Great things are happening every day in your school. But, if you’re concerned about wooing parents and increasing enrollment, you better be sure your communication also is making the grade. If you’re not delivering messages that matter to parents, even a “great” school won’t be good enough.
Figuring out what parents want to know can be a daunting task, and the job is made even tougher by the fuzzy ways in which we have traditionally touted our schools’ strengths. Having a caring staff, a safe environment and state-of-the-art technology are great assets. But such cliches lack the specific personal paybacks that consumers often need to feel before signing on the dotted line. School communication needs to help a parent visualize precisely what a caring staff, a safe environment or new technology means to his or her child.
The following are five behaviors essential to success in winning parents’ support:
1. Talk to your audience, not yourself. Organizations often communicate with messages their leaders think are important — and schools are no exception. It makes some sense. After all, school leaders know what makes their programs strong, so why not build communication around what we know is good? But parents come into the exchange focused on their priorities and not ours. And this means messages must be tailored to tell them what they want to hear and not necessarily what we want to tell them.
For example, a school-focused message might trumpet how teachers have created an award-winning reading program. But as a parent-focused message, that strength might be portrayed as how students are uncovering exciting new ways to master reading skills.
2. Know where people stand in the decision-making process. Communicators traditionally have deployed promotional messages touting either features (facts) or benefits (what’s in it for your child). While the difference between the two might seem small, it is in fact a huge game changer. Early in the decision-making process, people tend to focus more on benefits. Those closer to making a decision focus more on features.
So, what does this mean? Preparing students for high school and careers or college success (benefits) might be better messages to attract those early in the process. Touting high test scores or small class sizes (features) might carry more weight and help to seal the deal for those closer to making a final choice.
In other words, not all communication tools are universal. You’ll need different strategies and tactics for prospects as they move through the evaluation and decision process and to help them link features with benefits.
3. Always sweat the small stuff. Dynamic websites and social media programs have roles to play. But first impressions still count, and people still talk to one another. A great online image can create an interest in your school, but a litter-strewn parking lot, an unkind comment from a relative, or an unwelcoming glance from a harried security aide can extinguish that interest in a hurry.
Take a fresh look at impressions being created for school visitors. Does the curb appeal of your building and grounds convey an image of a place where quality matters? Do front-line staff members understand the critical public relations aspects of their jobs when greeting and aiding parents, and have they been given the specific training essential to succeed in these roles?
4. Make feedback count. Former New York Mayor Ed Koch famously walked the streets asking passersby “How am I doin’?” The move did more than give the mayor valuable feedback — it cemented support with the simple act of asking people to share their opinions and showing that what they thought really mattered. Ask people what they think of your school. Ask where they get information about your school. Ask what they consider the most important things your school can do for their children.
Modeling this kind of behavior and encouraging it by teachers and other staff can create a powerful competitive advantage for your school. Parents will find no shortage of schools with specific strengths to boast about. But if you forge a personal connection, you make people feel as if they really matter.
5. Remind parents of the smart choice they made. Even parents can suffer buyer’s remorse, and its understandable given the importance attached to selecting a school for their children. So, don’t stop communicating once their decision is made. Show them why they made the right choice.
Remember that these parents now will be the “experts” your next set of potential parents will turn to for that all-important “word-of-mouth” insight on what your school is really like. Make sure that what they’ll say is what you want to hear.
Author Edward H. Moore is professor of public relations at Rowan University and author of NSPRA’s School PR Research Primer, The School and Community Relations and School Public Relations for Student Success.
Reprinted with permission from the copyrighted article “What do parents want to know when choosing a school for their children?” in PRincipal Communicator, published by the National School Public Relations Association, 15948 Derwood Rd., Rockville, MD 20855; www.nspra.org; (301) 519-0496. No other reprints allowed without written permission from NSPRA.