Hiring public relations and strategy consultants is nothing new for corporations or political campaigns, as we’ve seen with the recent influx of candidates into the presidential race, flanked by a bevy of advisors. But they’ve been a rarity for public entities, particularly K-12 public schools.
For generations, the thought of a school district hiring outreach help was anathema. Especially during the Baby Boom, educators had one constituency to court: parents. With half the homes in many communities having school age children, the need to fund public schools was obvious. Now, however, it’s not unusual for many districts to have fewer than 30% of households with children in the public schools. Losing their core parental constituency has forced school boards and administrators to embrace social media and move beyond traditional newsletters to explain their value to the broader community.
As a result, a new trend has emerged: public schools are finally embracing modern marketing strategies. The realization of its importance often begins with superintendents, who are the on front lines of fighting for school budgets and liaising with skeptical community members. “It’s a new world out there,” says Piqua, Ohio, Superintendent Rick Hanes, whose district passed a school levy tax in part by forging a “taxpayer bill of rights” with specific promises to the community. Hanes required that each administrator keep a copy of the “bill of rights” on her desk as a constant reminder of who pays the bills.
Teachers, who have historically resisted marketing efforts, are also getting into the act. Schools of education around the nation are including undergraduate and graduate courses in their curriculum that cater to up-and-coming educators who want to engage their communities. Meanwhile, their veteran colleagues and the unions that represent them are shelving their reluctance to participate in creative public relations, realizing that each child who enrolls or is retained is a handsome dividend.
It’s also become increasingly common for school districts to hire consulting firms to help them navigate a changed landscape of weary taxpayers and increased competition from charter and private schools. “Ten years ago, a school district would be skewered if it spent public dollars on community surveys,” says Joel Gagne, President of Washington, D.C.-based Allerton Hill Communications, which consults exclusively for school districts (and for which I’ve provided strategic counsel in the past). “Today it’s a necessity, and residents actually welcome the opportunity to sound off about the schools.”