Business Marketing Techniques for Public Schools
It may seem that private industry and public education are miles apart when it comes to marketing, communications, and public relations, but there may be more similarities than differences in terms of overall best practices.
Performance Services recently interviewed an Indiana school customer’s marketing director that served in private industry marketing before coming to work at a public school district. Marnie Cooke, Director of Marketing and Communications for Noblesville Schools, offered her perspective on how business techniques can be used effectively in public school marketing communications.
Cooke’s wide range of private sector experience allows her to bring a new perspective to public sector marketing and communications. She attributes some of her success to the competitive mindset that she took from business and applied to her schools.
“School districts need to remember that in today’s environment they compete for students, teaching and administrative talent, and the community’s perception regarding their quality,” she explains. “Public opinion also impacts economic development and property values within the community.”
The old paradigm that public schools have a monopoly on education services no longer holds true in our competitive marketplace, which includes public funding votes, private and charter schools, vouchers, virtual school, and homeschool. Therefore, communicating clearly to parents and taxpayers is vital to public schools’ success.
Businesses look to develop a strategy before launching into action, and since her district didn’t have a marketing communications plan, Cooke made building one her initial focus. She approached the task of creating a plan in several phases, starting with a needs assessment.
This is an evaluation phase where a comprehensive study is performed on the current state of affairs. "What is working well and what isn’t? What do others think about the job you’re doing?” said Cooke. A needs assessment typically involves reviewing all current communication practices and materials, conducting surveys and interviews to gain input, and assessing findings by identifying current strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.
While the primary goal of marketing and communications in the private sector is likely to sell more products and services, that's not the case with public school districts. A primary communications goal should align with the primary goal of the district: to educate children and prepare them for the future. School districts may also develop goals for specific communications campaigns, such as bond election communication, school closings, and district performance communications.
Next, that goal is broken down into objectives, or smaller goals that support the overall goal. From her needs assessment research, Cooke identified certain objectives for her district like better engaging parents and enhancing connections with community organizations.
Key messages must align with the overall mission of the organization and are what you want people to understand on a broad level about your district. Cooke encourages a school to find its "competitive advantage." Finding what your school does best relative to others and then making that your focus can be a beneficial strategy when developing key messages.
“I asked myself, what is our niche? What is our competitive advantage? What are we doing better than everybody else? Then, let's make sure everyone knows that we're the best."
dir of marketing & communications, Noblesville schools
The messages a school sends also must cater to its audience. For example, Cooke notes that often what the audience wants to hear and what they get from districts can be completely different. For schools whose marketing and communications directors are also educators, it can sometimes be difficult to create key messages that are focused and succinct.
"Educators can get excited about academic theories and techniques, as they should," Cooke explains. "But that’s not always what parents want to hear about. Parents want to know that their child is getting a good education, but they may not be interested in getting into the weeds of all the detail. They may need a simpler explanation and a more direct approach." This brings us to our next consideration.
School districts have many different stakeholder audiences within a community, and it’s important to specifically identify them in your plan and keep them top of mind as you are preparing communications, policies, and events. "You should always be asking yourself with every communication activity, who am I speaking to? Who are we doing this for? How will they perceive this? What do they want out of it?" says Cooke. "Sometimes you can be focusing on the wrong audience, like planning a public promotion event with your staff’s interests in mind, when you really should be focusing on parents and the community."
Based on her objectives, Cooke identified key audiences in her plan. Employees are a school district’s ambassadors in the community and the building blocks of the whole organization, so they are naturally a critical stakeholder audience. It’s also important to remember that parents and other taxpayers are buying your school’s services and therefore must also be an important focus.
Communications should consider all possible audiences, especially in a digital age where consumption of messages may be available to several constituents at a time, including audiences who weren’t originally intended.
When evaluating how to get her key messages out to her audiences and forward her objectives, Cooke brainstormed dozens of specific tactic ideas before organizing them based on cost, audience reach, and timing. Examples from Cooke’s plan include things like social media campaigns, a large community outreach event, electronic newsletters, and an initiative she termed "Table Talk," where her superintendent makes herself available for discussion with the community at the local coffee shop. Like all school systems, Cooke has a tight budget to work with so she focuses her effort on the "types of activities that can have a big bang for my buck across multiple stakeholder groups."
Measurement is a key part of a good plan and provides feedback on whether your approach is working. Ideally, objectives should be written to include specific metrics, but that can often be difficult in school marketing. Cooke suggests a community survey tool as one option. "Getting feedback from your audiences on what they think about your overall performance and communications will give you good input for your objective-setting and messaging, as well as creating a baseline to measure future findings against." If you find you’re not having the impact you intended, revisit your objectives, messages, and tactics.
It’s also important to keep your communications and visual identity (logos, fonts, colors) clear and consistent across all channels: social media, email, website, mail, and other collateral. This is called brand management in the private sector and is just as important for public schools. It lets your audiences know what you do, what you stand for, and what makes you special. Guard your brand by having consistency with who talks about your organization and how they talk about them. You should also have a central media spokesperson, and policies to frame who does and says what so that all communications are coordinated and managed. This is especially important when negative or crisis issues may arise.
But what if a school district can’t afford a position like Cooke’s? Oftentimes the superintendent leads this type of effort or the responsibilities can be shared among other leaders. A short-term consultant that builds a communication vision and structure others can then follow is also an option. Additionally, Cooke suggests enlisting the help of select parent volunteers for less sensitive, parent-focused communications. “Those people probably know what other parents are interested in hearing about and how they want to talk about it.”
Cooke’s philosophy may take a business-based approach, but her focus is on providing a quality education for children in her community.
“I’m passionate about promoting my district and proud of the amazing work our staff and students do. I want to make sure our community knows what a high-quality organization we are and is behind us 100%. At the end of the day, it’s really all about the kids.”
Special Thanks to Customer Contributor
Marnie is responsible for the district's marketing strategic planning, brand management, media relations, community outreach, collateral, social media and marketing initiatives. Before Noblesville, Marnie spent 9 years in corporate marketing at Allison Transmission responsible for North American marketing communications.
director of marketing & communications, noblesville schools