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.

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”.Ā  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.