July 25, 2017 Posts Comments

“Your School’s Image: Its impact on…well, everything”

David Wagner

Developing your school’s image or reputation is similar to cultivating the customer and securing the sale in a business setting.  The greatest cost is in developing the relationship and securing the customer.  You want to protect that image or relationship as it only becomes costly again when you lose it and have to re-build it or create another.

I recall a superintendent who fired a very popular high school principal for an unfounded reason.  The students protested for days.  Some refused to return to school.  The principal held an assembly to tell the students to go back to class and let him fight his battle. The school made no attempt to influence the negative publicity during the incident which resulted in media coverage of only student protests, teacher’s testimonies and interviews with the principal (who would speak).  Because of this, the school developed an extremely poor reputation.  The principal was portrayed as a victim saint.  The school was depicted as scandalous and silent.

Think about your school’s image.  How was it developed, how do you protect it or in some cases, how do you change it?  Let’s take a look at each of these areas.

How is image developed? Image or reputation comes from the experiences of the school’s stakeholders – its parents, students, teachers, pastors, church members, donors, neighbors, community members and the media.  Their experiences range from the academic quality of the education, overall deportment of the student body, the perceived “value” of the private school education to the treatment of the students, parents and staff.

Image is developed from the school’s messaging.   It comes from how the school describes and promotes its academic, biblical and world view standards.   The school’s activities and the types of events it sponsors and emphasizes and its community involvement all frame the message of the school.

Image is developed from conversation that takes place in the media about the school.  It includes conversation in print, radio, television, blogs or other social media outlets.  What is the media saying about your school – is it good, bad or do they even know you exist?

How is image protected? Image or reputation is like fine china – it takes time and skill to carefully create and craft; it must be handled carefully, and it can easily be broken.  There are three main building blocks in the foundation of protecting image and reputation: integrity, transparency and engagement.

Integrity means truthfulness.  It means you will be accurate in presenting information about your school in your advertising, newsletters to parents and friends and in the use of adjectives when you talk about your accomplishments (biggest, best, most…).  It means you will be honest when test scores need to rise; you will talk about what you are going to do to raise admission standards if needed.  It is easier to be truthful when you first discuss a topic and move forward than it is to go back and correct a misstatement.  Separate fact and faith, and specify which it is.  Admit mistakes; it shows you are human, and it also shows you are diligent and trustworthy.

Transparency means openness. It means you will be open to sharing important and relevant information with your stakeholders.  Transparency has become a “buzzword” in today’s world.  When it appears someone it trying to hide something most often they are.  Information will be sought.  A story will be told – either one that you tell, or one told by another with the information they have or perceptions they have formed.  In some cases the one told by another is the media and it may not represent what is accurate because the school has not been transparent in giving information.

We live in a world of text messages being sent from staff meetings, “on-the-spot” tweets from chapel, Facebook messages and blogs.  Your communication must be open, but it also must be early and at times prior to having all answers ready or changes implemented to remedy a situation.  Transparency can shine light on issues and help your school get better – and, it is the right thing to do.

Engagement means conversation and involvement.  It means your stakeholders are engaged with the school, giving input, receiving important information, being heard and even involved in certain decisions.  Gone are the days when the “let the administration handle that” sentiment prevailed; today’s parents want to be informed, if not involved.

Information can lead to appropriate and supportive engagement.  Engagement can lead to ownership and support on boards or committees.  Convene diverse stakeholder groups and learn their concerns and issues.  Respond appropriately, and report the progress back to the stakeholders.  Establish trust with stakeholders, in part with the accuracy of the information that you provide.  When an issue arises, engage with speed and clarity, and if appropriate, with a bit of humility.

How is image changed? It takes time, effort, strategic initiatives and resources to change image and reputation.  Image can be changed from neutral or negative to positive; trust in the school, its leadership and faculty can be built or re-built; a broader local and regional awareness of the school’s mission can be formed; student enrollment can be restored and increased; and donor support and be restored and increased.

In addition to implementing the building blocks of integrity, transparency and engagement, several tools are readily available to help with this change.  They are: media, community, internal and stakeholder relations.

Earned media, or positive news coverage you actively work to get, is effective in communicating with a broad group of stakeholders and shaping their perceptions about your school.  Strategic meetings with the editorial board of the local newspaper not only provide for introductions, but display a desire for transparency and present an opportunity for administration to provide the media with accurate information.  These meetings can also be used to set the stage for an announcement for new construction, expansion of classrooms or a reduction of grades.  Op-ed print pieces and radio and television interviews can also be platforms to help change the image of the school.

Reaching out to other area Christian school administrators (and even other private and public school administrators), along with area pastors and community leaders displays transparency and a desire for openness and understanding.  Hosting a community event on campus (e.g. Salvation Army toy drive), inviting the community to school events or inviting community leaders to the school for a lunch and tour builds bridges to relationships.

Neglect not internal relations.  Build relationships with students through physical presence throughout the school and at its activities and through listening sessions over pizza in the cafeteria.  Value relationships with faculty and staff and work to “let your actions speak so loud they can’t hear what you are saying.”  Send them birthday cards, stop for unscheduled visits to chat and be truly interested in them and their lives outside of the classroom.

Using the tool of proactive external stakeholder relations can yield clear results.  Before and after-school walkabouts in the hallways and parking lot, an open-door attitude and prompt response to e-mails and telephone calls builds relationship with parents.  An administrative presence at homecoming or other events where alumni are present, scheduled alumni update luncheons or dinners and consistent communication with opportunities for Q & A will engage your alumni and turn them into a sales staff for the school.  Regularly communicate with donors, and not only at times of solicitation.  Provide updates on the school, accomplishments and awards as well as needs.   Provide opportunities for donor engagement and be quick to honor and recognize their involvement.

Experience continually adds depth and refinement to the academic preparation and professional training of an educator.  As a believer, numerous passages in Proverbs remind us to ask Him for, and seek, wisdom and understanding in our daily lives.  And, we are challenged to seek counsel from others – “Pride only breeds quarrels, but wisdom is found in those who take advice” (Proverbs 13:10 NIV).

Just as schools occasionally call in legal counsel for a legal matter and accountants for an audit or review of financial practices, public relations professionals should be considered for issues affecting the development, protection or change of the school’s image.  From embarking on an ambitious building or fundraising program to re-shaping the community’s perception of the school from one that serves the needs of a single church to a school that reaches across many church lines, public relations can play a vital part.  A proactive approach to public relations is much more significant and impacting than that of a reactive role in crisis situations.

While many of the practices of good public relations are already in operation in our schools, administration is often unaware of the counsel, tools and value public relations professionals offer to help sharpen the focus on delivering the mission of the school.

Your school’s image does impact…well, everything.  Treat it like a fine china gift – one given by God.

David Wagner has previously served as principal of Abundant Life Christian School, Chairman of the Board of ORUEF and Vice President for University Relations and Development at Oral Roberts University.  He currently serves as a senior vice president at Schnake Turnbo Frank | PR, an Oklahoma based public relations firm with offices in Tulsa and Oklahoma City and can be reached at dwagner@stfpr.com or 918-582-9151.