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The Role of the Public Relations Practitioner in the Field of Education
By Dzenana Ceman 05-Jun-19
I was people watching while sipping on my mélange in Vienna’s Café Korb, where Sigmund Freud’s “Vienna Psychoanalytic Society” regularly met. My thoughts drifted to one particular member of that prominent group. Edward Louis Bernays was Freud’s nephew; more to his credit, he is considered “the Father of Public Relations.” In a 1991 interview, Bernays lamented, “Public relations today is horrible. Any dope, any nitwit, any idiot can call him or herself a public relations practitioner.” I reflected on the relevance of this quote today, especially in the field of education. The role of a PR practitioner, then and now One aspect of my doctoral research involved the role of public relations (PR) practitioners in the field of international education. In the course of conducting interviews in various international and public school settings in the United States and Europe, it became clear that the role of the PR practitioner is quite misunderstood. In 2005, the Journal of Educational Administration published an article by Tristan Bunnell titled “Perspectives on Public Relations Training in International Schools.” Dr. Bunnell conducted research focused on the training backgrounds and needs of PR practitioners (PRP) in 34 international schools operating in 22 countries worldwide. Dr. Bunnell states that the “PRP in a school, certainly, in the U.K., is still probably an individual whose background is not in PR and who does it alongside other teaching or managerial commitments.” Thirteen years have passed since this observation was made, yet regrettably this statement remains true today. This is not a problem limited to the U.K., however; it’s a universal challenge. Just a few months ago, I interviewed a teacher at an educational institution in the United States who held a degree in journalism and whose part-time job was to serve as PR practitioner for his school district. His tasks varied from day to day, his job being to assist the one experienced PR practitioner operating in that particular district. Ultimately, the administration was prepared to hire only one full-time PR practitioner to complete all the tasks related to the field of educational PR for the whole school district. In the lead-up to my presentation at the 50th anniversary edition of the IB Conference in Vienna, I interviewed schools in various parts of the United States and Europe to find out whether much had changed since Dr. Bunnell conducted his 2005 study. One PRP from the U.S. mentioned that she is in charge of the “school’s PR while also being the executive assistant to district’s Board of Education and the assistant to the Human Resources director.” With very few exceptions, the clear majority of schools did not have a PR team. What is educational PR? Most people have heard of PR, but few actually know what the practice involves in the context of education. The National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA), defines Educational PR as “a planned and systematic management function to help improve the programs and services of an educational organization. It relies on a comprehensive two-way communications process involving both internal and external publics, with a goal of stimulating a better understanding of the role, objectives, accomplishments and needs of the organization. Educational public relations programs assist in interpreting public attitudes, identify and help shape policies and procedures in the public interest, and carry on involvement and information activities which earn public understanding and support.” So, what does this actually mean? Is it a sales pitch? Is it networking? Who exactly do we network with? Who do we involve in the process? Is it advertising? It sounds like it can impact an institution’s reputation. What is the role of a PR practitioner in an international school? According to Dr. David Willows, Director of Advancement at the International School of Brussels, “it’s about the holistic experience and understanding the ‘lifecycle of a school.’” In Dr. Willows’ words, the terms “holistic” and “lifecycle” indicate that the first job is “to spark Attention, then focus on Admissions, maintain the Engagement with families who are on campus, and finally focus on Departure of those families.” In Effective Marketing, Communications, and Development, Dr. Willows summarizes this position by stating “that we all have the same job description: To tell the story of my school and help others find their place in that story.” This strikes me as a good way to characterize the job of a PR practitioner, and it underscores the need for a PR team. If we are to engage in this lifecycle, I cannot imagine a single individual effectively completing such a multifaceted task. Whatever story your school wishes to present to its community, it must be coherent and consistent. If your school is priding itself on “collaboration,” then the prospective parent walking around the campus of that particular school must actually see collaboration in action—both in the classroom and among the faculty. If your school brochure depicts a great diversity within the student body, then prospective parents must see diversity represented. Whatever your school’s story, it must be consistent. What does PR at your school look like? The expansion of international schools around the world creates competition; in such a context, achieving sustainability becomes a real priority. It is understandable that, due to budget issues and concerns, not all schools can afford to have a PR team. However, before deciding they don’t need one, international school administrators and educators need to gain a deeper understanding of the role of a PR practitioner. On several occasions, I have heard administrators claim that, due to guaranteed enrollment, their school does not need a PRP, let alone a team. Such a stance indicates clearly that PRPs need to do a better job communicating their contributions to creating a holistic experience. PR teams should not be called on merely in times of crisis. That’s a different layer of PR altogether. One way to understand the status of PR at your school is to consider the following: 1. What does your teaching staff know about the activity of PRPs within your institution? 2. Do educators within your institution even know who the appointed PRP is? 3. How is the story of your school presented? Is it a holistic experience or is it just pottering around social media outlets and the school’s website? 4. Is everyone involved in the process of telling the story of your school? 5. Are you trying to be everything to everyone? If you, as an educator, found yourself struggling to answer some of these questions, this might be a valuable opportunity to reassess your understanding of educational PR and the formidable impact it can have on the community as a whole. Let’s not allow the disparaging language of Edward Louis Bernays’ 1991 interview to hold true when it comes to PR practitioners working in the field of education. Dzenana Ceman is currently a PhD Candidate at the University of Bath, U.K., and an IB educator at Vienna International School.
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