Published as part of a Voices from the Field series by the National Governors Association, 1992.
Communicating Education Reform to the Public
The most effective strategies for communicating with the public are those that recognize the difference between public engagement and public relations. Too often, education reform efforts lack a substantive communications plan. When communications is incorporated, it is generally viewed as public relations; find a slogan, hang a banner, send a press release, and get pictures of famous people endorsing the effort. When it's complete, find a new slogan and repeat. The formula is all too familiar and leaves reformers vulnerable.
Public engagement is something altogether different. Although many reform leaders have begun to mouth the words, genuine public engagement is something that takes more time and is more difficult to achieve than most people admit. In truth, genuine public engagement is not something with a definable beginning, middle, and end: it is an ongoing process that must be built into every facet of reform in any community, a process that requires adequate staffing and resources. No reform will succeed with a piecemeal, part-time communications effort p together by people with other primary responsibilities.
The simple message is that in order to succeed, communications cannot be an afterthought. Some of the most brilliant minds in the country have joined the debate about enhancing learning within our public education system. Many forward-thinking politicians have staked their careers on reforming public schools. But no matter how brilliant the thinking, planning, and implementing is, if public engagement is not carefully planned every step of the way, reform will be slowed, if not placed in jeopardy altogether. Reform leaders must actively listen to the public's concerns, recognizing that public engagement is a democratic process, not a one-way dialogue in which decisions are made in an ivory tower and handed down to the public with little or no input.
We often hear the word "public" and think of some alien being. Every person involved in the education reform movement became convinced, at some point, that this was a battle worth waging. That decisions was based on information about the current state of education that ultimately persuaded each of us to join this effort. What arrogance it is to assume that other citizens will automatically support the cause without first having access to similar information and time to evaluate reform and why it is necessary.
Communicating about reform must recognize the difficult task people have finding time to be good citizens. Education reform is not the full-time occupation of most people trying to understand it shouldn't require a college degree. The best strategies understand that one town meeting, press conference, or newsletter will not make a difference. But building relationships with local media, focusing communication efforts over the long term, repeating messages until you can't stand to repeat them another time, and using as many grassroots elements as possible to get information to people in an informal and non-threatening way can only begin to make a difference.
The most effective strategies for communicating with the public also recognize the wide variety of public with which you must communicate. For example, ask yourself this simple question: Where do most parents get reliable information about what's happening at school? If you said from their children's teachers, give yourself ten points. Given that, you'd think reformers would recognize teachers as a primary constituency for building support. But several years into most major reform efforts, teachers in large numbers are only beginning to be included in reform planning, have difficulty explaining it, and often are skeptical about whether reforms will be in place a year later. This is not exactly the message reformers want parents to get.
Engaging and Involving the Public
Public Agenda worked with a wide range of communities during the past three years on our "Help Wanted: Crisis in the Workforce" media campaigns. These demonstration projects showed communities the value of working closely with the media and helped establish relationships among media and community leaders that lasted long after the campaign ended.
As a result of these campaigns, I've been struck by the insular nature of the education community when it comes to dealing with the media. Most of the communities we worked with have had extraordinary campaigns, sponsored by business-education partnerships and featuring an honest discussion of both the bad and the good in public schools. But many education associations have not participated in the campaigns, fearful of "education bashing" and unwilling to acknowledge their complicity in the medias' negative portrayal of schools because they have used the media to play out their own political turf battles rather than paint an accurate picture of the state of education for the public.
Ultimately, Public Agenda's mission is not the extension of campaigns, or even the distribution of research, recognized as some of the most concise and accessible accounting of how a variety of publics are learning and thinking about education reform. No, Public Agenda's contribution to engaging and involving the public is to engage and involve leadership groups in an ongoing discussion of the importance of public engagement. All our research and all of our campaigns and demonstration projects are specifically designed to provide leaders with a new perspective on the importance of public involvement.
To that end, Public Agenda has created the Communicating Change Workshop, a day-long workshop conducted by senior staff of Public Agenda and the Education Publishing Group of Boston to provide communities with an opportunity to focus thoroughly on the importance of communication. Through research presentations on reform efforts, group discussions, and evaluation of communication within a given state or community, the workshop is designed to brief community or state leaders on how people learn about complex issues and help apply those lessons to that community's communications strategy.
Democracy is Hard Work
The very core of Public Agenda's mission is a fundamental respect to, and faith in, the American public. Given the information, tools, and time to understand the most basic of elements of the need for education reform, the public will respond. The problem is that reformers have leapt too far ahead of the public too fast. We said that in 1991 with our landmark study Crosstalk. In 1993 we looked at the difficulty reformers were having talking to themselves in our report Divided Within, Besieged Without.
In those two studies and others we've done in conjunction with education organizations, the message has been clear. The public is ready, willing, and able to consider important reform initiatives. It sees the need to improve schools and fundamentally wants public schools to succeed. The public is even supportive of efforts that have proven controversial, like new standards or various methods of assessment. But the public only becomes ready, only supports reform, only overlooks controversy, when the issues are clearly explained and important concerns such as safety in the school have been addressed.
Reformers have created a vacuum by not addressing the public's concerns about schools and by alienating much of the public from the discussion of reform. That vacuum is being filed by carious interest groups as they skillfully manipulate information to benefit their political agendas. Given the often strident nature of reform critics from both the left and the right, it would be unfortunate if reformers allowed themselves to be drawn into a negative battle. A better response is to recognize that the public schools are the public's schools and there is common ground that can be found on all issues. If reformers choose to slug it out with opponents they will find the public, a potential source of support for reform, alienated even further from the debate and watching the political battle from the sidelines with little or no interest. FInd the common ground by including all parties, work together to improve schools, and keep the discussions focused on the children and the education they'll need in the twenty-first century. Where agendas from the left or the right get in the way, let them be seen for that they are -- extreme -- and continue to build consensus from the common ground you can establish in the political center.
To build consensus you must not shy away from the hard work that democracy is. You must include all parties, actively listen to the concerns of each, and look beyond the next election cycle and beyond the tenure of any individual school administrator. Agree to let go of issues you cannot agree on and work to build upon those issues you can. Help every group understand the issues the way you do. Don't dismiss others' views as irrelevant and demand that they help you see issues from their perspective as well.
Most important, you must link reform to individuals' lives and talk about issues in ways that connect to people. Forget the jargon and processes that many reformers find so fascinating. Speak to teachers about issues of concern to teachers, and likewise with parents, business people, the media, and other citizens. There is a valid reason why every person in the community should actively support improving schools; you must help them understand why it matters in ways that connect to their lives.
No fancy slogan, ad campaign, or public relations effort will every be more effective than taking your message to people directly, actively listening to their concerns, and constantly reminding everyone why this effort is so important.