In an ever-increasing digital world, schools today face more obstacles than ever before.
From reports of disappointing academic performance to shockingly violent acts by a few pupils and parents, schools have had an overabundance of negative publicity in the past several years. Some of these have been legitimate, fair, and carefully reported; others are left to deal with the resulting image and reputation of their school, justified or not.
School public relations (PR) used to be about getting positive messages out; it was a one-way communication street designed to showcase the best of a school or district to gain community support. But because people are bombarded with information about schools, this model is not as effective as it once was.
Today, school PR is less about conveying information than it is about establishing and promoting partnerships within the community. In today’s world, schools ask for and receive information just as much as they transmit it.
We interviewed Nick Bannister, owner and director of Nick Bannister Communications – a public relations and marketing content company for the education sector.
Having worked with a wide range of organisations in the education sector, including major national education charities, the DfE and sector magazine publishers, Nick tells TheSchoolBus his three top tips for schools wanting to use a PR agency.
TheSchoolBus: What are your three top tips for schools wanting to use a PR agency?
Nick: First off, ask yourself why is it you want a PR agency? What do you want to achieve? PR is at its most effective when it is used to build your school’s profile through local media coverage. It’s a very effective way of strengthening and protecting your school’s reputation. This can be useful in persuading parents to choose your school and reassuring current parents that they’ve made the right choice for their children, as well as attracting the best staff. It could also support your school’s commercial strategy, making local clubs and businesses aware that your facilities are available for hire, for example.
Secondly, don’t always assume that you need a big PR agency. There are lots of freelancers and individual PR consultants out there, so consider both options. Small operators like myself (www.nickbannister.co.uk) and my close associate Claire Haworth (www.clairehaworthpr.co.uk) have advantages that big PR companies can’t always offer, such as flexibility, a more personalised service and more competitive fees.
Do your research so that you choose an agency that is right for you. Look for experience of working with schools and within the education sector. Education is a complex area so specialist knowledge and experience will mean that they will be able to quickly understand your needs and hit the ground running.
And thirdly, make sure you have clear lines of communication established with any PR company that you work with. Your PR agency will need to be able to talk to the school’s decision makers quickly. If they can’t then it will be difficult to make the relationship work properly. Also, make sure that you have a colleague who can liaise on a day-to-day basis with the PR agency ─ someone who can provide your agency with the information they need quickly, keep them updated with new and upcoming developments and chase colleagues on the agency’s behalf.
TheSchoolBus: If a school receives negative press in the media, what steps can they take to minimise damage to their reputation?
Nick: Don’t hide from the press and hope that they will go away. That approach creates a vacuum in which speculation and rumour prospers. Give a clear and positive response to the situation, acknowledging concern and setting out, if possible, the positive measures that the school will take.
Good internal communications are critical to the effective handling of negative press. Don’t wait until the time you receive negative press – prepare for it. For example, you need to have in place a process that mean that pupils, staff, parents, the community and other stakeholders are reassured about how the school is going to deal with an issue before they read or see it in the media.
If there is a story that has the potential to cause an issue, for example, a parent who has a grievance with a school policy, it is best to try and contact the complainant to agree a solution or at least a way forward, and avoid fanning the flames of an argument in the press. Also, make sure that with any response to the media, keep your message simple and clear.
Ideally, put forward one clear message, or at the very most three. Do not confuse – the more complex and nuanced your response the more diluted it becomes in the media.
TheSchoolBus: What are the pros and cons between private PR companies and the council-run press offices?
Nick: The big difference is that a PR agency will be able to focus on your school much more closely than an LA press office that is expected to support many schools – and many different council departments, not just education – with ever-decreasing resources. A dedicated PR agency approach works particularly well when you want to build a strong, positive profile over the medium to long term.
However, many schools do maintain an agreement with their LA to provide crisis PR management, or buy in their services on an ‘as-needed’ basis. I’ve spoken to headteachers who have taken this approach and they have found it to be very effective.
One headteacher bought the services of his LA press office when his school became a national news story:
“They charged us a day rate and they acted as the interface between us and the media. They prepared press statements and advised us on media handling,” he told me.
“Our approach was to be as accommodating as possible to the media but even then, we still had reporters outside the school gates trying to talk to the kids. We were very firm with the press that if they were to come on site that had to be at our invitation. We also briefed pupils about the fact that this situation had caused a lot of trauma for many of our pupils. If they were approached by the media they were to let us, with press office support, deal with it.”
TheSchoolBus: And finally, should England’s maintained schools follow the lead of many academies in order to promote their school?
Nick: This is another case of having to; schools can’t rely on LA press offices in the way they used to – LAs have taken massive hits to their budgets over the past few years and this has affected the resources available to their press offices.
With more and more schools joining together in federations and multi-academy trusts there are economies of scale that make hiring PR support to cover a group of schools a more realistic proposition. But in the end, it doesn’t matter if a school is maintained or an academy – they are all schools with the same kinds of issues and ambitions and good communications is important for all of them, regardless of status.
Download TheSchoolBus Media Relations Policy to assist your school when dealing with the media. Outlining the role and responsibilities of the school, including those of the communications liaison, and addressing data protection concerns, handling sensitive issues, negative coverage and promoting a positive image, this policy can be used to help safeguard your school’s reputation.
Nick Bannister (2017) (Email communication regarding school PR) [Personal communication: 4 January 2017]