Soon after starting my school communications career, colleagues said I should join the state chapter to learn more about the profession and how districts dealt with daily challenges. At my first state meeting, my new colleagues were quick to suggest I should join the National School Public Relations Association as well.
NSPRA, as it is known, had emerged from severe financial problems in the early 1990s and had become the go-to organization for school public relations professionals. A big reason for that was Richard Bagin, who had returned to the organization in 1992 as its executive director after an eight-year stint in corporate public relations.
Twenty-eight years after taking the job, and more than two decades after we met at my first NSPRA conference, Bagin is retiring from school public relations in February 2021. Starting in mid-November, he will spend a couple of months transitioning with his successor, Barbara Hunter, NSBA’s former communications director. He’ll then work for two months as “executive director emeritus.”
In early October, the same week Hunter was named to succeed him, Bagin and I talked about a variety of topics during a wide-ranging conversation. As always, he was candid in his assessments about the ever-evolving role of the school communicator.
No spin zone
Citing John Ralston Saul’s book, The Doubter’s Companion, Bagin refers to public relations as “aggressive common sense.” Districts that withhold or try to spin information, rather than being straightforward, risk damaging the public’s ever-fragile sense of trust.
“You need to plan and look at the audiences you are trying to serve, do your research, and know the things that they want and need to know,” he says. “Because of technology, there’s much more personalization. You can zero in on issues, targets, and the people who help your school district move forward.”
The rise of technology, combined with the decline of traditional media, presents both challenges and opportunities for district communications staff. While the basics of good public relations have not changed—“It’s all about relationships,” Bagin says—the methods of delivery are different.
“You had more control of your message back then than you do now,” Bagin says, reflecting on when he first took the NSPRA job. “Now anyone within the community can form a coalition or group of like-minded people and put out what they want to put out. They build their own websites and social media groups to present their take on information. Technology has made that in a way more of a negative than a positive.”
The key, Bagin says, is to remember “an invitation to everyone is an invitation to no one,” and that personalization is critical today. “A very strong part of what we preach these days is transparency,” he says. “Silence creates a vacuum, and your critics and other people are sure to fill it. In today’s world, you’ll get killed if you’re not out there. Building trust through transparency is more important now than ever. You’ve got to be out there. It’s just that important.”
Bagin says school communicators should use and leverage technology to be more effective in their work. But it’s not just about feeding the endless information beast.
“The tools really help in getting the feedback you need for solid, two way communication,” he says. “It’s not just about putting out something on Facebook or Twitter, or electronically surveying your audiences. You have to be engaged in thought exchange, where you see the issues, see what others are saying about them, and then narrow down what you have to the issues that the district or school system should be attacking.”
This type of planning may seem impossible when you’re extinguishing the almost-daily fires that school communicators face. Still, Bagin says moving from tactical to strategic thinking will help your district move forward.
“Everyone wants more, more, more, but if you start knocking out the strategic communication function or paring down what you do so that you’re just known as the ‘good news information office,’ it’s going to lead to chaos,” he says. “You have to show people you are providing some balance in the information you are putting out there, and that you are open to listening to your audiences.”
Covid-19 and PR
Fortunately, Bagin says, superintendents increasingly see communications as a management function in the school district. Almost 90 percent of school communicators now report directly to the district’s chief executive, according to NSPRA research.
“We like to say a good school leader has one foot in the schools and one foot in the community, and they have the stretch marks to prove it,” Bagin says. “But if you’re truly interested in listening and getting the pulse of the community, you should also be able to look to the communications person to see how it will play out in the community. The superintendents who get that understand the ramifications for their districts.”
And with the levels of communication required in the wake of COVID-19, school public relations officers have proven their value more than ever over the past year.
“There’s a stronger identification that communication is more important than what they thought it used to be,” Bagin says. “COVID especially has helped people understand that your communications people are the ones who get the information out there, and they can do it quickly. Having that expertise and ability on your staff is critical.”
An often overlooked or neglected piece of the communicator’s role is internal communication. Buddy Price, a longtime school communications director in South Carolina and NSPRA leader, once said an organization that is “built on a foundation without internal communication is a foundation built on quicksand.”
“That’s never been truer than it is now,” Bagin says. “You have to build a climate in which you clearly communicate and say what’s right and what needs improvement. When your staff starts saying negative things about your school district, it’s more believable than anything you read on Twitter because of the face-to-face approach.”
Seeing people in person is one thing Bagin has missed in his final year as NSPRA’s executive director. This year’s summer seminar was held virtually because of the pandemic. Like everything else in this uncertain world, 2021 is planned but still up in the air.
“NSPRA was my first love, frankly, professionally speaking,” he says. “And it’s because the essence of the organization is members helping members. We are very fortunate to have a core of people who love to step up and help. They love the organization, and they love what they do. And they enjoy helping others get better at it too.”