As we continue our series on private school student recruitment and ways to improve it, the last tactic we’ll discuss is public relations and community outreach. What is the public persona of the school to those on the outside looking in and are you perceived as adding value or being a detractor from the community. When it comes to schools in general, the former is probably the more likely scenario. We’re a society and culture that values education and look at schools as bedrocks of the community. This perception comes baked into the cake but an institution can take this for granted and waste the equity of good will built or given to you by the community at large. Let’s look at why it’s important to foster this image and ways to manage and improve the public persona of your institution.
Position Yourself as a Part of the Larger Community
It's important that as an institution, you ingratiate yourself into the community at large and let your presence be felt more than just the school's physical space. If there’s a feeling that the school is just occupying a space for outsiders with the means or connections to get inside, it’s a perfect storm for road blocks and catastrophe. If there are plans for expansion or improvements to the physical space, if there’s an incident or tragedy on campus that brings attention or scrutiny. If they are high level personnel changes like a new President or Athletic Director, these are instances where having community support is incredibly advantageous. This is particularly useful when you have outside forces with their own agenda, you're able to galvanize community support to uphold your agenda.
This type of wholesale community support can only be achieved through a deliberate and sustained effort to be seen as part of the larger community. Attempting to push efforts surrounding and about the school on your own can come across as self-serving and disingenuous. However, if that same messaging is heard from community members and supporters, it has a more genuine feel to it.
Not to mention this positioning works wonders for recruiting and enrolling students as parents appreciate that the school and campus are an extension of the community at large.
Get Involved with Community initiatives and Local Causes
As an extension of the last point, as an institution you want to start looking for opportunities to get involved with community initiatives and local causes. Are there issues you can support monetarily or in other ways (i.e. a 5K for breast cancer) that students faculty and staff can participate in along with the larger community? Are their other non profits or even lower level schools (who can serve as a pipeline for prospects to your institution) that you can support? Can you wear this support on your sleeve (so to speak) and let the “whole world” know about your involvement?
You don’t want to come across as a partisan institution but are their initiatives spearheaded by local leaders and politicians that you can lend support to that make sense? Look to these avenues among others as ways to get involved in local community initiatives and causes. The great part about this tactic is often times these initiatives have long shelf lives or are duplicated on an annual or semi annual basis where you can develop a portfolio of causes and initiatives that you can continually support and make public.
Having an open campus policy for community members who aren’t necessarily students, parents or alum can go a long way in adding positive sentiments to your institutions public image. Do you have a gym where community members can come and enjoy open basketball other activities? Family movie night hosted in the schools auditorium? Library access or storytelling events for small kids in the community? Can government officials, local leaders, and civic groups use your building as a meeting place for their members and constituents?
These are just a few of the ways you can have an open campus, literally. In a figurative sense, think about ways to project openness. Maybe there’s a benefit like discounted tuition or preferred parking to students prospects, faculty and staff who come directly from the community. Maybe it’s dedicating rooms or parts of the campus to local heroes with deep community roots. Whichever way you decide to approach this, projecting a level of openness to the community will be key.
System or Agency in Place
Another key to positive public relations and community outreach as a way to improve private school student recruitment is to have a dedicated process and system in place or work with an agency on implementing a process/system to actually disseminate the positive happenings at the school. How you manage the distribution of information about the institution and the platforms you use are going to be of the utmost importance in controlling the narrative surrounding your image.
If you have a lot of great things going on at the school but no one outside of those walls knows about it, that’s wasted image equity. On the other hand, if there’s negative stories about the school or some type of tragedy surrounding the institution, you want to have the people, processes and communication systems in place to control the narrative around that occurrence and be sure the damage to the image of the school is minimal to none. A system like a robust full service customer relationship manager (CRM) that not only allows you to manage contacts but produce, optimize, push, monitor, and analyze content and messaging can be a tremendous help in this regard.
An agency with the expertise to do this on your behalf can also be of great use if you don’t have the systems, knowledge or manpower to navigate this terrain on your own. Agencies can also help in other ways like crafting a target persona, building recruitment and enrollment campaigns, training admission enrollment (and if you have a marketing department) on proper techniques and platforms. Agencies can draft and push press releases helping gain earned media, which is coverage about the school for major news outlets and sites that you don't actually pay to place as part of a traditional media buy.
Mission Statement and Culture
This should maybe be the first point of this piece but in any event it’s good place to start when developing the plan for PR and outreach. Clearly define what your mission statement is and the culture of the school, tying it to some sort of tradition or values upheld by the institution. More than likely these two things will be extremely positive portrayals of what you are and aspire to be.
When these are established it can be the guiding light for all of the other efforts and reasoning we discussed. Very strong missions and culture encourage support not only from the local community but institutions large and small. Get this part right and project it through the proper communication channels and through actions that support the statement and you have won a major battle on the public relations front.
PR and community outreach really have no beginning nor end but should a dedicated sustained effort that’s an extension of your institution and a boost to your recruitment and enrollment efforts. If you establish a mission and culture, have a dedicated process or lean on the expertise of an agency to establish one for you, project and actually practice having a campus open to the community, position the school as part of and get involved with the community, you can attain a strong image which in turn can be leveraged to help with recruitment and enrollment.
Any additional thoughts on how this can be accomplished please comment and share!