Waking Up from the Back-to-School PR Nightmare

For the nation’s estimated 56.6 million students who attend elementary, middle, and high schools across the United States, the looming school year is laced with uncertainty. For their parents, the number of potential options and outcomes is daunting, to say the least.

Amidst all the havoc that COVID-19 has caused, it has also become a PR nightmare for teachers’ unions, school districts, local governments and state agencies, each of which seemingly puts out their own changing messages for nearly every news cycle.

How did the very institutions that Americans rely on to develop the communication skills for the next generation of an educated populace become so very bad at communicating?

Public professionals watching this debacle unfold know the answer to that question, and it’s similar to what we see in the corporate world every day, specifically:

  1. Bad Timing – In many businesses, one department may not know what another is up to. Perhaps the product development team wants to announce a new product, but the factory hasn’t gotten up to speed in making it yet. That’s where the public relations department comes in – they make sure that everything about a product or service is ready to roll before the public finds out about it. For this year’s school year, the media got the word out – or several words out – about some not-ready-for-prime time ideas.
  2. Conflicting Messages – Is the product/service New? Improved? Unique? One of many? It’s important for public relations teams to work closely with all teams involved in bringing something new to the public’s attention. That means a well-coordinated effort, with clear explanations, a detailed agenda and timeline. Much of this is missing in making all constituents comfortable that the school year pandemic-ready.
  3. Over Complicating – Even PR professionals can occasionally overcomplicate things by trying to tell too much, too fast, especially in crisis communications. In the heat of an urgent situation, it’s important to take a deep breath and a step back to make sure that what is being said is clear, concise and ultimately, actionable. If schools were doing that, parents, teachers and students would be secure in envisioning what the new school year will look like.

School systems would be wise to tap a few PR pros to help them this fall. There are 56.6 million good reasons for it.