You would think the hallowed institution of education would be divorced from today’s media-fueled spin zone, but in many ways colleges and other schools are obliged to market themselves just like any other product. Granted, they may be complex products nuanced by generations of traditions and history, but even in the case of public schools, they are still entities seeking positive and ongoing relationships with consumers. As many schools are faced with market-driven considerations in ways never foreseen by yesterday’s educators, many are seeking guidance from PR professionals for the first time. This growing sector presents a ripe opportunity for PR reps looking to take off in a niche field that’s still growing.
Why do schools need PR anyway?
At every level of education, todays’ schools are subject to competition in increasing ways. At the primary level, public schools fight over a shrinking pool of funds, while private institutions must aggressively court parents dissatisfied with the current system. Universities are not only competing for tuition dollars more than ever, but are also contending with a public suspicious of the need for higher education in the first place. Additionally, they may need to maintain positive ongoing relationships with private donors who are highly sensitive to the image of the institutions they fund. In the case of public schools, a cynical base of taxpayers demands to know how their money is being spent.
All of these concerns dictate that schools utilize the press and social media to foster credibility and an otherwise positive image with parents, prospective students, community groups, and various sources of funding. Unfortunately, academics can be notoriously inscrutable to the public, so a dedicated PR liaison can be essential for a school’s very survival.
No matter the kind of position you’re seeking, finding work at a school can be a little tricky. It won’t hurt regularly browsing PR-tailored professional job boards, but the safest bet is to check out websites from individual institutions (many may not have a dedicated PR concern, so check among general business and admin postings). Aside from geographical considerations, ideally you should target schools whose “brand” you already understand. Not only will this make you a desirable fit, remember that your work-life will be largely devoted to representing this institution, so it’s a whole lot easier to work for a school you can feel proud standing behind.
Whether or not you’re familiar with the school in question, do some homework to educate yourself on existing public relations concerns and challenges. For high profile universities, be aware of how the institution has already been represented in the press.
Is the school in damage control mode from a recent scandal? Does the university have a particularly old-fashioned image that its attempting to overcome with a fresh makeover, or conversely, is it an up-and-coming college seeking to build a solid reputation?
For high schools and below, find out what kind of role the school has in its community and track the sort of relationships it may have: does the school take an active role in hosting community fundraisers, for example — and if not, could it gain in stature from doing so? Finally, by all means check out the school’s existing social media presence to see not only how its currently representing itself, but also to look for ways you see to improve. The more you seem to be savvy to the school’s image and existing relationships , the more you’ll be a desirable asset.
Educational jobs often have a high turnover, so make a list of your hard targets and check in regularly for updates. Without being unwantedly aggressive, create a presence for yourself with human resources to let them know you are actively interested. Perhaps even more so than with other job markets, getting a great position with a school depends on dogged persistence and follow-ups, so hang in there.
Marcela De Vivo is a freelance writer in Southern California. With children of her own in school, she understands the importance of hiring people who are passionate about education. She contributes to the Accredited Online blog helping students find careers. You can follow her on Twitter.