Building Trust in your Community – Creating an Effective Community Relations Plan

By Ira W. Yellen, APR, Fellow PRSA, President/CEO, First Experience Communications

Across Connecticut, elected school officials are fighting tough battles with the very communities they serve.  Dozens of budget and bond referendums have been defeated and Boards of Education are many times at a loss to understand the underlying short- and long-term causes. Parents, residents, and community groups are challenging school districts with an irrational vengeance.  Also, the Race to the Top and other Performance Initiatives from the federal government, school security, bullying, Special Education growth, and other unfunded mandates are all adding additional financial and human resource pressures on school districts.

Having worked with over 60 school districts throughout the State, I have found that a lack of trust and credibility combined with an negative attitude towards our public schools underscores referendum and budget battles.  Some of this attitude can be attributed to the current state of angst and mistrust that is overshadowing our country as a whole. The economy, the war on terrorism, and the political rancour weigh heavily on the minds of local citizens. People have witnessed leaders of all types misguide the public, leaving individuals to wonder who will lead them into the future and whom can they trust.

According to the Education Next 2010 poll by the Hoover Institution, public assessment of schools has fallen to the lowest level recorded since Americans were first asked to grade schools in 1981. Just 18% of those surveyed gave schools a grade of an A or a B, down from 30% reported by a Gallup poll as recently as 2005. No less than 25% of those polled by Education Next gave the schools either an F or a D.

The best strategy to help your district build your case and foster trust is to embrace transparent communication with the community. You are already devoted to your community and have shown you care about the future of our children.

All of the harsh criticisms and rejected referendums are the direct result of residents feeling that local officials are not listening to or caring about their concerns.  It is up to you to accomplish what so many in Corporate America failed to do – build effective community relations programs.

There are four key ingredients to a successful community-relations effort: strong leadership, honest communication, clear direction and inclusion in the decision-making process.  What’s more, you must be willing to take an honest look at the real issues and challenges that may impede effective dialogue.

To a large extent, all school districts are facing the same hurdles.  Many of the issues and challenges stem from misinformation or misconstrued perceptions on the part of voters.

Issues & Perceptions:

  • Voters are angry at their elected town officials and nervous about the future.
  • Voters do not trust that traditional institutions are protecting their best interests.
  • Elected officials do not understand or adjust to the changing demographics in their community.
  • Elected officials do not empathize with the angst that their residents are feeling.
  • Elected officials do not present a direct cause and effect relationship of decisions in a way that voters can understand.
  • Towns and Boards of Education often send conflicting messages to residents.

Communication Challenges:

  • Most students today are children of Generation X and Y parents (24-48), who have very different attitudes about public schools than Baby Boomers (49-65).  Generation X parents are more focused on their relationship to their child’s teacher than on the overall school district needs.  These parents do not see beyond short-term needs.  School Boards on the other hand, are accustomed to communicating with Baby Boomer attitudes and don’t understand the mindsets of younger parents.
  • Wealthier and regional school districts are having the hardest time getting budgets and referendums passed in their towns.
  • Voter turnout is dismally low – generally below 35 percent for most referendums, making it nearly impossible to get a “yes” vote.
  • Interest groups drive agendas, causing Boards to be seen as defensive and confrontational.
  • The media tends to only present the controversial or conflict side of Board initiatives.
  • There is a growing lack of support from school staff.

These issues and challenges may seem insurmountable.  However, with a solid community relations program and strategic plan, you can begin to address residents’ fundamental concerns and build trust.  The question then becomes how to get started?

  • First, reconsider a board job description and add “Public Relations Counselor” to it.  Think of your role as an administrator, and your teachers as ambassadors of the school and conduits of communication.  Everyone involved in the school system must play an active role in gaining community support.
  • Understand the changing demographics and attitudes of your community by surveying residents every two years.  Doing so will provide key insights that can help you shape your communication messages.
  • Understand the level of your staff’s interest (or lack thereof) in supporting board initiatives.  If necessary, develop an internal communications effort to bolster inside support.  This is an essential component to winning over your external audiences.
  • Develop and implement a sustained year-round communication strategy. Research is showing that the internet and a value laden website is helping school districts communicate with their various communities

The qualities that voters want most from elected officials are trust, competence, and leadership – qualities that already exist in local Boards of Education. All that is needed is to communicate on a sustained basis the value a Board provides to its community members.

For more information and background visit our website or phone 860.657.3815