression that schools were not permitted to pay staffers to be involved in school public relations. This has resulted in years of fallout and lost opportunities for school districts to communicate clearly, effectively and honestly with the students, parents and communities they serve.

The truth is: Yes, New Jersey public school districts can have public relations.

Here are key points of the regulations and New Jersey’s school public relations landscape:

  • Public relations activities – press releases, press conferences, newsletters, flyers, mass community mailings, emails, television and radio broadcasting and school-related activities – cannot comprise more than 50 percent of a staff member’s duties.

    Activities that go beyond those defined as public relations by the regulations, and should be included in the communications professional’s job description, include crisis communications, website maintenance, data collection and dissemination, school operations and development of the district calendar or handbook.

  • School districts may establish policies and annual budgets to contract with a public relations professional for services.
  • School districts must produce and distribute publications in the most cost-efficient manner possible.

The regulations are somewhat antiquated by today’s communications standards, which have undergone rapid and dramatic changes in the seven years since the accountability regulations were passed.  In 2007, Facebook, Twitter, Constant Contact, etc., were not on most school districts’ radar, let alone part of their daily operations, and are not addressed in the accountability regulations.  All are tools and techniques that benefit from the expertise that seasoned public relations professional can provide.

School public relations is not a big-ticket item in a school’s budget (according to a recent NSPRA survey, it amounts to less than .001 percent of most district’s budgets). But it is an easy target. I believe this is why New Jersey’s fiscal accountability regulations singled it out.

Public relations professionals working in New Jersey districts perform a host of duties that vary depending on district needs. Such responsibilities include running district websites, supervising the use of social media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others, conducting community surveys, overseeing newsletters, running budget and referendum communications, reaching out to local citizens and businesses for support and volunteers, serving as the point of contact for press inquiries, ensuring that proper student privacy is maintained when the press comes to a school, handling crisis communications, and more.

Many school districts discover the need for a good communications program and professional when there is a crisis, whether it involves bad news or controversy in the district, a tragic incident in a school or some sort of emergency.

But the truth is that the best communications programs are consistently building a reservoir of goodwill with the community and the press that is invaluable in a crisis.

The Value of the New Jersey School Public Relations Association

When I was elected president of the New Jersey School Public Relations Association (NJSPRA) two years ago, one of the goals of the organization was to increase the visibility of the group, while raising awareness of the integral role effective communications can and should have in supporting and improving public, private and parochial education, statewide.

NJSPRA, an all-volunteer organization, has made great strides in achieving that goal, including adopting a new logo, revamping the website, launching an e-newsletter, going paperless for all of our meeting notices and registrations, forging stronger relationships with colleges and universities that offer communications degrees and, most important, welcoming many new members from across the state. Recently, several of our members were vetted to participate in regional dialogue sessions with the U.S. Department of Education.

One of our most well-attended workshops this year brought together emergency responders, business administrators, security professionals, superintendents and district communications professionals for a program, “The Essential Role of Communications in a District’s Emergency Management Plan.” The presentations, based on real-life experiences of educators statewide, were followed by lively discussion. The program drew rave reviews from attendees and exemplified why communications professionals can and should be considered integral to a school’s leadership team.

Admittedly, marketing and communications often is the first department to be downsized or eliminated when companies and organizations face tough economic times, regardless of the field.  And relatively speaking, in education, public relations should be cut before staff or programs that impact academics, athletics or extracurricular activities to benefit students and families.

However, effective communications – that tell the amazing stories of our students and educators or translate complicated information and respond in times of crisis – is vital to the success of and community support for all of New Jersey’s schools.

So the next time, as a board member or administrator, you consider if school public relations is worth the investment, rather than responding “no,” consider saying “yes” if you want to tell your district’s story, have well-informed parents and build stronger community ties.

Laura Bishop is an independent school public relations professional, and is the president of the New Jersey School Public Relations Association. She can be reached at [email protected].