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The Crucial Need for Public Relations Efforts

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A Different PR Climate

The educational public relations officer has the major responsibility of conveying to the institution's publics the nature of a college or university so it is not undermined nor its mission misunderstood. The public relations office's goal is to help educate the institution's own family and the general public to understand, appreciate, tolerate, and defend the vital necessity of freedom for the student to learn and for the scholar to search for the truth without restriction. A sometimes skeptical public must be adequately informed so that it will learn to cherish free inquiry and cope with pressures and demands for control, especially in times of hysteria and tension. To the general public, a college may seem to be composed of students and faculty, administrators, clerks, and the usual support services, plus a football or basketball team. Actually, educational institutions are much more complicated, affecting both internal and external communications and relations. For example:

The modern university is composed of a greater variety of people more different types, ranging further to the extremes, than any other organization of comparable size.
  • A college or university has some attributes of, but is different from, a government agency, corporation, army, or church.

  • Faculty members are not employees; bright students are not orderly soldiers; academic freedom is essential, but so are legislative appropriations and private support

  • Profit making is not a "purpose," but business methods are necessary.

  • Institutional loyalty is traditional, but society is mobile.

  • Stability is expected, but so are social and scientific innovation.

  • A college or university can be at once a citadel of conservatism and a provenance of radicalism.
Absence of National Standards

The former education editor of The New York Times is concerned that Americans have never had a national discussion about what public schools should accomplish.

The United States is virtually unique among major industrialized countries in that it has neither curriculum standards nor national tests of student achievement," observes Edward B. Fiske. "The reason is that, instead of creating a federal ministry of education to oversee schooling, the Founding Fathers left education up to individual states. In practice, states have delegated it to school boards in local cities and towns."

Meanwhile, at the college and university level, critics, such as Nadine Strossen of the ACLU, are charging that "campus speech codes are undermining free speech and they are doing nothing to stop racism and bigotry."

Getting Started

The quickest route to an entry level position in educational public relations is experience as an intern, student assistant, or work study student in a college public relations office. Another great asset is hands on experience in public relations type work in some other education office or organization, such as the athletic department, development or admissions office, alumni association, extension, or conference center.

That experience will have given you training in news writing, public contact, special events, publications, broadcasting, or working with volunteers. The best reference you can carry with you is a portfolio of material you have written, prepared, or published in any medium newspapers, magazines, speeches, brochures, radio, or television scripts.

Potential employers prefer to hear about your work in community organizing, get out  the vote campaigns, fund raising projects, special events, or with fraternity, sorority, or religious organizations. College alumni offices hire persons to arrange special events, campus tours, reunions, presentations, and orientation programs for students and alumni, and to assist in research and record keeping.

Fund raising or development offices (as most are called) use entry level employees for research and record keeping, "phonathon" solicitations, special events, publications work, preliminary preparation of proposals, interviews with faculty and staff members, or internal business activities.

Excellent entry level opportunities are available in education agencies and school district departments of communication, public information, and public relations. The National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA), founded in 1935 and based in Arlington, Virginia, has 43 chapters. The Association has conducted hundreds of in service training workshops across the nation, in Canada, and for the United States Dependents Schools in Europe. These workshops have provided communication training for central office administrators, school trustees, board members, principals, parents, teachers, students, and members of support staffs as well as community members.

NSPRA offers a wide range of comprehensive communication/public relations in service training kits and materials, maintains a national information resource center of education, and provides members with hotline counseling and resource services.

The Association publishes a monthly newsletter, It Starts in the Classroom, and a monthly public relations/communication newsletter Network. It now offers the NSPRA FAX News Service which delivers national breaking education news instantly in numerous school districts and education agencies throughout America. The Association also conducts school district and educational agency communication audits.

Do not expect to get rich in a college public relations position, though salaries have improved substantially in the past decade it is now not uncommon to hear about salaries exceeding $100,000 a year for top officers in both private and public institutions. As a management function in higher education, public relations (institutional advancement) literally has moved from the boiler room to the boardroom over the past two or three decades. With increased compensation has come an increase in status on campus, in the community, and in the business world at large. The top PR officer now commands a seat in the President's Cabinet and Trustee meetings and membership on major university committees.

Today's PR administrator must deal with all echelons of government, corporations, trade unions, and professional societies; with every kind of staff member; with private donors, legislators, alumni, "subway alumni," parents, and vendors; with a governing board that may be publicly elected or appointed; with recruiters of students and competitors for the staff.

Potential employers of the chief PR officers at educational institutions are seeking candidates with high standards, concerns about ethical behavior, and sound business management. Demands for the new management style require credentials in issues management, marketing, teleconferencing, aggressive communications, coalition building, and demographic sophistication.

The professional field of public relations for an educational institution offers an exciting and rewarding entry point for a start up career or a lifetime commitment.

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