These resources and articles can provide direction for your research efforts. If you have additional recommendations or would like to participate in a members' only discussion about school PR research, please post them in NSPRA's "General Discussion" forum under the "research" topic.
The NSPRA archives of over 600 articles and tips published since 2000 can serve as a starting point for your research as well.
NSPRA Resource: School PR Research Primer
Written for NSPRA by Ed Moore, APR, this research primer provides needed context and support for using research in school public relations and communication. It provides step-by-step instructions on how to choose the types of research you can conduct. And although some research options are more costly than others, you'll get ideas about how to conduct inexpensive or free research from your office. From getting started to presenting results, this resource gives you the knowledge you need to conduct the research necessary to improve your program and achieve results. Available now from the NSPRA catalog.
Tips from the School PR Strategic Plan: Don't Leave Home Without It!
Creating a strategic public relations plan helps school PR professionals accomplish our goal to maintain mutually beneficial relationships between the school district and the many publics it serves. The plan can help manage the madness of the PR office and provide the outline to use in prioritizing projects.
The four phases of the plan can be remembered by using various mnemonic devices, including RACE or RPIE, which stand for Research, Analysis, Communication, and Evaluation or Research, Planning, Implementation, and Evaluation respectively.
Here is an overview:
- Research: Up front analysis of where the district stands with the publics it needs to reach; consider what other districts have done in similar situtations
- Analyze/Plan: Development of goals, objectives and strategies
- Communicate/Implement: Carry out the plan
- Evaluate: Determination of whether desired changes occurred
The research phase includes the following components:
- Gather information systematically
- Describe and understand the situation
- Check assumptions about publics/perceptions
- Determine public relations consequences
Within the planning phase, be sure to align your plan's goals with the broad, overarching goals of the school district, and then develop SMART objectives to achieve attainable targets. "SMART" objectives meet the following criteria: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, Timed.
Examples of SMART objectives include the following:
- A total of 225 parents/residents will attend the three community forums on expanding to full day kindergarten in October 2007.
- At least 90% of district staff will rate communications from the central office above average or excellent on the 2007-08 staff survey.
- The bond referendum for February 2008 will pass by a 68% plurality.
In general, a strategic PR plan includes 10 components:
- Overall goals for PR
- Target audiences or publics
- Objectives for each audience
- Budget Items
- Timetable and Task List
The final phase, evaluation should be data driven, relate back to goals and objectives, align with district mission and goals, and inform you as to what your next steps should be.
Many available resources can help you find the right fit for your plan. Create your strategic PR plan in a way that works for you. Just be sure that your plan meets the following overall framework:
- Be written in either grid or paragraph style
- Be comprehensive and/or focused
- Be aligned with district mission
- Be aligned with organizational culture
- Include details commensurate with resources
- Support your work - not burden it!
(Source: Sandra Cokeley, APR, Director of Quality & Community Relations, Pearl River (NY) School District originally presented these tips as a session at the 2007 NSPRA Seminar.)
Be a Hero - Reel in Research Your District Needs Without Breaking the Bank
Most school PR professionals want to carry out regular research to check progress and detect problems - but getting dollars and support for research can be nearly impossible. The bad news: With tight budgets getting tighter many districts may be tempted more than ever to skip communication research altogether. The good news: The outlook for your research plans may not be all that bleak - solutions are out there even if the budget ax chops out some of your research allocations.
With the right plan, even a meager research budget can help school PR planners document and understand:
- What ‘facts' are commonly misunderstood about local schools.
- How the district is capitalizing on its actual, or potential, reputation strengths.
- If the district is focused on the right reputation issues.
- What messages work best when schools talk about themselves.
- How well do district communications reinforce the district's image.
- Exactly how have PR investments helped to build public understanding and support.
NSPRA recently asked two PR veterans with extensive experience in research - Stacey Smith, APR, senior counsel with Jackson, Jackson & Wagner in Exeter, N.H., and Dr. Carol Eaton, director for assessment and instructional services for the Jefferson County Public Schools in Golden, Colo. - to discuss PR research options for these tough times.
Their mission: Offer other NSPRA members tried-and-true suggestions for tapping into public opinion without blowing the budget. Here's some of what they shared:
Don't Wait - Act Now
Too often districts consider research more in terms of the "big picture" survey conducted every two years - or right before a financial election - to find out key information, says Smith. "One mistake that many districts make about research is to wait until they need it," she adds.
- To avoid this problem: District PR planners can and should be collecting information - formally and informally - all of the time from a host of different sources.
- The lesson: By simply making regular observations and keeping good records, you can spot trends and patterns important to helping you fine-tune communication approaches and messages.
Get Constant Feedback
Eaton urges school PR executives to, "Use low and no-cost information available through many already existing sources." The school PR department should consider collaborating with the district's testing department; teaming up with neighboring school districts; tapping into statistics compiled by the area departments of health, zoning and planning; and digging through data collected by the local utilities and other regulated businesses.
Also: National statistics provide another valuable layer of information that is just a mouse click away. (See listing at the end of this article.) These joint ventures and existing stocks of data can help you to better understand the various audiences in the community and provide clues as to their information needs and communication preferences.
Know What You Want
"Make a list of the information that you need to know (versus what is nice to know) before you decide on the research methodology," counsels Smith. "Otherwise a lot of research ends up in a drawer."
Look at your stakeholders and ask: Who can best answer these questions for me? Then create a timeline for when the information is needed and the budget available to gather it.
"Remember," cautions Smith, "don't ask questions about items that you can't do anything about. And be careful how you word the survey since it is subject to the Freedom of Information Act."
Try Varied Tools
You don't need a full-blown, scientifically valid study for every research effort you undertake. Often, you can be aided tremendously by simply getting some overall indications of existing thinking and understanding.
One solution: Dipstick research. This is an easy and inexpensive way to track public opinion, according to Smith.
How it works: Prepare 5-10 questions on a topic, make about 100 calls and you will develop a solid qualitative view of that area. Just as in any survey: Use care when wording questions, you want to track behaviors on an issue not just awareness of it (whether stakeholders saw or read something).
Example: Ask what the person did as the result of reading a newsletter or annual report or whatever. If the answer is nothing, then you may want to rethink the cost and effort of producing that product and look for another way to deliver messages that work.
Organizing focus groups also can help to take the pulse of community opinion with little or no direct costs. Key communicators (internal and external) and others who are viewed as "influencers" in the district can be asked to provide environmental scans - their take based on their position in the community on what's happening, what's important to others and why. "And be sure," says Smith, "to listen to the critics who may have very legitimate points."
"Study circles," adds Eaton, "are another great way to get diverse groups of people together who wouldn't otherwise know each other and discuss school issues." Eaton suggests that graduate students and local colleges can be a great source for volunteers and for expertise in matching the right research tool to the task. (For more info, go to www.studycircles.org.)
Use technology such as the web and e-mail to constantly collect information - all for little or no added cost. Try conducting mini-surveys on your web site or e-mail surveys to random samples of staff, parents, community members or others. Share results with the school community and ask for more feedback.
Another tactic: Set up a voice mailbox to host a telephone comment line so people can share feedback anytime on any topic. "It is crucial," says Eaton, "that you organize and track the information - whether it is a telephone log for calls or a spreadsheet - in a way that will be usable."
Both Smith and Eaton highlight the importance of providing feedback to the public, especially those who have participated in surveys, focus groups, and so on. By sharing the information, you will up the rate of participation in research efforts. Big plus: You create a "we're in this together" climate that will help you build additional support and ensure greater success in getting your message across to others.
Helpful Web Sites
These web sites offer existing research data that can be useful in filling in information gaps or spotting national trends.
(Article written by Maureen Pepson and originally printed in the May 2003 Network.)