The Weight on Your Shoulders

It was back day at Bruinton Fitness and tears were slowly sliding down my face at 5:30 a.m. It wasn’t the workout. I had just endured the craziest 24 hours: schools across my state would be closed to in-classroom instruction for the remainder of the year due to the novel coronvirus.

It would be a shock and a tough pill to swallow, but there was plenty of communication work to do. My role sits at the intersection of a lot of things–both internal and external. We needed a response to the Governor’s announcement. Thankfully, my team was ready and came through with videos, graphics and even translations. The local hospital even contacted us to assist in finding N-95 masks in our schools. Needless to say, we delivered.

It went smoothly, or so I thought, until my phone rang just after 6 p.m.; it was a former student who moved to another school and needed her email in our system reset. The reason: so she can access her Nintendo Switch credentials. Then, there were the social media trolls who suggested teachers shouldn’t be paid because parents would be the ones doing the teaching.

That was a cut so deep, I cannot explain. I am a fourth generation public education employee. My great-grandmother, grandmother, mom and dad were all teachers. As a school PR practitioner with public school children of my own, I realized that for my family, for the first time in five generations education would not happen in a classroom in the spring.

My own daughter told me after the news broke “I just want to go back to school.”

Things didn’t get easier when I checked my email this morning before my workout and read that a coworker was praying for me by name and the job for which I am responsible. That is why the tears rolled in the middle of a back workout.

My husband looked at me and asked if I wanted to stop. “No,” I told him. “Put on some more weights” on my barbell. He looked at me and smiled. It was time to step up.

As I repped out my deadlifts, I reflected on my career: nothing has ever been this tough. As a former journalist, I have covered dozens of crime scenes, murder trials and gruesome accidents. I never cried.

But today, I did. For the lost year for our students and those across America. For our teachers who didn’t realize the last time they saw their students this year would be the last time. For the students who were looking forward to spring rites of passages, like fun field trips, prom and graduation.

Working in School PR is a calling; I have never been more proud of my profession–the creativity, the generosity, and the commitment. The work is hard, but important. Especially now. The weight school PR practitioners are carrying now is immense. It is hard to explain volume of work we are doing right now. Our roles now include understanding the impacts of large decisions and putting them into an easy-to-understand way to help others understand them, too.

Communication is two way and there is a lot coming back in like concerned parent questions, anxious teacher questions and probing reporter questions.

I know that when this is said and done we will come out on the other side transformed. Personally, I will continue to get up and lift weights in our home gym, because I will be at home for quite some time. Amid the tears will be the gains.

Students will learn more about themselves. Teachers will challenge themselves to meet the needs of students through a virtual platform. Education will see changes in the way we do business. Professionally, I will grow my own skills. 

After all, that’s what working out is about: transformation. As I finished my workout and my mind started to wander to the list of tasks that would need to be accomplished, my husband looked at me and the weights I was lifting and said, “add some more, you can handle it.”

Yes, I can and I did.


Stories to Last a Lifetime

This past week’s AASA National Conference on Education was the first I ever attended and what happened will definitely have a lasting impact on me both personally and professionally. I have so many great stories to share!

Before arriving in San Diego, I was asked to serve as a staff writer for the AASA publication, Conference Daily Online. This experience took me back to my reporter days in a test of my writing chops. I’ll let you be the judge:

I have also included a piece on the presentation my superintendent and I did on our school system’s recent success with our community engagement efforts. 

The author with Tuscaloosa City Schools’ superintendent Mike Daria.

Five Keys Offered by Tuscaloosa School Leaders for Amplifying an Organization’s Story

The author reacts to recognition.

I must say the highlight was being named a 2020 AASA Women in School Leadership Award Winner (School Based Category). It is a humbling honor for the superintendents association to recognize my work as a school public relations professional. I see my role in helping others understand how to communicate their school or district story through the strategic use of communication.

Strategic, that is, purposeful. No where is this better illustrated than in the short Twitter story about my flight home from the AASA National Conference on Education.

I was fortunate to have a few short days of amazing learning among fantastic school leaders and return with enough stories to last a lifetime!

Friday Night Lights.

A new school year often brings about new level of excitement and energy. No where is this more evident than on the school’s athletic fields for Friday Night Football where the community can come together to celebrate the hard work of student athletes.

Recently, our school system experienced a panic at a high school football game which put our communication protocols to the test. The result was reviewing our process, gathering input, and announcing new procedures to better ensure the safety of our student athletes and spectators who are there are watch the game:

One week after the events outlined above, another school system in Alabama was in the news for an incident with a different outcome.

It is expected that your school/district have a crisis plan and one that guides your communication responses in the ensuing aftermath.

But what about real-time communication during an athletic event crisis?

As the a school PR practitioner, have you ever seen the plan for an athletic event crisis? Is it as strong it could be from your professional opinion? Being at the table as part of a leadership team tasked with addressing these challenges has been a thought-provoking experience:

  • What role/responsibility does the public address announcer in providing directions in real-time?
  • How would your PA announcer get the information to communicate possible life-saving instructions in real-time?
  • If your PA announcer is not a school/district employee, what is your process for looping them into that aspect of the crisis plan?
  • What does your visiting team know about your crisis protocols (e.g. would they know where to shelter if there is severe weather?)

These days, safety is a key concern for every school/district. The time to consider the answer to these questions is long before you turn on the Friday Night Lights.

Reflections of Reality

You know the good work being done inside the walls of your school, but do your stakeholders know it? Better yet, how would they know it? As a building leader, spend a few moments in the coming days to review your school’s website, social media profile (if applicable) and even your school marquee to see if the story it’s telling is reflective of the reality you see daily? (This is a great practice to start as you begin a new school year.)

As you spend time clicking around, consider how those who are prospective families would interpret what they see in this digital reality. Is it accurate? Can you get a vibe that your school is an engaging place for students to learn? Is the information up-to-date? 

Confirm this for yourself and put structures in place that not only set high expectations from building leadership, but follow up to see that it’s happening and thank those responsible for it. This feedback is vital to those doing the work that you are interested in the story your school is telling and that it is a reflection of reality.

Growth & Gratitude

How is it possible to grow so much in the course of one week? That’s the lesson I learned at spending time at the 2019 National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) annual seminar.

The content learned in the sessions I attended is as important and invaluable as connecting with old friends and making new ones in pursuit of advancing the profession.

That’s why I spent the morning penning a stack of thank you notes.

The most important lesson I learned was one of gratitude:

  • For a husband who handled things at home while I was away investing in my professional self;
  • For the investment my district made in me as a School PR practitioner;
  • For a superintendent who is not only supportive, but truly understands the value of strategic communication;
  • For a talented staff who was more than capable of handling things at work while I disconnected to learn;
  • For the wise counsel offered by mentors in NSPRA;
  • For the time to mentor others at NSPRA;
  • For the learning gained from colleagues;
  • For the opportunity to share what I have learned with others;
  • For applauding the success of others;
  • For friendships fostered and forged;
  • For memories made;
  • For hospitality shown;
  • And for the chance to serve.

Leadership is a humbling experience–one that requires you to ask others to follow you. One cannot do it alone and certainly, no one stays there without others standing behind you.

Leadership isn’t about who’s out front; it’s about who’s got your back.

This past week, I was proud and excited to be affirmed as the president-elect of this organization, with a term that starts October 1.

The author speaking at the 2019 NSPRA seminar.

It’s a concept I will hold onto this year as I serve with a very talented NSPRA board, under the leadership of incoming president Kelly Avants, APR.

But most of all, I’m grateful to be home having grown so much and ready to take on a brand new school year.

When Worlds Collide

Much of my life revolves around sporting events. My earliest memories include going to basketball games at the high school where my dad coached. Most of the males in my immediate family have a connection to sports as either a coach or an athlete, including my son.

I went to college to become a television journalist. I always considered it to be a “for now” job vs. a “forever” job. At the time, I just didn’t know how long “now” would last. Working my way through my journalism career included a sports stint where I served as the weekend sports anchor. My responsibilities would include covering collegiate student athletes, including my own brother.

The author with her younger brother as a collegiate student athlete at a D-I school.

As a school PR practitioner I can still draw on those skills, but this summer, I have found myself doing so in new ways. As the mom of a youth baseball player, I have somehow managed to parlay these diverse skills to help tell the story of his All-Star baseball team in a social media age.

Because families are spread out, I volunteered to set up a closed Facebook group page for the team so that grandparents, aunts, and uncles could participate in the fun. Little did I know that this would become an incubator for me professionally.

What started out as a lark, provided me a professional spark. It was an opportunity to use the platform to test out ideas I could use in my school PR world. Most notably, with video.

Strategy can be applied to something as innocuous as your child’s ball program. For our little group, we wanted to communicate to out-of-town friends and family through social media our game dates, behind-the-scene photos, and highlight videos.

I must confess: I am a broadcast journalism purist. I believe camera shots should be steady and video must be quality high. The era of user-generated content makes me queasy. That why I have shunned cellphone footage in favor of professional-quality videography and editing.

However, as the post season has gone on, members of the Facebook group shared their appreciation for my skill as evidenced by the analytics of their engagement with the multimedia posts created. As a result, I looked for ways to be more inclusive with the work: I asked them to send me their videos and pictures.

How do you tell a story with video over which you had no control and make it cohesive?

This was a huge risk for me professionally! Using this content was more of a challenge that I would have ever imagined, but the payoff was much sweeter, too. It was a challenge I was excited to take on, too, as I can see the implications of using crowd-sourced video in school PR to tell a story from multiple perspectives. As a result, my kid and his friends have series of highlight videos, edited with free cell phone apps and uploaded to Facebook where music was added.

Made by Mom

It was interesting to see that a youth baseball team was capable of pulling the type of analytics one might when posting a video for your school or school system. Even more impressive is that this was primarily shared with only about 65 people!

This post has more than 1,000 views!?!

I think we hit this one out of the park…and will head to the World Series soon! Clearly, my worlds collided.

Who’s Got Next?

Last week, the school PR family lost a stalwart in Gary Marx, the former long-time associate executive director for communications for AASA, the School Superintendents Association. As we consider the legacy he left for our profession, I am left wondering who’s got next?

As a profession, we must encourage folks to make their mark in this era. School PR needs more than just tweeters: we need more thought leaders.

Increasingly, more school leaders are turning to social media to communicate with their stakeholders. Social media is a great avenue for connection, but it is not the only way.

A strategic approach to public relations incorporates multiple channels of communication in order to reach key audiences. It is no longer enough to raise awareness about our schools; we must seek engagement on behalf of positive outcomes for students. For me, that’s what gets missed in the advice to “tweet more.”

There are some concerned with the outputs of social success: followers, clicks, and likes. I am, too: I wonder if they are pursuing outcomes like building relationships in order to make a difference for students. If so, tweet that! Show the connection between your social activity and the substantive impact it had for students in your community.

Others are watching your example; use your platform as a school communicator to demonstrate this key leadership skill.

Tweets are fleeting. We need people challenging us to stay true to our strategic roots in a digital age.

So, I’ll ask it again: who’s got next?

The Shift.

As a school public relations practitioner who entered the field through television journalism, I faced an uphill challenge. It started with my own sister, a public relations practitioner through her undergraduate work, who is Accredited in Public Relations.

She famously told me over and over again: “It’s not all about media relations.” As much as I hate to admit it, she was right. That’s been an evolutionary lesson for me–from bosses who wanted news coverage to my reliance on media contacts to draw out reporters.

Ten years later, I now sound like my sister: “It’s not all about social media.”

The longer I stayed in the field, the more I determined that my work could be more than just Facebook, fancy parties and fliers. I begin preparing to earn my APR and in 2013, I did.

One of my APR panelists made a comment that she appreciated how I was able to learn and understand the profession instead of viewing it through the lens of a former TV journalist.

That one statement means so much to me now.

The effective practice of strategic communication is what drives my work and the standard I set for myself. That’s why I have been disheartened to see others emulate the strategic work of the profession through the use of tactics as opposed to strategy.

The difference is task vs. tool.

Whereas a decade ago, it was news coverage some relied upon to get the message out, now it’s social media. Increasingly, we are seeing those use social media to communicate and mark their engagement as “done”.  Social media is a powerful tool, but chances are for school systems it is not the only avenue to connect with school stakeholders. It can; however, be a tool in your toolbox.

True engagement is the hard, messy work of relationship building on behalf of students in your community. That’s the work of the profession.

Early in my school PR career, I focused on the tool of media relations–getting coverage in and of itself. What I found was that even the best-placed story didn’t overcome root issues that led me to seek coverage in the first place. Once I made the shift, I started asking a different set of questions:

  • What goals do we need to advance?
  • What messages do we need to communicate?
  • What data are we using to base our decisions?
  • What specific group do we need to communicate?
  • What is the best channel of communication that we should use?

The biggest question of all, with a H/T to my colleague Kristin Magette, APR, is: “What motivates these people to change perspective and/or act?” The answer to that question should guide your work.

For as much as content matters in strategic communication, so does context. As a school leader, I challenge you to think beyond a tweet or video post and consider how will this particular tweet or video be part of advancing a larger goal. Strategic communication is as much about the receiver as it is the sender.

That’s when you know you’ve made the shift.


What Are You Thinking?

It sounds like an easy question, but the answer itself is hard. I recently had a conversation with a colleague about “getting on Twitter.” As a strategic communicator, I needed to know more, and so I asked “why?”. In his role, being on Twitter is the thing that you’re “supposed” to do; after all, everyone else is.

That prompted me to ask, do you want to engage with colleagues or be a thought leader among colleagues? It wasn’t his response to the question that surprised me, it was my own.

I hadn’t realized that I wanted to become a thought leader myself in my profession, but there it was staring me in the face. As a regular participate in a moderated Twitter chat and now a blogger, I suppose that does make me a thought leader!

But I cannot be satisfied with this role. I am compelled to set a new professional goal for myself and a personal goal. For me, the goals have collided. This year has been about balance: family, work, school and professional associations.

Last week our moderated Twitter chat featured a discussion about the Four-Step Process for public relations, also known as Research, Planning, Implementation, and Evaluation (RPIE). Consider this:

As strategic communicators, we need to counsel others on how best to implement sound communication strategies—especially when using new media technologies. Sometimes the work isn’t about stepping on the gas, it is about knowing when to ease off.

At this point in my career, I have come to the realization that in order to be innovative, I must provide myself downtime so I can think and recharge. That said, part of the goalsetting for me includes stepping back from this blog for a while so I can focus on other areas of my life. My aim with the beautiful weather around the corner is to get out and enjoy it more with the ones I love the most! The best way I can make that happen is by leaving my office on time each day!



Strangers Are Everywhere

Growing up as a child of the 1980s, the lessons taught by my parents and teachers have served me well: don’t get in cars with strangers, don’t take candy from strangers, and don’t talk to strangers. Apparently, life in the eighties was consumed with the idea that children should be educated on the reality of strangers!

But I recall in my young mind a stranger was someone in a long trench coat with the collar flipped up, wearing a hat, and maybe sunglasses walking down the sidewalk. Back then, I just knew that I didn’t want to end up with my face on a milk carton. To be honest, I don’t think I ever encountered someone who looked like that.

Now, as a parent myself, I find myself offering a new generation of the lessons to my own children and how to prepare them for the dangers they may encounter in the age of new media and new technology. In this week’s Modern Retro PR, we examine the differences between what my parents (and their peers) needed to teach kids to stay safe with what I (and my peers) teach to keep our kids safe.

Modern: Common Sense Media’s Digital Citizenship

We’ve all gotten the emails from an alleged “prince” in a faraway land who has cash he needs you to hold for some sketchy reason, but he will cut you in for helping him. Or the alleged cautionary tale of a “friend” who got lured away from an online interaction that leads to a bathtub full of ice and his or her kidneys being gone with a note to call 911 nearby.

Most of us (hopefully) wouldn’t fall for it, but it’s enough to concern a parent that the possibility could be one click away for their child.

With access to multiple social media platforms available in the palm of a child’s hand, families want to keep their children safe. The answer to doing so varies from family to family. For some families, that may be denying their child access to the internet and social media platforms until a certain age. Other families may choose to allow it under certain circumstances.

Regardless, for educators ensuring that children are using technology appropriately isn’t just best practice. It’s also required by law. In 2000, Congress enacted the Children’s Internet Protection Act, or CIPA. It’s designed to hold schools and school districts accountable for ensuring students are shielded from harmful content by the use of internet filtering and educating students on responsible use. The way it works is that it ties federal funding to bring down the expensive cost of implementing technology in schools through the e-RATE program by ensuring compliance.

For many years, the process to ensure students stayed safe on the internet was ad hoc, with schools and school districts developing their own processes to educate students. In 2015, Common Sense Media introduced a new curriculum to support adults in teaching students how to use the internet safely. Dozens of age-appropriate lessons are available for free. At the time, the organization said the work was necessary.

“Teaching kids to think critically and behave responsibly in today’s fast-paced digital world is essential,” said Mike Lorion, General Manager of Education at Common Sense Media.

When it comes to digital citizenship it’s important to understand what it actually is.

Just like citizenship to a country comes with rights, responsibilities and privileges, so does digital citizenship. For educators, it is an important of a lesson to learn as government or civics.

Retro: Stranger Danger PSA

The rules are simple: don’t talk to strangers. It is a concept that any child who grew up in the 1980s knows by heart. This message was only reinforced with PSAs, like this one produced by the American Medical Association, airing on television.

Even McGruff the Crime Dog was in on the action:

The underlying message is a moral panic, a concept attributed to a South African criminologist named Stanley Cohen.

“Moral panic has been defined as a situation in which public fears and state interventions greatly exceed the objective threat posed to society by a particular individual or group who is/are claimed to be responsible for creating the threat in the first place.”  –  Scott A. Bonn Ph.D., Psychology Today

The efforts centered on raising awareness on ways in which a stranger might lure a child away from a safe location. If children became aware of the possible dangers, they could just avoid them altogether.  In homes and classrooms across America in the 1980s, it was a message that was oft-repeated.

Final Thoughts

Times have since changed. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is now urging parents to avoid even uttering the phrase “stranger danger.” Experts say that the phrase “really doesn’t fit all scenarios.” In fact, even conducting internet research on the campaign is difficult; it is as if agencies don’t want to remember the campaign even existed. No mention of it even is made on either the American Medical Association’s website or the website for McGruff the Crime Dog!

However, it doesn’t take anyone long to find information on ways to keep kids safe online. Common Sense Media even has a section for parents to help them understand what new pitfalls may be available putting kids at risk. Parenting in the age of new media technologies comes with responsibilities we may never realize existed when we first posted a birth announcement on Facebook or maybe Myspace about a decade ago. As parents, we must keep updated on the social media tools available to our children who are digital natives, having grown up in a world that has always had technology at our fingertips. Admittedly, for their digital native parents: it is work.

Like in the eighties, today’s parents understand that the best safeguards for ensuring children remain safe are to make sure we are both monitoring our children and equipping them with the tools they need to make the right choices.