School PIOs Have Gripes, Too

So a recent Education Week survey of education writers finds that the majority believe school district Public Information Officers (PIO) aren’t transparent when working with media. Why am I not surprised? As a PIO for school districts in Indianapolis for more than 20 years, I could have told you the results of this survey before seeing the headline. While writers are often asked their opinion about the state of the media-PIO relationship, somehow PIOs never get to air their two cents’ worth. Allow me a few minutes to level the playing field by sharing what most bugs school PIOs about media.

  1. My job is to HELP you do your job, not DO your job. While this frustration usually arises with reporters who are new to town, I never cease to be amazed at the seasoned journalists who ask me questions in which the answer would have been revealed by a simple search of their own archives. Want to know a secret? Sometimes, I find the answer to your question in your archives! Honest!
  2. My boss is the CEO of what is typically the largest business in the community. He/she is busy! Please don’t be frustrated when, because you are on deadline, my boss isn’t able to reply within 15 minutes.
  3. Speaking of deadlines, school districts have set business hours. Please don’t call me at 4:30 p.m. and ask to talk to a high school teacher. They arrived at work at 6:30 a.m. Most stay after school at least an hour after dismissal, but these folks have family, too. Most are shuttling their own kids to appointments or sporting events. If they are at school, they are usually coaching. Long story short, they are inaccessible.
  4. Sometimes, your request to speak with a teacher on company time will be denied. More often than not, it’s because the teacher doesn’t want to talk to you. If the subject is one that could distress the teacher, we are disinclined to upset that teacher during the work day. That’s just not fair to the teacher, or to the kids.
  5. Yes, I often sit in on interviews. But not for the nefarious reasons you assign to me. Nine times out of 10 the staff member has requested I be there to lend moral support. I sit behind you because I encourage the interviewee to look at you throughout the interview and consider it a simple conversation. Many folks appreciate seeing me smile comfortingly at them when they fear they have misspoken. I never signal the interviewee to not answer a question. If you don’t believe me, ask your photographer. Sometimes, I sit in on interviews with my boss. Here’s my dirty little secret: I expect to hear things that I don’t know about the topic because I haven’t been able to be briefed about it adequately. Sitting in on your interview allows me to better serve other reporters on the topic.
  6. Guess what, I have deadlines, too! Media relations is one of my many jobs. While I try to be accessible (after all, you have my work, home and cell phone numbers!), sometimes I can’t take the call when it is placed. That’s where a detailed voicemail message outlining how I specifically can help you is so handy. Don’t just give me a topic; give me the specifics of what you need from me. Sometimes, I have to dig around, too. (See Item 1, checking your archives.)
  7. Speaking of specifics, when you make a verbal Open Records request, don’t be offended when I ask you to put it in writing. Remember, I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I’ve learned a thing or two along the way, such as the way to avoid misunderstandings and conflict is to ensure we’re both clear about the request.
  8. I know your first newscast of the day starts at 4 a.m., but do you really need to call me at that ungodly hour to confirm whether the school board meets at 7 p.m. that night? And yes, this is a real example.

All this grousing aside, I really did enjoy my years working with media as a school PIO. The majority of folks were professionals who treated me as a professional. What’s my advice for improving this sometimes cantankerous relationship? Get to know one another on a personal basis. Trust one another. Give each other the benefit of the doubt. Forgive one another when mistakes are made. That’s what relationships are all about.

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Do Your Employees Help or Hurt Your Company Image?

As a CEO are you aware of how your employees project your company’s image, particularly in writing?

Prior to launching my business, I applied for a position at a well-regarded local food bank. I didn’t get the job, but I did get a rejection letter that was riddled with spelling and punctuation errors. Frankly, I was surprised that such a poorly written letter was allowed to be mailed. After all, when I reflect on this letter, it’s not the sender’s name that comes to mind, it’s the name of the organization. Even worse, a prominent funder’s name is printed on the company’s letterhead.  I’m sure this funder was proud to include their name on communications from the food bank, but my guess is they expected those communications to be high quality.

So how can you be sure the image the public sees is the one you want to portray? Here are a few tips:

  • Create a process that requires each writer to proofread his own work, then forward to a colleague for review. Two sets of eyes are always better than one, no matter how skilled the writer.
  • Check out proofreading sites such as PaperRater.com, which is free, or consider investing in a site such as Grammarly.com. As a one-person shop, I use this site to ensure my work is error-free.
  • Have departmental supervisors review all letter templates annually to be sure as needs change, templates remain grammatically correct.
  • Spot check communications by reviewing your company website, social media sites and print publications. Let your employees know you monitor communications and expect them to be error-free.
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Tips for Communicating Change

Whether your district is urban, suburban or rural, one thing is true – change is inevitable. As a school public relations director, I had lots of experiences communicating impending change to parents, teachers and the community at-large. Here are some of the lessons I learned when talking about everything from school closures to dress code.

1)      Don’t spring issues on people. Prepare your stakeholders by laying the groundwork for the need for change. Do you want folks to embrace change? Do you hope to limit the number of critics your plan generates? Then don’t shoot yourself in the foot by announcing a huge policy shift that appears to be a fait accompli without soliciting the input of stakeholders. The result with be mistrust and suspicion, no matter how solid or necessary the plan. A good strategy is to begin to discuss the need for the proposed change a year ahead of implementation. Bring your audience along with you by building a case for the need for change using the tools outlined below. Then host meetings and solicit feedback to transform conversations about the need for change into an actionable plan that has community buy-in.

2)      Use every tool at your disposal to communicate with your various audiences. There have never been more ways to share your message than there are in today’s technology-driven world. Fill your district website, Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ pages with information. Record phone auto-dialing messages to announce public meetings or key points to your plan. Post photos to Instagram, blog about the decision-making process but don’t forget more traditional communications tools such as postcard mailers or printed newsletters. While working with a group of volunteers in one district, I asked for a show of hands of those who had an email account. Much to my surprise, just about every hand in the group of seniors ranging in age from 50 to 95 shot into the air.  However, having technology doesn’t mean people necessarily use technology. As it turns out, most of the email accounts were set up by their children as a means of keeping in touch. Few of the seniors checked their email accounts! Their request: Send meeting announcements via snail mail.

3)      Face-to-face meetings do matter. Technology can be so invasive in our everyday lives it becomes even more important to step away from the computer occasionally. Face-to-face is still the most effective form of communication, and using your tone of voice and body language can help communicate the need for change.

Ultimately, for many people, the decision to support or defeat proposed change won’t depend on the plan itself, but on how trustworthy the messenger is perceived to be to the audience.

Despite all of this communication, there’s one audience the districts I served never seemed to focus much attention on – the students. Some of the brightest people I have ever met were the very people our policies and changes affected the most, but we didn’t intentionally reach out to them. That’s one change I do hope happens for future generations.

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It’s Never to Early to Communicate

The 2014 legislative session begins January 6. Have you mapped out your strategy for sharing with parents and community members how this year’s batch of laws could affect your district?

Too early in the process, you say? Think again. Gov. Mike Pence has been laying the groundwork to divert more taxpayer dollars away from K-12 education for weeks. This is especially remarkable considering this is a short session, where laws requiring funding don’t generally make it to committee.

The governor is making the case that in order for Indiana to be more competitive economically against neighboring states, the tax on business equipment must be phased out. To the layman – or parent – this may sound reasonable. That’s why you need to step up and share how devastating this plan would be to the children of your school district.

While at this stage of the game you may only be able to project losses if the business equipment tax is removed, you can certainly provide hard numbers for the revenue lost since tax caps were added to the state constitution in 2010. Share the numbers lost with the 2007 elimination of the inventory tax. Remind parents how much money your district has lost since the state took over the General Fund in 2009.

Then give parents and community members a call to action. Provide them with letter templates (complete with legislator addresses) and ask them to contact their legislators. Ask them specificallyto point out that their tie to education is their children, not their job. Too many legislators comfort themselves with the thought that unions and teachers are calling for adequate funding for schools, not parents and concerned community members. Help them to see how wrong they are believing that notion.

The sooner you can educate parents about their role in advocating for equitable funding for their children, the harder it will be for legislators to turn a deaf ear to your district’s needs.

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About Us

After years of playing the “What If” game, in November 2013 my husband, Tim, and I decided to take the plunge and start our own business. Our decision to launch our public relations and marketing firm was driven by our passion for public education and our desire to assist school districts in communicating their student success stories.

Tim and I each have more than 20 years of experience in the communications field; he specializes in graphic arts and printing, while I focus on public relations and marketing. We also work with a talented cadre of writers, videographers and digital designers to provide clients with high-quality communications at an affordable price.

We are pleased to offer the following services:

  • Digital communications (content strategy; content management; website consultation, design and maintenance; enewsletters; blog management; podcasts; video storytelling; QR coding)
  • Social Media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest)
  • Crisis Communications
  • Media Relations (story pitching, news conferences, spokesperson training)
  • Public Relations (reputation management, brand management, coalition building, special events)
  • Publications (internal/external communications, traditional and electronic newsletters, annual reports, brochures, mailing pieces)
  • Executive Communications (media relations training, speechwriting, blog management, podcasts)
  • Project Management (community engagement strategies, bond issue communications)

No matter what your business, you can depend on Bewley Communications to provide high-quality, affordable service. Give us a call at 317-777-2031 to see how we can enhance your communications efforts.

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