Over a year after it was originally drafted as an essay about twice as long–less indeed is more–the American Association of School Administrators has published my insights in the Frontline section of its January 2024 edition.
Headlined Influencing Public Perception With Proactive Videos, my observations flow largely from a 20-plus-year career in journalism, including my coverage for the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers of public bodies such as school districts. In addition, my points are informed by my work over the past 15-plus years as a public relations professional representing a variety of clients across many spheres of society.
And all of those experiences were complemented by my four years on the District 200 School Board (Oak Park and RIver Forest High School) here just west of Chicago. During my campaign for office all the way through my 48 months of service, I regularly emphasized these points to administrators, fellow board members and community members.
During my farewell D200 board meeting in May 2021, my colleagues were generous in their remarks about my passion for bringing greater transparency and more effective internal and external communications to the district during my time on the board.
Among their comments:
“Matt, we were able to flow from in-person meetings to virtual meetings because you pushed us to (live) stream long before other boards were (live) streaming and I thank you for that. So, that transition was seamless for us. I also want to thank you for reaching out when there were times when our messaging may not have been as clear as we wanted it and guided us from your journalistic point of view on how to do that.”
~Superintendent Dr. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams
“Matt, I want to thank you for being very verbal about our communications and how we were handling that. You and I had a lot of phone conversations around communications that I found really helpful in terms of helping me re-think of how we were approaching communications and different channels we could possibly use to reach families and students.”
~Board president Sara Dixon Spivy
“I really think that you genuinely wanted to make the atmosphere at our high school one that was inviting to the students as they came in the door. I certainly agree with the comments on transparency and I certainly learned some things on that, and how you communicate with the public.”
~Board member Ralph Martire
“The marketer in me certainly recognizes the marketer in you. And I appreciate how much you have brought that piece of communications to what we do here and how you keep that forefront of how everyone is informed. Thank you for your service.”
~Board member Gina Harris
“Matt, I will say what has already been echoed in terms of your care for our community and desire to make sure that they don’t feel left out and understand what’s going on but also have the mechanism for seeing things in real time is truly why we’re even able to be pushed in a way that was needed…the fact that was a focus for you has truly been a gift to our board in terms of our communication and connecting with our community.”
~Board member (and former board president) Dr. Jackie Moore
I am grateful for that edification. It was a two-year uphill battle to get the board to the point of being open to videotaping our meetings–a step that was at least a decade overdue. In May 2019, I gave my colleauges a choice: either we start videotaping the meetings on an official basis, or I will arrange to start doing so myself.
At the time, nobody could know how extraordinarily vital it would be to have that apparatus in place the following spring, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to meet exclusively via Zoom for nearly a year.
My School Administrator column will reach 20,000 individuals in school system administration nationally who receive School Administrator. I hope my counsel proves helpful not only locally, but in the many communities across the United States.
The piece will soon be accessible online, but in the meantime, below are two versions: how it appears in the magazine and a cut-and-pasted version for ease of review.
Influencing Public Perception With Proactive Videos
BY MATT BARON
My children’s high school in the community where I served a four-year term on the school board has a lot going for it: a tradition of academic and extracurricular excellence, a committed corps of talented teachers and staff, and a vibrant, diverse student population.
The school has challenges too.
Though its positive qualities far outpace the negative, those strengths are often overlooked or overshadowed when problems arise.
If a positive story falls in the forest of our daily, cacophonous distraction – but nobody sees it happen – does it actually make a difference to your school’s reputation?
That’s why in our short-attention-span, clickbait media landscape, schools must be persistently proactive with bite-size good news. The key is creating and disseminating succinct photographic and video content that resonates on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram.
A Tale of Two Stories
About a year ago, this particular institution trumpeted that it had gone from “commendable” to “exemplary” among all of the state’s public high schools, putting it back in the top 10% across Illinois. The news was issued exclusively via news release; it received scant media attention.
Meanwhile, student brawls—usually involving a very small number of individuals—have made the rounds on social media and served as fodder for media outlets thirsting for sensationalistic headlines and clickbait.
These disturbing images don’t go away, either. While mention of the “exemplary” distinction gathers dust, the fisticuffs are just a slow news day away from being re-circulated any time another fight occurs.
What’s more apt to lead the evening TV news: one kid pummeling another to the ground or their school moving up a notch in its academic rating?
Engaging Our Senses
There are multiple reasons for this disparity in media interest, but foremost is human nature: we are inclined toward conflict, especially when it engages our senses: “Hey, did you see that? Did you hear this?”
Video is as transfixing as a raging fire; by comparison, text is like a few embers too easily overlooked.
By the nature of its medium, TV stations will almost always turn the spotlight on punches, whether literal or metaphorical, not your latest crop of National Merit Scholarship semifinalists.
While you can’t eliminate negative news, it’s essential to place it in the context of a drip, drip, drip of positive news that reaches your intended audience. In short, you want to dilute the bad and the ugly with a steady stream of good.
Fight Fire with Fire
As a newspaper reporter and communications consultant for nearly 40 years, I find it humbling but necessary to acknowledge that video is much more apt than a news release to get seen.
The written word is still important, but almost always when reporting positive news, it’s best that schools explore how to lead with a video that contains two key elements: identifying the conflict, and what has been done to emerge triumphantly in that conflict.
A well-worn truth in English class is that conflict serves as one of the most fundamental elements in literature. When it comes to public relations, ensure your school is putting that knowledge into application with compelling visual storytelling. Flesh out the conflict, within a given story’s narrative, to demonstrate what’s been overcome.
As you put the skin on the bones of a story, consider these guidelines and starter questions:
Be creative – how can you use humor?
Be succinct – how can you say much in only a few seconds?
Be smart – what’s the most effective way to provide a link from the video to the text of a statement and/or news release?
For those who are inclined to read, that link to a written narrative will be appreciated. But what will get much more widely shared, and what will be most memorable, is the video.