Outside the Walls


Thoughts from Outside the Walls, January 2004 - June 2004

Copyright Dick Bernard dick_bernard@msn.com

January 2004

Building Relationships Outside the Walls:

Every day, my drive-time radio station brings me advertising about a dating service, featuring phone messages from very satisfied customers.

"Join us", the ad suggests, "and find her (or him)."

Of course, relationships aren't all that easy, even if two matching questionnaires and an initial phone call and date predict success. The radio ads don't publicize the 'clinkers'; they sell only the dream.

We all know that relationships go far beyond the survey, the interview, 'the first date.' Relationships require ongoing and very hard work.

So it is with your "outside the walls" folks. A one-time or soft or sporadic contact from the school district does not a good and solid long term relationship make. Every employee needs to be your public relations department...every day.

Recently, at my morning coffee shop, I overheard four businesspeople (one woman) at the next table strategizing about a money making scheme to be proposed to some government agency. I gathered this was a pretty big deal proposal; much more than small change was involved.

There was a need; they were devising a plan to hopefully make a sale.

Central to the plan was getting to know the key players on the customer 'side.' "I'd like to participate," the woman said. "Probably best that you not", the apparent leader said. "This is a 'good old boy' thing." Agree or disagree, he'd scoped out the client, and determined the path to a hopefully successful relationship was bonding with somebody in decision making authority even before the proposal went forward.

So it is with public schools. A very significant part of your customer base - 75% a commonly used number - are people who have no connection to the school on a day to day basis, except for the 'small' matters of approving taxes and selecting the people who make education policy at all levels. Like the 'good old boy,' individually they all have similar power to make or break a deal.

They, too, need to be 'sold' on you. The problem is there are so many more of them.

The vast majority of the outside the walls group is not part of the traditional 'good old boy' network, yet it would seem a safe prediction, that in most school communities the only consistent contact with the community is through the predominantly 'old boy' service clubs to which the superintendent or key administrators belong; the rest of the citizens get the periodic newsletter, and have to read the paper for information.

The traditional 'good old boy' network is still important, yes, but it cannot be the end point of an effective public relations strategy.

Your coffee table conversations, and your actions, must deal with the larger audience every day. This is no longer a choice...if you wish to succeed.

Like your children, these impoverished Haitian children are seeking a better future through education. Like your parents, their parents want them to have a better opportunity. Consider partnering your school in some program to help others far less fortunate. (If you are interested, my story of an eye-opening trip to Haiti in December 2003 is at peace.html and click on Haiti.)

February 2004

Opinion Surveys

Opinion surveys are endless in contemporary society. They are virtually inescapable. Even the best ones have a limited 'shelf-life' of a few months at best; their results can be easily manipulated through the wording and methodology of asking questions; the owner of the data is free to interpret and manipulate the results, and indeed, is free to not share results which do not fit the desired conclusion. Data is collected from a tiny though statistically valid sample - and thus does not actually 'touch' many real people.

In other words, surveys - even the most reputable - are susceptible to misuse and even abuse...and are easy to ignore.

Still, there is a common sense and even timeless aspect to some surveys: there are some things you just don't need data to quantify and update.

For instance, in the August 26, 1991 issue of pr reporter, Steve Knagg. then President-elect of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA), is quoted as saying that "research shows that in school districts only 3% of the people make up their minds through the publications [school PR departments] spend 80% of [their] time producing." His co-presenter, Ellen Henderson of the South Carolina School Boards Association, said "If people aren't choosing to read daily newspapers...what makes you think they will read your publications which they had no choice about receiving?" (See Hierarchy below.)

Of course, these comments are from nearly thirteen years in the past. But they can be an important marker against which to assess current habits of information consumers. Current data would reveal that not only have alternative methods of communications (and mal-communication) exploded since 1991, but that the reliance by the public on paper means of communicating continues to decline. There is such a glut of information bombarding citizens that it can easily (and ironically) lead to an even less informed citizenry than before. The issue, of how schools communicate with citizens, especially those outside the walls. is thus worthy of very serious thought.

The same article in that 1991 pr reporter listed the hierarchy of the then-most effective methods of communications. Look at the below list, and consider not only what the current ranking might be, but what other means of communications have entered your market since 1991. (Some innovations since 1991 are listed after the hierarchy.)

Hierarchy of Effective Communications (1991)
1. One-to-one, face-to-face.
2. Small group discussion/meeting
3. Speaking before a large group
4. Phone conversation
5. Hand-written personal note
6. Typewritten, personal letter not generated by computer
7. Computer generated or word-processing-generated "personal" letter
8. Mass-produced, non-personal letter
9. Brochure or pamphlet sent out as a "direct mail" piece
10. Article in organizational newsletter, magazine, tabloid
11. News carried in popular press
12. Advertising in newspapers, radio, tv, mags, posters, etc.
13. Other less effective forms of communications (billboards, skywriters, etc.)

More information on NSPRA: www.nspra.org. pr reporter material reprinted with permission.
pr reporter: www2.ragan.com/html/main.isx?sub=32

Some other types of communication which are new or have become more common since 1991 (not listed in any order of importance). Which of these, if any, would replace #1 and #2 in the above hierarchy?
E-mail, to a single individual
E-mail, broadcast to a list or group
Phone message, to a single individual
Phone message, broadcast
Cassette tape or CD on a specific issue
Individual fax
Broadcast fax
Issue oriented video or DVD delivered to the home
Local public access cable channel program(s)
"Rally at the Capitol" or other similar media and solidarity events Etc.

March 2004


We recently saw the inspiring film, Miracle, about the remarkable victory of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team over the U.S.S.R. (February 22, 1980, at Lake Placid, New York). By any measure, the victory was astonishing. It was not, however, unintended. The coach, Herb Brooks, in large measure made it happen against huge odds.

The movie caused me to think of two other smaller, but similar, happenings in long-ago North Dakota.

The first was in March, 1950, when tiny Sykeston High School, coached by Everett Woiwode (photo above) won third place in the North Dakota State Basketball tournament at Valley City ND. I watched that game.

The second was in the early 1940s, when even tinier Eldridge High School had a long undefeated string of basketball victories. I learned of this accomplishment while listening, in the early 1990s, to my Dad and the coach of that team reminisce about how the teams success came to be.

In all three cases, there were common elements: a skilled coach drilled naturally talented team members on the basics until they were more than sick of the drills; got them into physical condition that they had no desire to be in; created a team out of individuals with varied skills; and caused the team to believe that they were capable of accomplishing something they likely felt was unattainable. In each case they had the talent, but they needed help (coaching) to become team players and ultimately winners.

There is one uncommon element to the three: The U.S. Olympic Team picked the best amateur hockey talent from the entire United States and could invest a great deal in them. With the small schools, almost every boy HAD to be on the team. But in their own ways they were all winners.

So...how does this story relate to your relationship with us, the people outside the walls of your public schools?

Very directly, I feel.

First of all, those players pictured above, if still living, are now all 70 years of age or more. Many are parents and grandparents and perhaps even great-grandparents. All are citizens and most likely taxpayers and potential voters. And they have an indelible relationship with public school. They are, in fact, like most people outside your walls.

Like a small version of the 1980 Olympic Team, your school system has all of the raw talent you'll ever need to breakthrough the relationship barrier with us. Take 1% of your total staff: at the absolute minimum, this 1% already has an affinity and a talent for reaching out to the public. (A more realistic percentage is 5-15% of your staff, perhaps even more.) You already know who many of these people are.

But what this core group needs is the empowerment, the resources, the coaching, the practice and the discipline to move outside of their normal comfort zone, and engage directly with us outside the walls. This breakthrough cannot be accomplished by one person, or a small committee - though that may be where you will have to start. You need to build a team, willing to work together on a goal.

Success will not come, however, by creating a team of individuals who stay completely within their own professional comfort zone, one which rarely includes public engagement. Success comes from teamwork and from risk and from setting a good example. It seldom happens any other way.

For starters, how about asking one person in your district to check in on this site about mid-month each month during the school year?

I wish you success in your coaching.

April 2004


It was probably not the headline or the article the CEO was seeking. The Metro front page headline of the March 25, 2004, issue of the local daily newspaper said it all: "[CEO] urges group to halt e-mails."

There followed about 20 column inches expanding on the CEO's complaint, including details of his sending 34 e-mails back to the chair of a small complaining rump group within his 800,000 member voluntary association, including a cover letter with this quote: "I must remind you that I am the [boss]..."

The situation was full of irony: not only was this particular boss trying to quiet dissent within his organization; his association was one whose membership is completely voluntary - he could fire no member; they could only quit. Rather than silencing the irritant, he only gave the issue more free publicity, and brought the negative publicity right into his office. Most ironic of all, the rump group he was trying to silence could only be considered fringe zealots which not only supported his mission, but were purists, out on the fringe. Their opposition within the association could only have felt empowered by the article. In a word, the PR strategy completely 'backfired' for him.

The article led me to think back to an e-mail I had sent to six public education leaders back in mid-January of this year. I don't think it could be identified as a complaining memo. It was simply a note identifying an e-communications issue which I suggested they might review within their own organizations. I had specifically decided to communicate with them by e-mail, since the issue involved e-technology.

To make a long story very short: only one of the six acknowledged my e-mail, and she did so right away, writing a brief e-response acknowledging that I had identified a legitimate problem. I also know that she took further action on my concern by letting her membership know of the problem.

Three months after the fact, I have not heard anything from the other five...

There was no expectation on my part that the identified problem would be easily resolved. There was, however, at least an internal expectation that the receivers of the memo would at least say "thanks for writing" - an easy and cheap process, since all that was required was to click on "reply," write a few words, and click on "send."

Positive PR is very inexpensive to those of us outside the walls; so is negative.

Acknowledgment is the essence of positive Public Relations. Not Responding is to Not Acknowledge. It is expensive.

May 2004

Thank You.

Granddaughter Lindsay graduates from public high school this month, after thirteen years in public schools in a distant state. It has been a generally positive thirteen years, with relatively few 'clinkers'.

A gift I will give her is an album which includes photos, and her 'kid art' and writing that I have saved over the years - a memory book.

In the book will be a brown manila envelope with letters and hand-drawn Christmas cards from the 26 first-graders in Lindsay's first grade class in 1992-93. It reached me before Christmas that year, accompanied by a note from Lindsay's teacher, Mrs. Hanson, thanking me for a small money gift they had used to purchase a few books for the classroom.

Lindsay may appreciate the gift when it becomes her possession May 27; but she will likely appreciate it even more in 20 years. It becomes a part of her personal story...and the history of public education: 'youth' and 'school' are in many ways synonyms.

Mrs. Hanson didn't have to make those thank you letters and cards for me into a class project in early December, 1992, but she did. That singular act of acknowledgment lives on. I don't know if she is still teaching, but if I can find her, she will get a note from me in the coming weeks, and a follow-up gift.

Years ago there was a popular song whose title says it all: "Little things mean a lot." That is especially true when it comes to relationships with those of us outside public educations walls. You'll never know which memory will come back to help you. Public Good Will is much more an attitude than a cost.

As your publications for 2004-2005 are developed this spring and summer, consider making them more 'outsider friendly.' How about, just for a single example, including some specific and very noticeable note to 'outside the walls' residents on the front cover of every publication? An eye-catching note there might simply refer us to a page or two in the publication designed specifically for us. Then design the inside page(s) especially for us, exclusively considering our interests and concerns. You can forget references to bus schedules and school lunch: by and large, we don't have any interest in those, or possibly even in test scores...but perhaps we might like to know a phone number or e-address or website where we can simply ask a question, and expect an answer.

Public Relations to us 'outside the walls,' done well, is inexpensive; it can be terribly costly if done poorly or not at all.

Have a great summer.