Duncan Wardle at NSPRA in 2022.

Our team enjoyed seeing so many friends and making many new friends at this year’s NSPRA National Seminar in Chicago. The past several years have posed many challenges for #SchoolPR pros across the country, but seeing the camaraderie of this group in full effect in Chicago was inspiring on many levels. 

Austin, Dan, Lindy, and Molly (our newest team member) attended the conference, and here are six takeaways from each of them.

1. There is real momentum right now amongst this group.

Going into NSPRA, we all heard how this would be the most highly-attended conference the organization has ever had. More attendees and vendors than ever before. As a marketing agency, we’re wired to frame nearly everything as “the best ever!” or “the hottest event of the year!” but this was no hyperbole in Chicago. According to the NSPRA team, the conference saw a 50 percent increase in attendees. Additionally, they nearly doubled the number of vendors in attendance compared to the usual turnout. 

So, what does all of this mean? Our vantage point shows that this profession is valued now more than ever, post-COVID. Superintendents and school boards now value the #SchoolPR profession more than ever and believe professional development is critical for this group. On the flip side, communications professionals realize the demands of the job are becoming more and more expansive in the new reality we’re living in today, and gaining insights and best practices from peers and organizations like Rhodes Branding during the conference is critical.

2. One-person (and no-person) shops will be a thing of the past very soon.

If you attended Duncan Wardle’s keynote at NSPRA, he asked all of the one-person shops to stand up. To no one’s surprise, very few people were seated after he made that request to the room.

The skillsets needed (and demanded, quite honestly) for the average school communications professional in 2022 include:

  • Media relations
  • Public relations
  • Crisis communications
  • Reputation management
  • Graphic design
  • Videography
  • Social media
  • Digital marketing
  • Brand strategy
  • Web development
  • Copywriting

No person can effectively do all those things (preaching to the choir, right?), but school communications professionals are being asked to handle these functions, plus “other duties as assigned” almost daily. Most college and university central communications offices have one person for each area mentioned above. Given the competitive nature of the K-12 education landscape in 2022 and how the resemblance is becoming more and more like higher education, there need to be additional resources put into these departments.  

3. Track the results in everything you do.

One of the most common challenges for any marketing communications professional is showing a return on investment (ROI) for the dollars spent on a particular campaign. That said, delivering ROI for your work is crucial to increasing your budget for the next campaign. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ new Chief Communications Officer, Shayla Cannady, led a great session on early education enrollment tactics. One of the main points of her presentation was ensuring that you set key performance indicators (KPIs) before launching the campaign and setting it up in a measurable way. For instance, if you live in Indiana, where the per pupil expenditure is roughly $12,000 per student, spent $10,000 on digital advertisements for pre-kindergarten registration, and it led to 25 registrations, you generated a net profit of $290,000 for your school district. You could do a lot with those funds. Track the results before launching your campaign, and present them to show the investment was worth it. 

4. Innovation happens on the fifth “Why?”

Another great nugget from Duncan Wardle’s keynote speech was how innovation happens on the fifth “why?” Kids are notorious for asking “why?” a million times. Knowing the answer in your everyday life as a marketing and communications professional can unlock many more answers than you might not have anticipated.

5. Context can get lost in translation. 

We already know language matters, and context is critical. But as Wichita Public Schools’ Spanish Communications Specialist Maria Kury and News & Media Relations Manager Susan Arensman illustrated in their presentation on multilingual communication, communicators must remember that context is both language- and culture-specific. 

In their presentation, Kury pointed out that one word may mean a variety of things in different dialects of the same language, or a particular term may have a negative connotation based on the shared experiences unique to one culture. And by using that one word or term, a communicator may not only fail to get their message across, they might offend or alienate portions of their audience.  

Kury and Arensman showed it’s not enough to use basic translation software to convert a message or graphic into the 2nd-most-used language of the district. Staff or liaisons who are native speakers of the second (or third, fourth, or fifth) language can provide clarity and accuracy of messaging through the lens of their local audiences. 

First things first: go back to the “Research” of R-P-I-E to identify the top spoken languages in your district, as Fairfax County Public Schools did to determine which languages should be used for all their materials in their “VaxUp FCPS” campaign (a 2022 Gold Medallion Award Winner). You might be surprised to learn just how many languages students, staff, and families speak in your schools! With this information, we as “senders” can begin approaching school and district messaging in ways that are more inclusive of the “receivers” in our communities.

6. The train-the-trainer approach works for creating district ambassadors.

Not just efficient for rolling out the newest change in curriculum or operational protocols, districts can use the train-the-trainer approach to create a cohort of community members who truly “get” what schools are doing – and can accurately inform others. 

Tuscaloosa County School System developed the “TCSS University” ambassador program, involving a year’s worth of curriculum that gets into the nitty-gritty of how their school district is run within the federal and Alabama state parameters. In their presentation, Director of Public Relations Terri Brewer and Superintendent Keri Johnson said TCSS U covers everything – how teacher positions are allocated and district funding sources, curriculum, testing and assessments, school safety, mental health services, data and network security, child nutrition, transportation, and everything in between. 

Community members apply to be in the annual cohort and must attend a minimum of required meetings before graduating in front of the district’s school board in a celebration of their commitment. The rigor doesn’t scare away stakeholders – in fact, Johnson and Brewer said they consistently have 40 in a cohort and have a waiting list. And they know TCSS U is working – they’ve heard firsthand from recent grads how after each session, they’re taking their notebooks to share what they’ve learned about the district with colleagues and friends.

Parents and families will talk about their kids’ schools; we may as well equip them with the correct information and empower them to become ambassadors.

Director of Client Engagement at Rhodes Branding | Website | + posts

Molly is the liaison between education leaders and the agency, connecting the K-12 community with services designed to accelerate performance and market position. She leads content and partner engagement strategy and is a frequent conference presenter and podcast/blog guest. Molly likes to push it to the limit, and races competitively in Obstacle Course Races on the weekends.