Reworking Public Schools: A Marketing Perspective

children's artworkI recently had one of my very best friends in the world call up and ask if I could come and talk to a group of public school PR and communication specialists. He knew I had a unique perspective on the subject of education – I once taught school and now I work in marketing. He asked a rather provocative question – how would I “market” public education?

Wow! What a massively fun challenge. I’ve been thinking about this subject ever since and what follows is how I would probably approach the topic (Oh and someday I’d love to share this talk at TED – anything is possible, right?). Please note. the (slide) references you will see below are for my own reference, please ignore them. On to the presentation:

(Slide 1) First of all, let me thank you for being here and allowing me to share a few thoughts on such an interesting and vital topic. The public school system is a critical component of our democracy and the economic viability of our nation. The work you are doing as PR professionals in support of our students and schools is truly honorable.

I am good friends with several of the people sitting here in this room and I’ve shared your stories with others as I am out traveling around. It is interesting how many people ask me why school districts would need public relations specialists. This isn’t unlike the question I get asked all the time by my own parents, “You work in marketing. What do you do all day? What did they teach you in college? People pay you to do this?” All I can say is that it is fun working in an industry that is one of the most hated professions in America and at the same time one of the most misunderstood ones as well.

(Slide 2) Why am I here? I was asked to give you my unique perspective on how I would market public schools. What makes my perspective unique? Well, here’s a bit about my background that is relevant to this subject.

(Slide 3) I taught first grade for four years. I am one of those 50% of new teachers that leave the profession within the first four years of starting that are so often discussed in many circles. But you have to understand my personality a bit in order to better understand why I left. I came out of college guns a blazin’. I wanted to change the world and when I started my first teaching job, I ran into one wall after another. And here’s an ugly truth. What I was taught in college about teaching wasn’t happening in the schools. None of it matched up.

I am a very aggressive, creative and hard working guy by nature and what I experienced in the school system didn’t compliment who I am or what I wanted to accomplish. Instead of innovating, we were being told to ‘keep our heads down,’ ‘don’t ruffle the senior teachers’ feathers’ and ‘try to fit in.’ This was difficult for me. But this didn’t stop me from trying to change things.

(Slide 4) I did what could within the walls of my own classroom. We read books that were probably a little questionable. We spent a lot of time learning about creativity and problem solving. I spent a lot of time working with technology and looking for ways to connect my classroom with the my students’ homes. I also sought out and nurtured relationships with key people inside and outside the building. Together, in those four years, we made a big difference.

(Slide 5) A small group of us led a revolution of sorts. We set up the first school-level literacy committee and then pushed that out to the district level. A smaller groups of us spent many hours writing grant request after grant request looking for any way we could improve the conditions in our school and maximize the learning that was going on. At the same time, I was diving heavily into computers and the Internet. I ended up being put in charge of our schools tech committee which led to me being put on the district committee. I was even honored to receive the “technology teacher of the year” award one year to the dismay of some of my colleagues. It was a rewarding time – one filled with a lot of challenges, some big wins and a variety of failures (we’ll come back to the subject of failures later on).

(Slide 6) I eventually left teaching to pursue other dreams. I had always wanted to go back to school and get my Master’s degree. I began that journey with the intention of studying journalism and then one day, seemingly out of no where, I discovered an inner passion for marketing which I embraced and have been doing ever since. So I come to you with a variety of perspectives to offer and hopefully some insights from the world of marketing that might make a small difference.

(Slide 7) I am a marketer. I don’t have a regular 9-5 job; I am always on, much like yourselves, looking for new ideas; looking for ways to shift perspectives; and looking for the edges from which creativity flourishes. It is by far one of the most challenging and rewarding careers to go into. I actually get paid to create; to look at what it is and how we can make it better; to innovate; to ask questions that no one else will; to challenge the status quo; to look at the needs of my customers and figure out meaningful solutions that they will actually care about. That’s the perspective I’ve been asked to share with you today and how this might look in the education system.

(Slide 8) Our education system is in peril and you are being hit from every possible direction. The politicians are out to get you. You are being hit from the federal, state and local levels. You are constantly being threatened with budget cuts. You have local school boards to contend with. You have the news media breathing down your necks. You have angry parents to deal with. Not to mention the many internal battles that go on within your own organizations. What else an I missing? And you are being charged with fending off all of these attacks. I can’t even imagine how you sleep at night.

(Slide 9) What I would offer you is this. We have to sit back and re-imagine what education should look like for the future. Why do I say this? At the heart of our current education system is a major problem. Our public school system was built as a byproduct of the industrial revolution and it served to feed compliant and reliable workers into that system. We don’t have time to dive heavily into this subject at the moment; however, if you are interested in this, I would highly recommend two excellent books on this subject – “Drive” by Daniel Pink and “Linchpin” by Seth Godin. Both of these guys are “thought leaders” in the business world and marketing industry and they are well worth looking into no matter what industry you are working in.

(Slide 10) But what we are now seeing in the business world is a radical departure from this factory-system model. Sure, we still need some of these workers to get certain jobs done, but as we see globalization occurring, outsourcing and educational standards rise across the world, we need our school system to reexamine their very nature in order to make sure we are staying competitive in the global markets.

(Slide 11) Think of it this way for a minute. Many of our parents went through the public education systems. They decent jobs and spent the rest of their lives working at the same place for decades. They were content with having a secure job. They may have gone through a job change or two; however, their lives didn’t change much other than growing older, getting married, and having families. Those days are over. People are shifting careers in ways we never would have imagined even five years ago. Our business world is more competitive than ever and we have to give our children the creative and problem-solving skills they need to succeed.

Here’s my first challenge to you. Your teachers are busy. Your administrators are busy. You are public relations professionals. By nature, you work in an industry that is almost always reactive. What I would challenge you to do is reposition yourselves as marketing professionals. Build amazing marketing departments with public relations as a subset of your services. Move from being reactive to proactive. Develop long-term “go to market” strategies; sideline the short-term, quick fixes. Take control of your destiny.

(Slide 12) What I am advocating for is a radical shift in how you as an education system “go to market.” We live in a Internet society so let’s call it something people can relate to – let’s call it public education 2.0. I’d look at it from three very distinct perspectives – the products we sell, the people we employee and the experiences we create for our customers.

(Slide 13) #1 Reinvent the products and services you are selling today. Everything you are doing hinges on this. Right now you are being attacked by the “charter school” advocates. Screw them. You can offer a better product. You can offer better services. But you have to start the process by reinventing the “products and services” you are selling.

(Slide 14) Your local post office is a great example to consider. They were a great, publicly-funded, government-run business that was put in place to support our nations information infrastructure. People relied on the industry for years to provide a much needed service – mail and package delivery. Along the way, they made small changes, but they failed to adapt to the technological changes and business needs around them. Stuff like email and e-billing is killing the post office. Businesses are taking more of their marketing online, which is killing the direct mail marketing industry. Businesses like FedEX and UPS are looking for every opportunity to innovate and steal away business from our postal system. And the United States Postal System now finds itself in dire straights.

(Slide 15) As an industry, you have to innovate and I am not talking about small innovations, like new text book programs or the latest, greatest education software package. You have to position yourselves as the leaders of public school innovation and then market the heck out of this. I guess what I am advocating for is that you as leaders in this room have to reinvent what you are doing and bring together the right people within your organizations to really sit down and take a long hard look at your business, your services, your products and figure what you what to be 5, 10, 20 and 50 years from now. Then do something about it.

Put together a team of key people and ask the tough questions:

  • Is the traditional school year working?
  • Where are we failing students and parents?
  • What can we do better?
  • Are grades all that necessary? What about report cards?
  • Do we do our students justice by just moving them along to the next grade before they have achieved mastery?
  • Is it fair to evaluate teacher performance based on a single, end-of-year test?
  • Are we testing too much?
  • Where do the liberal arts fit in?
  • How do we teach the important stuff? What is the important stuff?
  • Do parents have an obligation to the schools?
  • How can we find new and additional sources of funding?

By nature, many of you spend a lot of time being reactionary to what is going on around you. It’s your job. What I am begging you to do is to shift your perspective and do something radical. Don’t wait for Washington to tell you what to do. Ignore Washington. Don’t wait for the state legislature to tell you what to do. Ignore them. Lead. Find ways to reinvent your services and products. Do something radical to reinvent what you are doing today. You will piss off some people for sure, but you will have many more people who will see the good you are doing who will stand by you and join your movement.

(Slide 16) Build a tribe. For more on that, see Seth Godin’s book, “Tribes.” You might also look at another great book, “Tribal Leadership” by Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright.

(Slide 17) #2 Build a massively cool brand that your customers will love. This gets complicated fast but hang in there with me for a few minutes. What do your customers see when they walk into your schools, district office, interact with your employees or visit your website? Imagine this for a minute in your own head. Many of you are parents. Picture yourself walking into your schools. What do you see, think, feel, smell? What do their children come home and tell their parents about their experiences in your schools? Go back to what you learned about in college about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (and if you don’t know about Maslow, please do something about this). Are we creating an environment in our schools where curiosity, problem solving and creativity can thrive? If not, why?

(Slide 18) What if you decided as a district that you wanted to become the number one district in the state for technology, for business, or for art? I understand that you have start mandates to meet. But just imaging for a minute that we broke all the rules and did something radically different. We talk about this as positioning in marketing. How can we be different from our competition in ways that will be meaningful for our customers? Once you have this in place, you should then begin the process of making changes and building an amazing brand. Then tell that story over and over again in ways that will delight the parents in your district.

Maybe you divide up the schools and come up with different specialty schools k-12 where student and parents can choose to go. Sure, there’s the problem of transportation, but forget about that for a minute. Your customers want choices; they want change; they want to know that their children are prepared for the future. Why not give them that and let go of what we’ve done for over the last one-hundred years of public education.

Be different. Find your unique stories. Look for successes. Then tell those stories over and over again. Build amazing products and services and talk about those. Sure, there will still be a need for some of the damage control; but you have to shift attention away from the negative and start shouting about the many positives that could and will be.

Show that your in touch with what is happening out in the world today and tomorrow. What do I mean by this? I used to create a monthly newsletter for my classroom. It was a lot of work and, to be frank, it amounted to a lot of wasted time. As an industry, you have to take some leaps into the technologies that are out there. Revamp your district and school websites. Turn them into massive social networks. Get your students on their talking about the issues of the day. Solicit their feedback. Open up and listen to your customers. Get your teachers and classrooms using social media. All of these are relationship building tools. Empower everyone in your district to help tell your story. Sure, there will be some training involved, but it will be worth it.

(Slide 19) Starbucks is one of my favorite companies to talk about when I think about the issue of branding. They have this incredibly easy to follow formula that is almost fool proof. It looks like this “b=ppe” or “great brand equals the people you hire/train times the products and services you sell times the experience you offer.” How would this formula look for our public schools?

(Slide 20) There are a few companies that I would recommend you consider looking at as you consider the “people” part of the equation – Zappos (who offers new hires $2000 to leave the company if they don’t feel that the job is a good fit for them), Starbucks (who’s BrewU and “hire slow, fire fast” policy helps them get the right people) and Disney (their “traditions” training helps establish an amazing set of expectations from the very beginning of the hiring process).

As an example, let’s look at Starbuck’s BrewU. Its a cultural immersion and training course that all of their team members go through. The culture piece is important. Instead of boring their new hires with hours of policies, etc. they wow them with culture and make sure they understand that they are there to serve their customers. They empower them to provide great service. As you are taking your radial leaps, you will have a number of amazing stories to share with your new hires. You need to get all of them on board and turn them into brand advocates, emissaries of your brand, products and services.

(Slide 21) We have discussed products and services already. But let’s quickly look at a tool you could use to improve both of these – consumer research. Outside of the screaming phone calls you get from parents, policy makers and the like, how are you gathering feedback about your products and services? As you know, your customers what to know they are being heard. Why not build in some mechanisms to make this process easy. Get parents to an annual or semi-annual sharing session, find a great moderator, and let them share. Use small focus groups. Call the parents who care. Use phone surveys. Set up online surveys and get people taking them. Having this information will allow you to be more proactive. You are probably doing some of this today, but ask yourself how much of it is happening out of a reactive nature. Don’t do this. Use this feedback to be proactive.

(Slide 22) #3 Create experiences that your parents and children will talk about. One of the tools we use in marketing is called “experience mapping.” It is something I would recommend you all look at. It works like this. You get out and take a look at your business from the customer’s perspective. Then you tweek every part of that experience to ensure that your customer is consistently being told the one story that you want told. Go walk through a Whole Foods store when you get a chance. They do this better than anyone. What do your schools look like from your students’ perspective? What about their parents and grand parents? What about the perspectives of business leaders in your area?

When I talk about experiences, I want you to think about this from every perspective imaginable. Small things matter a lot. Do you have music playing in the halls when you walk in the building? Is there artwork on the walls? If so, whose and what is it of? How are guests greeted when they walk in the building or when they leave? How are your teachers interacting with their students and parents (and do they understand their larger vision that the district is trying to accomplish)?

We face a major leadership void in our country and specifically in our education system. We can’t wait for the politicians any longer. We have a ton of people talking about what needs to happen, but no one seems to be making much progress. That is plea to you today. Everyone sitting in this room understands the many challenges ahead; however, you are in a unique position, in that you can use to your advantage to start making change. Your role as a public relations specialist puts you in the driver’s seat of change. You can make a difference and you have to be willing to make some radical leaps in your thinking, be ready and willing to fail from time to time, and more than anything lead the way to a new tomorrow for the children you serve.

You have to lead the charge to something new, something I like to call public education 2.0.

Thanks for your time, questions, and attention.


2 thoughts on “Reworking Public Schools: A Marketing Perspective

  1. I love this, but I think you are too innovative for this group.
    Is it possible to “baby step” into this? How would that work?
    I think many of the PR professionals in education would take too close-minded of a view because they are too imbedded in the very system you are trying to change. In essence, the people you are presenting to need to better understand the philosophy of the new culture you are trying to create. I think they may almost need a starter course in Disney U or one of the others you suggested. I really do like this concept, especially considering how broken education is. Don’t mean to be a stumbling block, but I do sound like one…sorry.

    1. Thanks for the comments. Is it too radical? I guess that is exactly what I was going for in some ways. Having worked “in the system” I am well aware of how entrenched people get. Sometimes you have to shock them a bit to get them thinking about things from a new perspective.

      If I were baby stepping them into this, I think I would start from Daniel Pink’s perspective about what the future holds for so many of us. It would be pretty easy to lay out a case for change and stop there. Pink is all about creating innovative cultures and there are many stories to tell that I am sure your group could relate to.

      I have another post coming out later this week about Pink’s book. Check it out and let me know what you think (actually, I think there will be two posts – one a book review, another with some additional thoughts.

      Thanks for the insights,


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