Schoolzone: Building a positive image in the community

Building a positive image in the community

By Brin Best

Schools are becoming increasingly aware of their image in the community. Many schools are realising that working positively with their community to ensure a positive image is an important part of the whole-school development plan.

This heightening of awareness over the importance of a school’s image can be put down to a number of factors:

The competitive nature of many schools in overlapping catchment areas
The knock-on effect of student recruitment on school finances
The need to dispel negative publicity about Ofsted inspections, failing schools and special measures
The purpose of this article is to underline the importance of achieving a positive school image and give you range of practical strategies to help you improve your school’s image in the community.

Why is a positive image important?
Studies of schools with a positive image in their community show that in general they have the following characteristics:

  • SATs or exam results are good
  • They are oversubscribed
  • High student numbers means they are often well-resourced
  • Staff morale is good
  • Students are motivated and care about their school
  • Parents are more likely to take an active role in helping the school

Although schools with a strong track record in these areas obviously have a head start in projecting a positive image, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that even schools with ‘unfavourable’ characteristics can improve their image through a targeted campaign. This enhanced image has been shown to have a positive influence on student and staff morale, exam performance and student behaviour.

How to start

A strategic approach
Taking a carefully planned strategic approach is the key to a successful PR campaign. The initiative should be overseen by a member of the senior management team, or by a suitably qualified member of staff with a management allowance.

An ability to keep to tight deadlines, consistency and a capacity to build close working relationships with journalists are the key skills this co-ordinator needs. Getting the whole staff behind them and their efforts is also vital. The flow chart summarises the steps that should be taken in a school PR campaign.

It is important to remember schools with good internal morale will tend to find it easier to project a positive image. If your school doesn’t, then consider tackling this key management issue first. What are the factors affecting morale and what can be done to improve these?

Feel good about yourself and the community will feel good about you
Schools that feel good about themselves can easily build a positive image in the community; those that do not will wonder why other schools always get the good publicity. Good reporting in the press about the achievements of the staff and students may be one key development the school needs to realise its worth, so the two areas are obviously linked.

Developing a good working relationship with the local community is vital. Organise events where parents and the public can learn about your school and get involved in activities (eg open evenings, an after-school computer club, quiz nights).

The community’s views are important
Encourage the community to see the school as a resource for them as well as their children and grandchildren. Many schools will already have a valued community education programme, but think of innovative ways to expand your provision.

Carrying out an anonymous questionnaire on local views (involving parents and non-parents) about your school can be very worthwhile and revealing. It can also identify some priorities for your PR work. If you do one, however, be prepared for some hard-hitting comments. Look at all criticism as a positive action for change.

A regular school newsletter or magazine can be an excellent way of communicating the right messages as well as celebrating the work of students. Sponsorship and advertising by local businesses can help with costs and the production can be carried out in conjunction with students, giving them valuable skills at the same time.

Take great care over the content of your website - use it proactiviely and get rid of out of date stuff. It#s at the end of this list, but it#s everyone#s firs port of call. There is too much to say about this here - it needs an entire book.


Learn to manage the media
It is important to realize that a school should be prepared to manage the media in order to portray the institution in the best possible light. Although this does not, of course, mean putting out false information about your achievements, careful handling of the press is paramount. Various methods should be employed.


Build a contacts list
This summary of key press contacts and their addresses, phone/fax numbers and copy deadlines should be one of the first things prepared. The table below will help you draw up your own contacts list for your particular area – adapt it to your needs.

Detailed research at this stage will reap benefits when the stories break. Don’t forget the free local papers, which have very wide circulation and are often desperate for good stories.

Writing press releases
It is of paramount importance to learn how to write good press releases. An annotated example is shown below to illustrate the essential elements. Although your stories can be phoned through to journalists, having all the facts in writing really helps them and will increase the chances of it making it into print.

Fax is often the preferred option for receiving press releases, but email, with its obvious advantages of speed and lack of retyping, may soon supersede it. Ask your contacts how they prefer their copy to be received.

Photo opportunities
A picture sells a story. So photo opportunities are a great way of getting press coverage. If a newspaper photographer has been sent to take pictures it’s more than likely the editor wants to cover your story.

Set things up properly and get all the key people in place – for example the student who has won the competition, with their teacher and the prize-winning piece of work. Try to cast off any concerns about appearing in newspaper photos and encourage staff and students to do the same.


Press conferences
These are usually reserved for major press launches. They need careful advance planning and might be preceded by a press release and combined with a photo opportunity. Usually several different journalists will be present, from print, radio and perhaps television. Choose your room carefully; staging the event next to a Year 11 class with a supply teacher could give you completely the wrong angle!

Contrary to popular belief, newspaper journalists, particularly local and regional journalists, are generally not desperate to root out the scandal or negative story about your school. They are much happier to report success stories, good people stories and genuine good news – the kind of material that so frequently comes out of schools.

Cultivate close relationships with your local journalists and they will serve you well. Keep them informed, pay them a visit at their office and be professional with them.


Radio and television
Although you will only rarely get the television cameras into your school (they tend to be interested in stories of regional interest – or the kind of stories you’d rather not see reported), radio is certainly an underused medium by schools. Local radio stations are often very keen to receive news from their community and many will welcome the chance to use some audio from a school spokesperson.

Don’t be put off by this.Digital recording techniques mean that if your interview is pre-recorded it can be cleaned up prior to broadcast and often sounds really polished – good PR in itself! Radio is particularly good at reaching large audiences locally and can be an excellent medium to communicate your news.

Many stations also have a community feature where appeals for help and other items of local interest can be posted. Give your local station a call and see what they are interested in.

If you have a really good story consider television. Phone the editor of your local news programme and sell your story, explaining why it is photogenic or interesting.

They may well have some space to fill, but be aware that filming is very time-consuming, often requires things to be staged and you must be prepared to be accommodating to the needs of the producer once they are on your site. But it’s worth it – positive TV coverage is a great morale boost.


The media crisis plan
Every school should devise a plan for how to handle the media in the event of a major crisis. There is inevitably the potential for damaging (and sometimes insensitive and hurtful) reporting if such a story breaks, so it is crucial that a clear strategy is devised. The main factors to consider are:

Who will be the spokesperson? There should be one senior figure who carries out all interviews, usually the headteacher or chair of governors.

How should the LA be involved? Find out in advance the LA policy and get a contact name to keep on file – they may wish to get involved and you will be glad of such support.
What information should be passed on to the press? It is vital to keep them informed and issuing “no comment” is the worst thing to do, as it will only lead to speculation.
Submit your media crisis plan to paper and make sure the senior management team member on duty knows where it is.

Final considerations
Remember that despite all your best intentions the time will come for a bad news story on your school to appear – a drug incident, vandalism, bullying or another unfortunate incident. Try to put this in the context of the many years of positive articles that preceded it, and will no doubt follow.

Find an opportunity as soon as possible for a positive story and remember the saying that today’s newspapers are only tomorrow’s chip papers. Good luck with your school PR work!


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