November/December 2013

Bill Clow is director of community outreach for Harvard Community Unit School District 50 in McHenry County and a member of the Illinois chapter of the National School Public Relations Association.

They” say that you are supposed to survey your community to find out what they think about your school district. You tell yourself, “My community members ARE NOT shy about sharing their opinions, especially when they perceive something is wrong. Why should the district spend time and resources asking for more opinions?”

“They” say that it is important to understand your parents’ motivations, staff members’ interests and students’ feelings. You think to yourself, “I know when they enroll their children. Why do I care about anything else?”

 “They” say they can tell you within one standard deviation how stakeholders will respond to a new referendum campaign or curriculum plan. You wonder to yourself, “What the heck is a standard deviation?”

Market research is often the most neglected tool in the district’s marketing tool box. There are many reasons for that. First, many school leaders who understand about marketing and communications don’t really understand the processes or the terminology of research. Second, market research often seems to gum up the works and slow things down. We just want to get started and research seems to delay things with no tangible payoff. With research, not only do you have to take time for the survey, but you have to analyze the results and hope that the results don’t indicate a change in plans. It seems easier to avoid it.

But ultimately, the primary reason market research is so often skipped may be that school leaders often don’t see the value. They have a view of the district with which they are comfortable and they don’t want to risk disrupting that view with research. As Nate Silver says in his book The Signal and the Noise, “We focus on the signals that tell a story about the world as we would like it to be, not how it really is. We ignore the risks that are hardest to measure, even when they pose the greatest threats to our well-being. We make approximations and assumptions about the world that are much cruder than we realize.” Well-crafted research can help refine those approximations and assumptions.

Marketing is primarily about building and nurturing relationships. Those relationships can be with parents, staff, suppliers, the media, other educators, the public, politicians, the local community, and regulators. The importance of developing and maintaining relationships with each of these groups waxes and wanes depending on what is going on within the district. The reality is you are better off if you keep your finger on the pulse of all of them, all of the time.

Understanding stakeholders’ views and feelings about the district can help the board communicate what it is doing and how those actions meet or exceed their demands and expectations. A simple, well-crafted survey of parents, students, community or staff can help the board break through the myopia that Nate Silver was writing about and see the world, and the local district, as stakeholders see it.

Ultimately, the district needs market research information because board members need to know what “they” say: about the district, about its successes and about their needs.