Ensuring a Quality Image for Your School

by Mary Ellen Marnholtz, Community Relations Coordinator, Wausau School District

Think back a decade or two. In those days public schools were the main choice for families with children. Some families chose the offerings of parochial education for their youngsters, but most students found themselves sitting in a desk in a public school. Fast forward to today and you’ll find loads of competition for a dwindling number of school children-particularly in Wisconsin. Competition has gotten so fierce that some virtual charter schools spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on marketing during February’s Open Enrollment period. It’s a marketing blitz that public schools can’t even begin to replicate. So how do we combat this enticement of our student base?

Business models suggest that people do business with organizations they trust who provide them with an extremely high level of quality service. Okay, you’re saying, that’s business. Education is really a very different entity. It may be true that we don’t offer a traditional product, but in the purest sense education is truly a service business. Public education provides high quality service in communities across America, yet if citizens no longer have confidence in its ability to provide service they will look for other options.

If you believe your school district is a service provider, then it stands to reason that its staff members are key links in the chain of quality service. This means the responsibility for building an image of quality service falls not to just the Board of Education or the administrators but to each and every employee. Public Relations Icon Patrick Jackson said, ?Research has proven that we cannot change attitudes with the printed word. It is only through interpersonal communication, two-way, one-on-one, that we build trust, change attitudes, and ultimately behaviors.? When we talk about working with our different publics across the community, it is imperative that where there are doubts or questions we work to build understanding and relationships. Relationships are the way to change attitudes and behaviors, and behaviors are really what counts when it comes time to vote for Board members or pass finance elections.

Yes, relationships are the key element to strong community relations and quality service. One reason the school district is effective in tackling big issues is because, as an organization, it has learned to bring people from all different segments of our community to the table through community engagement. The more people talk and engage in meaningful dialog about education, the more successful the District will be when it must turn to the community for help.

Research tells us that the way in which communities make decisions about issues demonstrates this fact. In communities across the United States, only 3 percent of people make their minds up about a particular issue by reading printed materials; 7 percent make their minds up by talking to others; a full 90 percent of people make their minds up by talking to people involved with the issue?in our case, people inside the school district. So it’s imperative that our school staff members have the correct information about what’s happening in our schools and are prepared to share it in their personal and professional discussions and conversations.

Here’s another question for you: Who is the most credible person in any school district? Give up?

Research shows that the most trusted people in any school district appear in this order: Secretary, Custodian, Food Service Worker, and Bus Driver. The rest of us?Principals, Superintendent and Cabinet, School Board Members are way down at the other end of the list. Why are they at the top of the list? They are the folks who have the most direct contact with families and community members. Also, when they are out and about in the community, they are the ones people approach with questions because they are seen as members of the educational world who don’t have an agenda and can, therefore, give the most forthright response concerning issues. Are we making sure that all these ?front line? employees have the ?right stuff? about what’s happening in your district and in your schools? If not, you need to work toward getting that information to these front line ambassadors.

Another important quality service fact is that most people quit doing business with a company or organization not because of product dissatisfaction, but because they had a negative personal experience. That means every contact we have with families and other citizens is an opportunity to leave those people with a very positive or a negative impression of our schools. Why is every contact critical? Research also has an answer for that. People who have a great experience with a business or an organization tell only 2.5 people about their experience, yet people who have a negative experience tell an average of 12.5 people about it. What’s more, 96% of unhappy people never complain about the incident, yet 91 percent of those will not do business again with the company that offended them and the average unhappy customer will remember the incident for 23.5 years! That’s quite a long time to carry the memory of that negative experience around.

So what can you do to make sure that your families and community members have an intensely positive experience with our schools? Several years ago the Wausau School District provided quality service training for all front line staff members. Through those workshops the participants developed quality service standards for the District. They are:

  • Strive to acknowledge visitors immediately
  • Answer the telephone by the second ring
  • Reply to a patron concern within 24 hours
  • Confidentiality is a must
  • Punctuality on the job means being on time
  • All people should be treated as equals regardless of their status or appearance
  • Check e-mail and voice mail as often as possible
  • E-mail communications should be written in a professional manner

What are the quality service standards that you practice at your school? WSPRA can provide quality service training through its conferences, workshops and networking opportunities.

Walking through a building audit can start the process as you take a look at how welcoming your building is to the community. Keeping an eye on quality service can pay big dividends for your school and for your entire district. Here’s hoping your school continues to exceed expectations when working with the community.

Please remember:
The image of your school district is not made by a single act.
It is a habit practiced every moment of every day.

About the author

The Wisconsin School Public Relations Association (WSPRA) is a professional association representing schools, school districts, educational associations, consulting agencies and organizations. WSPRA is a state affiliate of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA). 4797 HAYES ROAD | SUITE 103 | MADISON, WI 53704 | PHONE: 608-241-0300 | WSPRA@AWSA.ORG