How Schools Can Navigate the Media Sea Change

By Nora Carr

For the first time since its debut nearly three decades ago, CNN came in third in prime time weeknight cable news ratings in March, falling behind Fox and MSNBC.

While CNN downplayed the news, the ratings victory by the opinion-oriented Fox represents a media sea change and a growing challenge for school communicators. With the lines blurring between news and entertainment, fact and fiction, truth and opinion, public officials can no longer rely on news outlets to help set the record straight.

The trend toward sensationalism tends to be even more pronounced at the local level, at least in many of the nation’s top 50 media markets. While straight news slowly becomes a niche market, political commentary, gossip, and entertainment flourish in mainstream America, especially among the young.

The scary thing is that most people don’t understand the difference, or no longer care.

As if that didn’t pose enough of a challenge, school officials must also contend with the online explosion of blogs, social media networks, and other new media. These citizen journalists publish unfettered by pesky, fact-checking editors or quaint journalistic mores calling for balance, fairness, accuracy, and objectivity.

The result is a constantly churning media mix that requires the kind of guts, quick reaction times, and deft navigation skills seen in Olympic kayakers. For school officials, the waters are roiling, and the chutes are rocky.
Is planning obsolete?

With change the only constant in communications, planning may seem obsolete. Educational communications is akin to firefighting or plate juggling most days, especially for large school systems.

Most public relations professionals believe in planning and research; actually doing both often is seen as a luxury few can afford. But with budget axes swinging like the proverbial sword of Damocles over communicators’ heads, good planning is essential.

Without planning, it’s hard to focus efforts and leverage resources effectively. Results are hard to come by when efforts are diffused. Even an award-winning communications program is hard to justify maintaining if it isn’t contributing to the district’s bottom line.

Research shows a strong connection between effective communication, parent involvement, and student achievement. When times are tough, it stands to reason that schools and districts need more communication, not less.

The key is to not equate effective planning with a slow planning process. With ongoing churn in the media marketplace and new information technologies emerging daily, communications planning has become even more focused and compressed.

Multiyear plans still can provide a useful framework, but most communication strategists are seeking to shape public opinion and behavior more quickly. In communications practice, even six or eight months can seem like an eternity.

Building trust takes time
The challenge inherent in this model is that building and maintaining trust in today’s fragmented and diverse communities is by nature a long-term effort.

New tools and techniques are necessary to systematically and strategically reach employees, parents, senior citizens, real estate agents, reporters, business leaders, faith-based groups, and others who sometimes have polar-opposite values, lifestyles, interests, and concerns.

Print newsletters, getting a “good” story in the daily newspaper or on TV, and sending letters home with students have been replaced. Now we have sophisticated relational databases, online news subscriptions, and electronic newsletters that allow communicators to personalize and target messages on a one-to-one basis.

One of the Information Age’s great ironies is that potluck suppers, school plays, and athletic events still represent some of your best communication opportunities. By mixing in a little messaging with the activity, you still can reach parents.

Getting the community engaged is harder, but personal invitations and face-to-face outreach can make it happen. Today, targeting the grassroots is just as important as targeting the “grass-tops.” In most communities, a handful of powerful business leaders and elected officials no longer runs everything.

This means school leaders must reach out to an ever-widening circle of people to really know what “the community” thinks and feels about particular issues. Even in small towns and rural areas, the community can’t be viewed as monolithic when dealing with public opinion.

Seventy percent of U.S. voters don’t have school-aged children, let alone children enrolled in public schools, so becoming more inclusive in terms of public engagement and communication makes good business sense. It’s also the right—and smart—thing to do.

A ‘new media’ case study
For a case in point, simply look at President Obama’s campaign, which masterfully combined traditional community organizing techniques with new media tools like Facebook.

Obama’s website snagged record-breaking dollars from individual donors, often in $25 increments. Supporters ordered bumper stickers and yard signs online and paid for the privilege. Showing canny sensitivity to affinity groups, the campaign offered something special for just about everyone.

In the big Obama tent, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, blacks, whites, Latinos, soccer moms, gays, lesbians, and the transgendered all found a home—and a product proclaiming their support. To keep everyone motivated and in the fold, Obama’s team tapped some of the country’s savviest social media experts, who sent supporters weekly, daily, and near the end, nearly hourly e-mail updates on the candidate’s progress.

Leaving nothing to chance, the team also worked the Democratic Party’s base, knocking on doors to get voters to the polls in black, working class and liberal strongholds until just before the polls closed. Teacher association members and other union stalwarts worked relentlessly to elect Obama and other candidates they supported, As a result, they’ve emerged from the brink of obsolescence with renewed confidence and political clout.

The results showed at the polls, and in the spontaneous celebrations that popped up nationwide and around the globe. Consider the Election Day contrast between the millions who gathered in Chicago’s Grant Park to hear Obama declare victory and the invitation-only affair at the Ritz-Carlton sponsored by the McCain campaign.

While Obama and Biden were cheered by a mix of people as diverse as America—and America’s big city schools—the McCain-Palin ticket supporters were mostly male and noticeably white, middle-aged, and affluent.

Whether Obama manages a successful presidency is yet to be seen, but his historic campaign has already changed American politics. Not only was the nation’s first African-American president elected, he was elected by a landslide with an ethnic-sounding name, a liberal track record in the U.S. Senate, and an eclectic coalition of interests and groups.

And, while Howard Dean pioneered online fundraising and virtual town hall meetings during the 2004 presidential primaries, Obama unleashed the first new-media campaign for the White House, using Facebook, YouTube, and other social media networks to mobilize the youth vote in ways no one thought were truly possible.

Lessons for school leaders
Meanwhile, few public schools nationwide are offering courses in blogging, text messaging, digital video production, podcasting, Web design, or using social media networks for communication purposes, even though these represent the kind of “hands on, minds on” experiences most students crave.

In fact, most school and district security protocols still block students’ and teachers’ access to many of these new media tools instead of teaching how they can be used wisely and well.

If our president and mainstream education trade organizations like NSBA are dipping their collective toes into new media communications, isn’t it time the rest of us started considering these new techniques in our public relations planning?

Let’s be honest, most of us are still trying to catch up to the changes wrought by 24/7 news cycles and the constant and instant exposure of the Internet. K-12 school leaders must create a bigger and more inclusive tent in terms of the people we reach out to and involve, and embrace new communications methods as well.

If we don’t, we may find ourselves outmaneuvered by those who see public education as just another market choice on the buffet of school options rather than as a bedrock of our free and democratic society. Expanded charter school options and vouchers for private institutions and religious schools are just the first step toward a deregulated environment where the common school for the common good is seen as another quaint relic of the past.   

Nora Carr (ncarr@carolina.rr.com) is chief of staff for North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools and a contributing editor to ASBJ.