Practical PR: Strategic Storytelling 

By Patrick Mogge

Each and every one of us in public schools has the opportunity to shape the perception of public education in our local communities and throughout Illinois. Simple acts can often go viral and yet the amazing work that is happening in each of our classrooms is often just seen as normal. It is what our teachers and staff do every day that needs to be shared because it is absolutely extraordinary.

There are tremendous opportunities to engage your students in real-world activities and also expose the community to what school looks like today. Students are great ambassadors for your school district. When thinking about the structure of programs, there are opportunities to share the impact of what your students and staff are doing by taking a strategic approach to storytelling. 

The media landscape has changed. 

The decline of local newspapers and the shift to digital content makes it critical to utilize the platforms available to us to tell our stories. According to the Pew Research Center, 69% of adults use Facebook on their cellphones while 75% of 18-to-24 year-olds use Instagram and 95% of teens have a smartphone. We typically think that parents are on Facebook, staff are on Twitter and LinkedIn, students are on Instagram and Snapchat and all of them access YouTube. Districts need to think about how to engage with each of these audiences, while shifting to produce content that can be generated and shared across platforms as well as considering what to do with traditional events, what we call things, and how people feel with your brand.

Make it a “thing.” 

When thinking about normal events in your district or when launching a new initiative, what do you call it? How can you make it new, different or exciting? What will people experience? Who is the audience and what is your goal?

At THSD 214, when we launched an entrepreneurship program, we named our pitch night Startup Showcase, secured the domain name, built a website around the event, created a logo that reflected the district’s branding, invited a local NPR reporter to become the emcee, thought about who we wanted to engage as judges who could help enhance the program and share its story, included a wild card option to add a team to the competition that was announced that night to ensure audience participation, and offered a financial prize to the winning team. We could have just called it a pitch night or our capstone event, but wanted to do something special and unique to recognize the efforts of our students and staff and engage the broader community. The first winner of the event, Snap Clips, from Wheeling High School, went on to the actual Shark Tank television show and secured a major financial investment from three of the sharks.

We took a similar approach when launching our education pathway by calling it Educator Prep and creating a special signing ceremony for students who commit to becoming teachers. Signing ceremonies are used for those committing to colleges and universities for athletics, so why not create the same experience to recognize those that are going into the most critical profession in the world? 

Empowering Students

By partnering with the largest newspaper in our area to produce a series of articles on academic programs and career pathways, students gain the experience of thinking about the article they want to write; interviewing students, staff, and community members; receiving feedback on their piece; and ultimately getting published in the newspaper with their name attached. They begin to build their portfolio before they enter college or the workplace.

Students live on social media and are at the vanguard of what’s next. Allowing a student to do an Instagram or social media takeover for a day empowers them to think about the story they want to tell and how to respectfully share content on behalf of the district’s brand, shifting from a personal mindset to the public relations professional’s mindset.

Instagram takeovers for events or activities are simple ways to accomplish this. In addition to student takeovers, using a districtwide hashtag such as #214ready, that coincides with the Redefining Ready! program, allows for stakeholders to share a common story and curate content that is easy to find about our college and career readiness initiatives. Facebook Live is another tool that has become useful in distributing content. And Facebook Live doesn’t need to actually be live if you use the premiere function, which allows you to edit and publish videos on your timeline. As part of our Education Foundation, we launched our own version of the Redefining Ready! scholarship application in which students create a 30-second video and tag the district on Twitter when they submit their video. This provides an easy way to capture content, as well as a student’s voice, and enables stakeholders to see what is happening with our students. It is truly impactful to see how students frame their stories.

Print is the new digital.

As more and more content shifts to digital platforms, using print material for a purpose can have a real impact as part of your overall communications program. District 214 first created a physical career pathways booklet in 2015 to showcase the career clusters and program pathways and make an easy way for students, parents, and staff to see the wide variety of courses, experiences, and careers available to students to guide them in their course selection and set them on a path beyond high school. The district finds ways for students to share their individual experiences in career pathways and uses targeted mailings to promote events and experiences, such as career nights, related to our career pathway programs. The Discover 214 magazine, with a focus on career pathways, is a multi-page print magazine that showcases students in individual pathways as well as information about the district and how potential business partners can get involved.

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, is often quoted as saying, “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.”

Out of all of the strategies and tactics that you can employ to share your district’s story and highlight your career and technical education programs, what are a few that you can implement right away in your district to influence that conversation?

Patrick Mogge is Director of Community Engagement and Outreach for THSD 214, based in Arlington Heights. He was recently INSPRA’s Co-Vice President of Membership and is now the organization’s treasurer. See an example of D214's Strategic Communications in action.