Take Back the Conversation

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©2015 National Association of Secondary School Principals


It's undeniable. A growing part of the principal's evolving role is public relations. The school's success—in the eyes of the local community—relies increasingly on how well the principal engages in strategic communications. And that communication becomes all the more important in the national context of the conversation about "our failing schools," one of the few beliefs that unites American of all persuasions and walks of life, what the late Jerry Bracey famously called "The 'Schools Suck' Bloc."

Yet somehow, PR is one of those tasks they probably never taught you in graduate school. This toolkit aims to help you fill that gap. It's a simple, jargon-free guide with links to various tools and additional resources that will help you discover the opportunities for sharing positive information about your school and about public education in general. What you will likely discover is that you're already doing many of the things this toolkit suggests. It's the rare principal who does not already speak to community groups or confer regularly with parents, for instance. With just some tweaking and strategizing, you can begin to reap much more benefit from these activities.

NAESP's PRincipal Communicator newsletter, developed in partnership with the National School Public Relations Association, is an ideal companion to the Principal's PR Portal.

Note: Many districts have specific policies about communications with the public. Make sure you are aware of those policies before beginning any of the activities suggested in this portal.

Brought to you by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

©2015 National Association of Secondary School Principals

Purpose and Audience

Any effective communications initiative requires clear, specific answers to two fundamental questions:

What is the PURPOSE of the communication?

Your overarching purpose is to build local support for and engagement in your school, and in many cases, that might be enough to guide you. Clearly articulating a specific purpose, however, will help you identify your audience and decide what information your message should contain. For example, trying to build corporate support for a specific initiative and trying to spread greater awareness and understanding of a new flipped-classroom initiative require different information for different audiences. For each communication, identify specifically how you want the intended audience to think, feel, or behave as a result of your communication to them.

Casting the purpose in terms of audience reaction is decidedly different from just describing the activity. For example, Principal Doe might be scheduled to speak at a local Rotary Club meeting about the high school internship program. It's a program she knows well, so she delivers an address full of details. Certainly, she conveyed her passion for the program, but unless she intended for the audience to feel overwhelmed and confused, she probably missed an opportunity. Had Principal Doe set a clear purpose to increase the number of local businesses participating in the program, she could have focused on the benefits of the program to the businesses that participate. A specific purpose changes everything.

Who is the audience for the communication?

Principals already have a sense of who has a stake in the school's success, so the guidance here is simple:

  • Identify your stakeholders
  • Determine what they value
  • Find out where they are
  • Go there and invite them in.

Principals have a sense of who wants what from the school, but absent a strategy for outreach, we're vulnerable to the "squeaky wheel" syndrome and risk missing opportunities. This simple matrix encourages the principal to consider more specifically who and where their audiences are. The more specific you can get, the more targeted your communications can become. Is it sufficient to list "parents" as a single category? Are there significant subsets of parents who are invested in the success of a particular program? Where do they congregate?

Brought to you by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

©2015 National Association of Secondary School Principals

Be Informed

While you are mapping your audience, consider that there might be gaps in your knowledge. Once you have identified audiences, a little bit a research can go a long way to determining what the audience knows about the school--or more important, what they think they know about the school. Anything you attempt to tell the audience will filter through their current impressions, so it is worth becoming aware of those impressions so you can leverage them if they are positive, overcome them if they're negative, correct them if they are incorrect, or otherwise account for them in your address. Simple surveys, informal "focus groups," and social media can provide a great deal on insight into what your community thinks and will help you establish some messaging priorities.

Simple surveys, informal focus groups, and social media can provide great insight into what your community thinks and will help you establish some messaging priorities. For example, Bill Zeigler, a Pennsylvania principal, sent a survey to parents at Pottsgrove High School when he entered the school as its new leader to help him learn about his school and gather information to guide his leadership.

For an intensive examination, NASSP offers the Comprehensive Assessment of School Environment, which includes stakeholder surveys. Otherwise, you can customize a survey with Google Docs or use a simple survey tool, such as Survey Monkey or Zoomerang, to drill down into stakeholders' impressions. Consider the following as you plan your survey:

  • Pilot the survey with a small handful of respondents to gauge whether the survey is too long or in any way unclear before deploying it to the larger community.
  • Know your community's technology access. If most parents don't use e-mail, for instance, you might need to resort to paper.
  • The results of a survey should highlight both strengths and opportunities for improvement to guide you as you build community relations. Be transparent about the areas for improvement and how you are planning to improve. At the very least, the community will know they were heard and that you are taking their feedback seriously.
    In your drive to improve, don't dismiss your strengths. If you discover that 90% of your parents would recommend your school to another family, use that as a message point. Your community is telling you that you're doing something well. Embrace it and celebrate it. The Berkley School District in Michigan, for instance, created a Prezi video that honestly displays areas for improvement and also celebrates what parents believe they do well:

Brought to you by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

©2015 National Association of Secondary School Principals

Crafting the Message

Building a repository of key messages will allow you to communicate consistently across various channels. Illustrate the school's success with stories that personalize of the initiatives you describe, and include language that you know will resonate with the audience. Follow the guidance in this template to craft your messages.

Never pass up an opportunity to share a good word about your school—especially in informal circumstances. Business folks have elevator speeches, pitches or descriptions that are just short enough for an elevator ride. Principals don't spend much time on elevators, but they often bump into parents in supermarkets. So when a parent asks you the inevitable, "how are things going at the school?" you should be prepared with you "supermarket schpiel," the three points that best convey the school's success. And it's a good idea to tack on an invitation for the parent to become more engaged: "I hope to see you at that event. I know they're looking for volunteers."

Creating Your Elevator Speech

Our brains are particularly good at processing information in series of threes. By focusing on key concepts and sound bites, you can shape the messages you want to get across from a laundry list of bullet points with no particular order and break it down into three key communications streams for use in brief conversations, larger public discussions (media interviews, speeches, presentations) and printed and electronic collateral (publications, websites, emails).

An effective messaging framework consists of several key components:

  • Core Statement – This is your defining message, better known as the first sentence of your elevator speech. When someone asks what's happening at your school, the Core Statement is the declarative, identifying your positive headline about the school's successes.
  • Key Messages – When you offer your Core Statement, you'll want to follow up with three key messages that translate into programs and developments at your school.
  • Support Points – When you have more than an elevator ride's worth of time to talk about your school, you'll want to be ready to provide proof and evidence in support of your key messages. This framework encourages you to identify three points of evidence or support under each Key Message – perfect for use in public speeches or written communications.

View more detailed instructions and examples of each step in action.

As you get comfortable with and refine your elevator speech, you may decide to develop customized versions for different audiences or on particular topics.

Brought to you by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

©2015 National Association of Secondary School Principals

Don't Go it Alone

Recognize that you have access to a tremendous public relations asset: Teachers are the most credible source of information to your local community. Take efforts to enlist them and other staff members in promoting the school. Involve them in identifying and describing your audiences. It's easy to build a faculty meeting around the Build Your Own Elevator Speech tool. At the very least, follow the advice of author Jamie Vollmer to deter the behaviors that get in the way of your school's positive impression.

Brought to you by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

©2015 National Association of Secondary School Principals

Delivering the Message

You have identified your audiences and purposes for communicating to them. You have crafted your messages and enlisted an army of credible sources to deliver them. Now, it's appropriate to discuss the options for delivering the message. Unfortunately, school leaders often get caught up first trying to determine what platform they should adopt—should I have a blog? set up a Facebook page? or maybe a conventional newsletter?—without considering the factors that might help them decide. There are two problems with this approach:

  • Your communication will not be as effective as it could be.
  • New communications channels appear each day, particularly in social media. Without a reason to choose one channel over another, you might try to be everywhere—an impossible task that will only lead to diffuse efforts and a frustrated staff.

This helpful matrix breaks down the strengths and weaknesses of the general modes of mass-media and interpersonal communication. But it's just as important to determine the specific medium that best suits your intended audience and message. Rich Bagin, executive director of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA), has some advice for school leaders on this very point. "One of the major downfalls in PR for individual schools is that principals and staff members often try to do too much," Bagin says. "Pick one or two items that can work for you and deliver on them during the year. Next year, pick a few more." With that advice in mind, let's review the delivery channels to which principals have access.

Local Media

Principals often cringe at the prospect of talking to a member of the media. Our minds quickly fast-forward to tomorrow's printed quote that will make us appear uncaring, or too soft, or buffoonish--or some combination of the three. But when all goes well (and it usually does), you find that an interview with a member of the local media goes a long way to helping convey a good word about your school. Recognize a media interview not as a threat, but as an opportunity. If you fail to define yourself to the media, others will step in to define you with information that just might be misleading or inaccurate. Follow these tips for responding to reporters' calls and becoming recognized as a credible, helpful source.

As with most things in your school, success in working with media hinges on relationships. Do not let a school crisis be the cause of your first conversation with a local reporter. Reach out to them first. Give them a positive story to tell. Invite them into the school to shadow you or visit classes. Let them get to know you and the school, and you'll lay the foundation for positive interactions in the future. A press release remains the simplest way to convey news in a format that is universally recognized. And it's not a bad idea to follow up with a phone call to make sure the release was received and to see if there's any interest. Keep in mind that most reporters are scrambling to meet deadlines in the afternoon, so those calls are usually best received in the morning.

Press Releases

Writing a press release is an easy way to spread information and it can be done pretty quickly if you have a clear goal in mind. Fundamentally, a press release should indicate the important who, what when, where, and how (if relevant). News outlets want to grab people's attention, so the press release should highlight the items(s) that reporters will find attention-getting--a topic that is currently of interest in your community, perhaps, or a human interest angle that tells a personal story. Don't hesitate to take advantage of "star appeal." You NHS induction ceremony will suddenly become much more interesting to local media if the state education commissioner is the guest speaker. Put that information in the first sentence of your press release.

If you send your press release by e-mail, an attention-getting subject line will increase the chances of the message being opened. You have about 60 characters in the subject line. Use the tips above to make the most of them. You'll find more tips and guidance in this sample press release.

Local Access TV

Local access television stations are growing in popularity, and they provide schools a great way to tell their story. Many of those stations have a particular affinity for student-produced news segments and programs. And, if nothing else, these stations provide a real-life platform for student work. Check out the brief video below for guidance on creating local access programming, and search for local access stations in your area.

Letters to the Editor and Op-Eds

The opinion pages are the most widely read sections of many newspapers. So it stands to reason that letters to the editor and opinion pieces are one of the most powerful ways for you to deliver your message to your target audiences.

Keep your target audiences in mind as you decide where to submit a letter to the editor, an op-ed or an online comment on an article or blog post. Local and regional news outlets are better vehicles than national papers for reaching your community and offer a greater likelihood of publication, while national outlets are more competitive but more likely to provide you with visibility to a broader segment of the population. The audience size and demographics of online news sites and blogs vary from one site to another, with some hyperlocal news outlets catering to particular geographic areas and blogs that cover a specific interest area.

Keep in mind also that any letter, comment or article that you submit will be viewed as representative not just of your opinion, but that of your school and district.

Read more about:

Presentations and Meetings

Yes, they're time-consuming. But if you're able to reach the right audience and expand your reach to other stakeholders, presentations and meetings in your local community can also yield amazing benefits. We often invite the community into our school, and we should continue to do so. Just as important, though, is that school officials be present to the community outside of the school. In his book Schools Cannot Do It Alone, author Jamie Vollmer makes a compelling case for bringing the conversation about schools to the community on their own turf. If we follow Vollmer's advice and choose our messages judiciously, we just might find more coverage of education issues like this.

Social Media

This engaging webinar by 2013 NASSP Digital Principal Carrie Jackson imparts invaluable information on leveraging social media to engage families in student learning, advocate for kids, and foster a culture of caring throughout and beyond your community.

And in case you need more of a research-based case for using social media in a professional context, see this November 2013 journal article from NASSP Bulletin by Dan Cox and Scott McLeod.


Sometimes, the best technology is the traditional newsletter. These tips from Education World will help you stay focused on creating a newsletter that informs parents and the community while also promoting the great things students are doing.

Online School Directories

Online school directories are being more commonly used, not just by realtors to "sell" (or deter) buyers in certain communities, but by other community stakeholders to gauge the quality of their local schools. These directories typically offer a school profile based solely on publicly available information—test scores, in particular—and rate the school based on those scores.

With more than 40 million visits each year (including half of all households with school-age children), is the largest and most popular such directory. They have recently added opportunities for schools to create a free Official School Profile, in which principals can highlight key facts about the school, including mission, unique qualities, programs and services—all of which describe your school much more roundly than test scores ever could. You can also add photos and videos that help bring your school to life and insert a "We're known for" section to create a banner headline for your profile. Additional features are available for a fee.

As the manager of the Official School Profile, the principal is notified when new parent reviews are published on your school's page, and you can respond with a "Principal's point of view" that is always visible.

Principals can claim and register for a free Official School Profile at

Brought to you by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

©2015 National Association of Secondary School Principals

Promoting Public Education

Even if my school is great, parents are convinced that US schools in general are in crisis. The most recent fuel to the fire is the December 2013 release of the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results, which revealed that US students' performance pales in comparison to that of other students. As NASSP Executive Director JoAnn Bartoletti shared in an editorial in response to the results, US performance lags in large part because we fail to heed the policy messages the results tell us—which often are in direct contrast to what the detractors promote. Further, an analysis of the previous round of PISA results by former national principal of the year Mel Riddile reveals that when disaggregated by poverty level, US schools outperform the rest of the world, and that the low ranking stems from our collective failure to address the causes and effects of poverty.

Principals are in an excellent position to force back the tide of negativity about US schools. And if each of us can all do something to reverse the trend, all of our boats will rise. Consider including some of the content from this Repository of Public Education Good News in your presentations. If you prefer, you can use slides from this PowerPoint deck or the whole presentation as you prefer. You might also want to take advantage of this collection of What's Right About Public Schools.

Brought to you by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

©2015 National Association of Secondary School Principals

Discussing Education with Non-Educators

Many of the most important stakeholders in your school's success—a list that's likely to include parents and local community members—may have a limited understanding of the broader policies and practices that guide your work. At the same time, principals know that these audiences are a critical source of support for local schools and public schools more generally.

So how can you best bridge this communications gap? How do parents and the broader public think about public education and what are the education messages that resonate most strongly with those audiences?

Understanding Common Assumptions

Most principals have a different understanding of the educational system than do lay people. As you orient yourself to framing education conversations, one of the first things to do is understand the difference between those assumptions.

Here are some key assumptions people bring to their understanding of education:

  • Education is influenced primarily by parents, students and teachers. People who work in education understand that there are a variety of players who have roles in and influence on the education system, including different levels of policymakers and a broad cast of players at the local level—including superintendents and central office administrators, principals, teachers, parents and others. That broad understanding of the complexity of the system is very different from that of the average citizen, who believes that most education outcomes are influenced by parents, students and teachers. Without a sense of the larger system, people lack the ability to consider education reform policy proposals.
  • An extension of the assumption above is that education problems are assumed to be issues of motivation, character, discipline or effort attached to those key actors.
  • Student success and teacher effectiveness are related to a single quality: caring. To consider the quality of learning environments—or of the role of family and community resources—we need to go beyond this question of caring teachers and parents. In order to consider changes that are needed to strengthen the profession, we need to move the conversation beyond the question of whether a teacher cares and move to the significance of teacher preparation and professional development—and recruitment and placement.
  • People assume that any reforms to the current education system will require a lot more money. Money often dominates the conversation about reform and there is limited understanding of the financial implications of the alignments that need to be made within various parts of the system. It's important to help community members understand what the costs of various changes are, how they differ and how some changes can be made by reallocation of resources or in ways that are not enormously expensive.
  • Everyone should be given the opportunity to go to college, but they should be given a choice of whether to pursue that path. College is not seen as a viable option for everyone, and not all people should be forced down that path. The education community needs to continue to send messages about the importance of college and career.
  • More individualized instruction is needed. Individualizing, or personalizing, instruction to individual students has broad appeal. But many parents assume that this is what is happening already in classrooms and so the concept, while not universally executed, seems a no-brainer. So explaining to people that this doesn't always occur is important.
  • Education is a limited commodity. Thus, people on one side of town can't care about kids on the other side, and innovation must be "purchased" at the expense of a basic skill. Your messaging should steer clear of this consumer or product orientation and explain why education is a common good and not something that some people can afford and some cannot.

Areas of Agreement

A look at several public opinion research surveys identifies areas in which American share similar views. You can use the following language with the confidence that most people agree with the following concepts:

  • Strong public schools are the key to our nation's economic future. This concept—that a broadly educated public is important to the future of the nation—is one that people don't hear regularly. But it's important to remember that this does indeed resonate with people. Economic arguments for investment of time and resources into public education are worth pursuing and are well aligned with communications strategies used by education groups around the country.
  • High-quality public education is a right. Americans see public education as a right, not a privilege. In talking about public education, we can draw on a strong belief that providing public education is seen as one of the highest functions of government.
  • Public education benefits society, from public health to innovation to community stability to quality of life. Public education provides a collective benefit. This broadens the focus beyond individual achievement. Public education involves more than the triad of parents, teachers and students. Ask people to consider the roles of school boards, taxpayers, superintendents and principals.
  • Innovation is important to improving teaching and learning—but parents don't want to see what they deem as experimentation on their children. Recent polls have found increasing support for online learning and educational technologies, while the term "innovation" worries some parents in its evocation of experimentation and untested theories.
  • The goal of education is future preparation needed to support our country's quality of life. Students need new sets of skills and experiences in addition to the basic skills we already agree on.

Applying your knowledge of these assumptions and agreements about education can lead to creative and effective communication between school leaders and parents, members of the local community, and other stakeholders.

Brought to you by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

©2015 National Association of Secondary School Principals

Discussing Common Core in Your Local Community

Our organizations are on the record with our support of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and other college- and career-ready standards. That support stems from a belief that these standards, as developed, will usher in a new age of learning encourages skills all students will need for success, regardless of the path they choose. Fundamentally, our organizations promote leadership for optimal learning of each student entrusted to our care.

Before we consider how to discuss CCSS in our communities, a few observations provide some context:

  • CCSS opposition is not monolithic. Some perceive the movement as an inappropriate overreach by the federal government. Others are (quite justifiably) soured by horribly botched implementations of the standards in their states. And still others believe the movement is a Trojan horse for corporations to penetrate our schools.
  • Most CCSS opposition has nothing to do with the standards themselves. It is rare that CCSS opposition mentions the actual content of the standards. Instead, it focuses on the origin of the standards or the development process.
  • Most of what has gone wrong with CCSS has nothing to do with the standards themselves. Instead, the implementation process is dooming the CCSS initiative to failure in many states.
  • Most CCSS opposition has nothing to do with student learning. While so much discussion is driven by ideology or political persuasion, very few voices are heard discussing the value of the work students are encouraged to perform under CCSS. And by extension, rarely is the question asked: Will these standards mean better learning?

These realities present a unique opportunity for principals to fill a void and encourage members of the community to see CCSS through the lens of learning. Principals can rise above the polarizing political discussions and focus on the goal: If implemented correctly, CCSS will lead to deeper, more relevant learning than most current state standards require. Discussions should be customized to your school, but here are a few talking points to prime your thinking, derived from an action brief NASSP’s Mel Riddile authored for Achieve:

  • The Common Core will get students to work with more complex texts—not just in English class, but across all subjects. It’s what we call cross-content literacy. So students will be held to reading, writing, and speaking standards in science class as much as in English class. Students will build strong skills because they will use them continually throughout the day.
  • The standards demonstrate logical progressions through the grades so that teachers will understand how standards being taught on a particular day relate to the standards in other grades. For the individual student, teachers and leaders will be guided by a picture of each student’s skill progression.
  • CCSS encourages all students to master higher-level math. Taking advanced mathematics has a greater influence on whether students will graduate from college than any other factor, including family background. For those who go straight to college, taking advanced mathematics in high school boosts college completion rates from 36–59 percent among low-income students and from 45–69 percent among Latino students.
  • Students will be more thoughtful and creative in their learning. Instead of just knowing the answer, students must now be able to create the answer. Instead of just working procedural mathematics problems, students must also be able to apply mathematics concepts to real-world situations and write about their thinking in moving to a solution. This kind of learning empowers students. It reinforces skills we use every day to find answers to questions and identify the best way to solve problems.
  • Fundamentally, CCSS seeks to provide students options. We in schools don’t want to be in the business of sorting students. Some will go to college, some to trade schools, some to the family business, some will still need time to figure it out. But, in all cases, the decision should belong to the student, not to a school system that decides a student is not college material.” A CCSS education will help ensure that doors remain open to students after they graduate.

No Room for Pollyannas

An essential condition to Common Core success noted above is "If implemented correctly..." Unfortunately, many states are violating this condition (in this case, yes, encouraged by the federal government’s obsession with test-based accountability). Policymakers do not understand that CCSS represents a massive shift in the way we educate students. We project the transition to CCSS will be a decade-long process, not the "flip of a switch" most policymakers perceive. That disconnect is causing pain to educators, students, and parents. If members of your community want to constructively engage in CCSS conversations, ask them to support policies that relieve the pain:

  • States should void their current state standards so schools can focus on the CCSS transition. Most states that have begun the CCSS transition have not concomitantly abandoned their current state standards. The effect is that teachers and principals are still held accountable for performance on existing state tests while preparing students to a different set of standards. The condition creates a high-stakes schizophrenia—and neither set of standards will be addressed well.
  • States should respect the magnitude of the CCSS transition and delay the use of CCSS-aligned tests for accountability purposes. States have raced to implement CCSS and have immediately imposed accountability provisions on principals on teachers for student performance on tests—even though (1) schools have not had time to teach students to the CCSS standards and (2) the CCSS-aligned tests are only in the field-test phase as of spring 2014. It’s the perfect recipe to discredit schools and demoralize educators. But if the goal is student learning, policymakers must allow several years for schools get the transition right before holding them accountable for success.

Brought to you by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

©2015 National Association of Secondary School Principals


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