Public Relations Plan for Special Education Departments

Introduction

            Every school and school district needs to have a public relations (PR) plan that is both planned and systematic (Williams, 1985). Effective school-community relations programs should identify stakeholders and partnerships involved with the plan, the needs and wants of stakeholders, and channels of communication and activities to engage stakeholders in healthy dialogue and achieve goals (Forrest & Mays, 1997). However, not many school districts in the state of Utah have planned, systematic public relations plans.

School districts from Cache Valley through Utah Valley were contacted regarding their public relations plans. Five school districts responded to either email or phone call. Four of the five school districts said they did not have a formal public relations plan in place, but were in the process of creating one. The other school district would not confirm or deny the presence of an existing PR plan, but did say one was in process of creation.

A couple of PR directors from these school districts agreed to be interviewed. Interview questions were:

  1. What have you identified thus far as needs/goals for a PR plan?
  2. Do you see a need to have separate or additional policies/plans for special education?
  3. What barriers have you encountered in trying to create and implement a PR plan?

Ben Horsley of Granite School District in Salt Lake City, UT was interviewed on the 31st of October, 2016. He stated the biggest need for a PR plan is comprehensive communication. He went on to state that it would be beneficial to have a separate section for special education within a PR plan, and the biggest barriers to the creation of a formal plan have been time, marketing, and resources.

Tim Smith of Cache County School District in Logan, UT was interviewed on the 7th of November, 2016. He listed more effective communication as the main reason for a PR plan, with needs being identifying channels of communication, audiences, goals and responsibilities. He had not given any thought to a separate section for special education and admitted to not seeing a need for it at this time. Time and expertise were identified as main barriers to the creation of a PR plan. Mr. Smith is not a trained communication or public relations specialist. When asked what might be some barriers faced by other districts in Utah, Mr. Smith said creating a formal plan is not natural to many people unless they are forced to for one reason or another (e.g., getting a loan from a bank).

Needs Assessment and Goals

            Clear objectives and desired outcomes need to be set early for a PR plan to be successful (Lindenwann, 1997). While many school districts in Utah have PR directors and specialists, most lack these clear objectives, outcomes and goals. Purpose/mission statements, vision statements, and goals for PR departments are also missing.

A purpose—or mission—statement tells what your plan or organization does currently. In other words, it states the reason for being. A vision statement is a look into the future. It states where you or your plan want to be three, five, or ten years down the road. Goals need to be specific, realistic, measureable, time-sensitive, and worthwhile (Kahle, 2016). Goals will differentiate among regions and cultures; yet, they should follow the general format of improving education quality, school and district image, and establishing good report with stakeholders. Simply stated goals that all partnerships can understand will have the greatest likelihood of success. Goals can fit into two categories: (1) long term and (2) short term. They can also be termed annual and benchmark, or terminal and enabling objectives.

Lack of IDEA compliance with individualized education plans and transition planning is commonly found in the United States (Landmark & Zhang, 2013; Powers et al, 2005). Communication between schools and parents regarding services has also been a problem in the country (Hetherington et al, 2010). Therefore, enhancing the quality of services and stakeholder opinions of special education departments is critical.

Needs and goals will be different for each school district. Stakeholders will decide which needs, goals and values are important for their school district. However, the purpose statement, vision statement, and goals presented can be applied to any school district. Minor changes or additions may be added based on individualized needs assessments.

Purpose

The purpose of this plan is to outline effective communication goals, outcomes, and strategies for special education departments in schools and school districts.

Vision

             This plan will be referenced by outside agencies and adapted to their needs. Internal partnerships (e.g., district staff, school board members, principals and teachers) reference and use this plan effectively in various circumstances. Confidence in this plan is found among all internal and external partnerships. External partnerships continue to be active in shaping effective policies and procedures of effective communication. Community outreach and engagement is at its highest and growing strong.

Goals

  1. Enhance quality of special education services (e.g., IEP development, teacher training, and transition services) to be at least 90% compliant with IDEA mandates. Supply teachers with journal articles once per month. Hold in-service trainings on IEP development twice per year. Publish two stories per month on effective transition planning/goals and employment outcomes of students within the district.
  2. Enhance image of school district in relation to special education to an 85% approval rating among stakeholder groups. Through the use of social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), post two student success stories each week. Create YouTube channel to tell digital stories of at least one special education student per month.
  3. Securely manage confidential student information to a 100% success rate. Keep all special education student information on privately accessed server and/or hard drives. Provide principals, teachers, and committee members with information on federal and state confidentiality laws.
  4. Market special education programs to employment organizations and community members. Deliver information on skills and strengths of our special education students to local businesses and community members on a bi-monthly (every other month) basis. Use social media to highlight academic and civic achievement of special education students.
  5. Manage crisis situations in a timely, respectful and transparent manner. Respond to all email and phone inquiries within 24 hours or next business day. At all times, respect state and federal confidentiality laws. Provide principals and teachers with crisis management policies, including how to answer stakeholder questions honestly.

Partnerships

            O’Reilly and Matt (2013) suggest identifying community members from all walks of life to be part of the creation and implementation of a PR plan, and to select members based on willingness to participate, availability and time commitments/constraints. Parent-teacher organizations exist throughout the state of Utah—and the United States—and can be utilized in plan creation and implementation. Other partnerships that need to exist to ensure the success of this plan are:

  1. Special Education Teachers/Aides
  2. Parents
  3. Civic leaders (e.g., mayor, city council)
  4. School Board members
  5. Vocational Rehabilitation Agencies/specialists.
  6. State Department of Human Services, or Department of Services for People with Disabilities.
  7. State/local advocacy groups
  8. Local Print and Digital Media

Plan for Partnerships

The district special education department—along with a representative from the public relations office—will join with disability agencies in monthly roundtable discussions on disabilities. Furthermore, the district will participate in and/or host community forums with city councils and local media to discuss special education and disability issues.

The district will partner with vocational rehabilitation agencies to create better transition planning and services. Special education students will get job training from specialists and local business. These businesses will be featured in news stories provided to media outlets and in the districts social media platforms.

Parents and teachers will be included in meetings and forums to discuss goals and evaluate the plan. Journal articles and helpful tips will be sent to parents and teachers regarding best practices in special education and how the district is incorporating those best practices.

Decision Making

            Organizational and societal cultures play major roles in effective leadership. Furthermore, effective leadership in decision making involves individuals who possess the following attributes:

  1. Self-dynamic
  2. Team collaboration
  3. Ethical orientation
  4. Relationship building
  5. Strategic decision making capabilities
  6. Communication knowledge
  7. Expert management capability (Meng, 2012).

Leaders should be selected from various partnerships that exemplify these attributes to form a decision making committee with the school district. Meetings should take place bi-monthly (every other month) to set and evaluate goals, and assess needs and changes to the plan.

Methods

Market Research: Surveys and interviews throughout the district to establish baseline data. Data will reveal current opinions of special education programs in the district, stakeholder values on special education, and suggested goals for special education program improvement. Research will utilize immersive digital storytelling techniques (both district output and output from stakeholders) from social media, as well as involve partnerships in open-ended off-line dialogue on special education issues to identify needs and strategies (Allagui & Breslow, 2016).

Goal Achievement & Progress: Progress reports will be provided to all leaders and stakeholder groups on a monthly basis. Short opinion surveys will be provided at the end of each report.

Media Relations: All emails and phone messages will be returned within 24 hours or next business day. One story will be provided to both print and digital media correspondents on a bi-weekly (every other week) basis.  Principals and teachers are to refer to reporters to the special education director or public relations officer of the district regarding any incidents with special education students.

Crisis Management: If a student(s) is injured, seek medical attention immediately from the school nurse or qualified medical professional. If a student goes missing, contact local law enforcement and parents/guardians immediately. Confidentiality laws should be followed at all times. Refer to the district’s crisis management plan for all grades regarding other situations and more information.

Confidentiality & Permissions

Print, Electronic & Social Media: Permission slips must be returned to the district office before any student can be featured in social media posts.

Stakeholder Groups: Before any academic or job-related strengths can be disseminated to businesses, advocacy groups, city councils and/or civic groups, permission forms must be signed by parents or legal guardians. Forms must be signed for each business/group/council, which will detail what skills and strengths are shared.

Technology

            Social media applications (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube) and the district Web page will be used to market special education programs. Content will be suitable for desktop or mobile devices and will be delivered on a timely schedule of twice per week (Allagui & Breslow, 2016). District public relations department will handle the posting of all content, and other district or school personnel may not post stories to personal pages without approval from the public relations office.

Evaluation

Data Collection

 Surveys will be mailed to parents with each report card. Online surveys will exist on the district Web page. Survey reminders will be attached to social media posts.

Online polls will be available through district and school Web pages. Telephone surveys/polls will be conducted at the end of each grading period.

In-person interviews will be conducted by district staff and PTA members in the fall and spring.

Reporting

Leaders from local businesses, civic and advocacy groups, and state departments will be invited—along with parents—to attend bi-monthly (every other month) meetings to discuss and evaluate plan effectiveness. Reports from meetings, surveys, polls, and social media comments will be mailed and emailed to committee and partnership leaders each month. These reports will also be available on the district Web page.

References

Allagui, I., & Breslow, H. (2016) Social media for public relations: Lessons from four effective cases. Public Relations Review, 42(1), 20-30.

Forrest, C. J., & Mays, R. H. (1997). Designing effective community relations programs. Environmental Quality Management, 7(2), 43-60.

Hetherington, S. A., Durant-Jones, L., Johnson, K., Nolan, K., Smith, E., Taylor-Brown, S., & Tuttle, J. (2010). The lived experiences of adolescents with disabilities and their parents in transition planning. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 25(3), 163-172.

Landmark, L. J., & Zhang, D. (2013). Compliance and practices in transition planning: A review of individualized education program documents. Remedial and Special Education, 34(2), 113-125. doi: 10.1177/0741932511431831

Lindenwann, W. K. (1997). Setting minimum standards for measuring public relations effectiveness. Public Relations Review, 23(4), 391-402.

Meng, J. (2012). Strategic leadership in public relations: An integrated conceptual framework. Public Relations Review, 38(2), 336-338.

O’Reilly, F. L., & Matt, J. J. (2013). Public relations opportunities for schools utilizing innovations in virtual communities. Journal of Education and Learning, 2(2), 139-143.

Powers, K. M., Gil-Kashiwabara, E., Geenen, S. I., Powers, L. E., Balandran, J., & Palmer, C. (2005). Mandates and effective transition planning practices reflected in IEPs. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 28, 47-59.

Williams, H. B. (1985). Communicating about the critical years: The need for public relations programs for middle schools. Middle School Journal, 16(3), 19-30.