Talk to Me: How Schools Should Communicate With Parents

Compton Unified Parents Carlos Arredondo and Araceli Cortes attended the District’s Common Core symposium with their three children (from left to right) 10th-grader Carlos Arredondo Jr., kindergartner Brittany, and seventh-grader Jeffrey.

By Victor Abalos

The rush is now on for school districts to expand their “parent engagement” programs in an effort to comply with a new state mandate. But if previous parent engagement campaigns in this state are any measure, whatever school districts come up with will fall short and we simply can’t afford that any longer.

School districts must stop relying on passive parent “outreach and education” strategies and look to the marketing world for help, specifically social marketing.

Everyone in education knows that when parents are involved in their child’s education they do better. There’s no disputing the research. And Local Control Funding Formula now requires more rigorous parent engagement by all districts in this state.

But effective parent engagement impacts much more than student achievement:

  • It is the most effective way to combat at-risk behavior such as alcohol/drug use and violence.
  • It is the best way to implement student retention campaigns.
  • It can dramatically impact and improve attendance.
  • It is the best way to explain to parents (and voters) why they should support the district’s upcoming bond measures and any other district initiatives and projects.

In fact, there’s no end to what a district can accomplish once it effectively engages with a large segment of parents.


But how do you get parents “engaged” in an effective way? And what is effective “parent engagement?” This is particularly challenging in school districts with a high percentage of poor and working-class families.

Part of the challenge is that just about every school district thinks it already does a good job. Most of the school board members and administrators I’ve talked to will admit they could do better but they expressed satisfaction and sometimes pride in their efforts to productively engage their student’s parents.

But when you look at the research (check the Resources at the end of this blog) it’s hard to understand that perspective. Many times, it’s challenging to find school districts that even measure the effectiveness of their parent engagement in any meaningful way. They’ll provide numbers of parents that attend meetings as if that alone can tell you anything.

I don’t want to beat up on school districts over this. They are encumbered with so much reporting and measuring and quantifying it’s not surprising this area is a challenge. And during those conversations I’ve had with administrators and school policymakers about parent engagement I’ve always come away believing they genuinely want to connect with parents. But they’ve gotten trapped doing the same thing they’ve done year after year.


That’s why I believe school districts should utilize social marketing strategies to revitalize their parent engagement. I’m sure those words are making some educators cringe. I can hear the critics, “Marketing? We’re not in the business of selling anything!” But social marketing is not necessarily advertising.

Social marketing is the use of commercial marketing principles and techniques to improve the welfare of people and the physical, social and economic environment in which they live. It is a carefully planned, long-term approach to changing human behavior.

“What is Social Marketing?”

The key to social marketing is changing human behavior.

We have all been successful targets of social marketing. It’s why we don’t litter, or don’t smoke, or don’t start forest fires. These were all highly successful social marketing campaigns. Social marketing is a business “science” that relies heavily on research and measurement. It combines marketing and advertising with psychology and sociology. At it’s worst, depending on your point of view, it’s convinced us to buy crap we probably don’t need but at it’s best it has saved lives or at least helped us lead healthier lives.

An effective social marketing campaign works because it relies on proven strategies and tactics and it includes ways to measure whether the campaign is working. Most social marketing campaigns include:

  • A clearly identified Audience and research how to reach that Audience
  • Specific (and tested) Messages – “Your direct participation in your child’s education dramatically improves their chances of success” is only one example. And the messages must include responses to marketing opposition – “I’ve got two jobs. I’m too busy!”
  • A direct Call-to-Action – “Get involved and here’s how!”
  • Proven tactics connected to effective marketing – phone calls, social media, websites, PR, events, etc.
  • An understanding of the importance of language(s)
  • And especially measurement – surveys, focus groups, digital metrics, bounce-back cards, etc.

Traditionally, districts have approached parent engagement as “education” or “outreach” which too often involves passive strategies. They rely heavily on the belief that their target audience is just waiting to get this information and poised to take action. That used to work for most schools and it still works in some schools, particularly in higher income districts. But for poor and working class families that is just not true and if that describes your district I probably don’t need to convince you of that.

5479926_origAt the heart of parent engagement is a call to parents to get involved – to change their behavior and stop doing things that aren’t supportive of their child’s education and start doing things that are. Whether its enforcing an early bedtime, to ensure their children get plenty of sleep, to creating a homework space in the home, there’s a long list of things parents can do that don’t necessarily involve attending meetings or going to their child’s school.

Changing behavior is not an easy task. It requires getting an important message through to parents – a message in a language they understand and will listen to – and convincing them to take action. That doesn’t happen in one meeting or after one phone call. It takes time and persistence and the use of effective strategies that you can measure to make sure you’re headed in the right direction. In short – social marketing.

Most school districts are not prepared to develop and launch their own social marketing campaigns. But they already rely on outside support for staff training and professional development, research, IT support, construction and a host of other services. Communications and marketing should be on that list especially when it comes to parent engagement. They simply need to re-direct resources away from out-dated parent engagement strategies to effective social marketing campaigns. Remember, this should not generate additional costs. Districts already have resources committed to parent engagement and the state and feds are moving to provide additional resources.

The next step is the most challenging for school districts. If you don’t have a marketing or communications professional on your staff this is not the time to “make do.” And this is not PR. You shouldn’t ask your Public Information Officer or media person to do this – not if you’re interested in results. Public or community relations is not social marketing. It can, and should, be used in a marketing campaign but it’s not “the same thing.” If you didn’t know that, then please consider that evidence you need help.

Go find experts who have a proven track record and experience with schools. Insist on measurement. Once you have found your outside resource make sure they can demonstrate results. Try some agencies or consultants out first with a small project before committing to an RFP and long-term contract.

Getting thirty parents to an after-school event is a great start. Staying connected to those parents in a meaningful way after the meeting and convincing them to get involved is really the goal.


The Power of Parents – EdSource with New American Media

Ready or Not: How California School Districts are Reimagining Parent Engagement in the Era of Local Control Funding Formula – Families in Schools

Two Years of California’s Local Control Funding Formula – Policy Analysis for California Education

“There’s a Dateline crew in the lobby…”

I was invited recently to provide a short presentation on “crisis communications” to a group of California Young Democrats gathered in LA for the state Democratic Convention. “Crisis communications” is that adrenaline-generating mixture of experience, luck and timing that communications professionals attempt to practice when the TV live truck pulls up unannounced in front of your office. Someone important has done something embarrassing or been accused of doing something illegal or unethical. Oddly, it seems to occur most often to elected officials.

Preparing for the presentation provided me with a chance to consider how we as communications professionals handle these cases.  There are agencies like Sitrick, which have thrived in this practice and can claim they have successfully steered these unfortunate targets of the media’s unflinching gaze through this often torturous fifteen minutes of infamy. I had the chance to work with Lynne Doll at Rogers as a client once giving me a front row seat to a master at work. The industry lost an amazing professional with incredible integrity when she passed away in 2010.

But there are few communications professionals who have the experience and creativity to manage what can appear to be a very chaotic and uncontrollable situation. Some communications agencies and consultant only focus on helping their clients tell better lies.

Some people deserve the scrutiny. They’ve been caught red-handed violating our trust, our laws or both. Some were just in the wrong place at the really wrong time. But most were simply guilty of being human and being famous, or at least well-known. Whether drunk driving, cheating on their wives or husbands, or suffering from a drug or alcohol addiction — these are offenses we ourselves or someone close to us has experience with. When you’re a corporate CEO or a county supervisor, your drug addiction can become TV news fodder.

And it isn’t just individuals who need help in these situations. Institutions and companies often find themselves seeking “crisis communications” support. The city council that’s being criticized for a controversial public works project is going to find itself on the defensive and maybe the target of a recall if they don’t handle it right — and fast.

Some turn to communications professionals like us for help. We often begin that conversation by getting to the facts. There’s always more to the story that needs to — and should — get told. And when it’s true — she had too many glasses of wine at the reception, or he didn’t buy those concert tickets or he was cheating on his wife — the solution can be very simple. Own up to it. Admit it. Be honest.

Many of my communications colleagues will disagree with me here but as a reporter for more than twenty years, I watched my share of public officials, celebrities, and other high profile individuals, turn a human foible into front-page news and a career-ending scandal simply because they couldn’t summon the humility, and good sense, to own up. The public will forgive many things but they don’t seem to have much patience for a liar.

The so-called “news cycle” has shrunk down to hours and minutes. Your time in the glare of the disapproving scandal spotlight may not last very long these days. But the damage it can do to a person or organization’s reputation and credibility, can survive long after the media has moved on to someone else’s crisis.

Why Don’t Young Latino Men Vote?

Pew Hispanic Survey

Good news: Latino voters are making a significant impact on elections across the country.

Bad News: More than half of eligible Latino voters…don’t.

Why not? Thanks to our friends at Pew Hispanic, we have more fodder for this discussion. The numbers are clear and actually have been consistent for the past couple of years. While more than 11 million Latinos went to the polls last November, more than 12 million didn’t. Imagine the impact even a small percentage of those nonvoters could have if they made the effort. In spite of their growing numbers, Latinos continue to lag behind all other voters in this country.

Latino voter, 2013

Latino voter, 2013

This is bad news but it’s also not really news anymore. We’ve been hearing this for some time. And while there are many organizations such as NALEO, Voto Latino and others busy trying to figure this out, the fact remains the disparity between Latino voters and nonvoters is getting bigger.

Today’s news contains important information for those of us dedicated to using communications strategies to effect social and political change. The picture of who these voters are is getting clearer. According to the Pew survey, the largest percentage are young men who identify their Mexican roots.  And while we certainly need to find out why they aren’t voting, we can and should immediately begin to focus on who they listen to.

I can tell you who influences the young, Mexican-American men I know — the women in their lives: their mothers, grandmothers, wives, girlfriends, aunts and sisters. I know this isn’t scientific and to some, it probably sounds stereotypical, but we can immediately begin to impact this group if we start there. We can develop the right kinds of messages to “influential” Latinas to motivate the young men in their lives. NALEO Executive Director Arturo Vargas realized this after his organization invested in a similar survey last year and through focus groups discovered the powerful influence Latinas have regarding these kinds of issues in their families.

We can and probably should spend more money and more time trying to study this phenomenon.  But sometimes the solution isn’t that complicated.

It really is ok to stop talking

If you’re a public official or spokesperson, coming up with a great quote or sound-bite to encapsulate an idea or issue can be challenging. But what can be even more difficult for many is knowing when to stop talking once they’ve delivered the message.

Celeste Greig, in comments to a reporter at the site of the state GOP spring convention in Sacramento ran head-first into this challenge…and came away bloody.

Celeste Greig on rape and pregnancy

Greig, described in the piece as the President of the California Republican Assembly,  apparently was being critical of former Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin, who probably lost his election because of insensitive and biologically inaccurate comments about rape and pregnancy.

“That was an insensitive remark,” Greig said. “I’m sure he regretted it. He should have come back and apologized.”

Good comment. It served to distance the “new” GOP from the bumbling messaging that hamstrung them last election cycle. But Greig couldn’t just stop there.

“Granted, the percentage of pregnancies due to rape is small because it’s an act of violence, because the body is traumatized.” At this point her companions were probably trying to signal her to stop. But she went on.

“I don’t know what percentage of pregnancies are due to the violence of rape. Because of the trauma the body goes through, I don’t know what percentage of pregnancy results from the act.”

And with those two sentences Greig stepped into the same pile of you-know-what that Akin did. She has been appropriately criticized by California lawmakers and women’s right advocates for essentially endorsing Akin’s ignorance while ironically trying to distance the party from it.

In the words of my esteemed colleague, Edward F. Coghlan, sometimes we need to give people permission to shut up.

Scrutinizing Community Outreach

A recent LA Times Blog:

Councilmen question $3.8-million LAX public relations contracts

The story focuses on spending by LAX, one of the world’s largest airports, on what airport officials describe as a “public education program” around ongoing construction projects. The LA Councilman criticized the spending because of an alleged lack of transparency in awarding the contracts.

But if you read the story you’ll discover it isn’t really about transparency. It’s about local government spending tax dollars on “public relations contracts.” These kinds of contracts regularly generate news coverage, in my humble opinion, because the news media doesn’t like the idea of public agencies spending tax dollars on strategies designed to go around them. The hiring of PR and other communications professionals by public agencies is generally portrayed as either wasteful (why can’t staff do this work?) or as an attempt by the agency to hide something.

I used to be one of those reporters that loved this kind of story. PR people are easy targets: Spinmeisters, BS Artists, Damage Control Experts — there are other more derogatory terms we used. But in the 12 years I’ve been gone from news and spent doing this kind of work, my perspective, needless to say, has changed considerably.

I’m not naive. There are public agencies who waste lots of money on communications contracts — but not for the reasons you or many reporters probably entertain. And there’s no doubt some public officials reach out to “crisis communications” experts to cover up their crap. But I’ve come to believe that these contracts should to be used to make investments in public awareness…and more importantly, public engagement.

How can we expect our city’s residents, who are not only voters but also consumers of city services, to know what our local governments are doing? More importantly, how else can these government consumers — of garbage services, utilities, libraries, public safety, airports, buses, etc. — learn how to access the services their tax dollars are used for? That’s what these contract should be and in many cases are used for.

In the case of LAX, as a fairly frequent traveler, I want to know if there are terminals closed, parking lots changed, or any other issues that will help me maneuver my way through what is generally a stressful environment. LAX needs to find ways to get that information out. Add to that challenge our tendency to ignore most public information messages, so any awareness campaign needs to be designed and packaged in a way that’s engaging and interesting. That takes professionals and professionals cost money. With all due respect to most local government communications staff — that’s not their strength.

This isn’t a “PR” issue or a “spin campaign” — it’s public service. It isn’t about hiring an agency to organize news conferences or write press releases. It’s investing in innovative and creative communications strategies that we’ll pay attention to. As LAX’s Director of Media and PR explained:

“While we are building the airport the public is asking for, it will be complicated to navigate LAX over the next several years. Why wouldn’t we tell them all about the more than 25 Capital Improvement projects that are creating tens of thousands of jobs, without using any taxpayer dollars from the city’s general fund?”

While I recognize the attempt to put in a couple of “key messages” about LAX and its job creation efforts, I also appreciate the attempt to help me navigate a very large and complicated airport. Public dollars being spent to help us — what a concept.

JVA Group educates newly elected officials in LA and DC

Ed Coghlan fields question from Tappan Town Councilmember Michael Maturo

Ed Coghlan fields question from Tappan Town Councilmember Michael Maturo

JVA Group was recently invited to give presentations to newly elected officials from two national organizations.

In Los Angeles the Young Elected Officials Network invited us to talk to their members at their Education Policy Academy. Fifty elected leaders from across the country came together to listen to experts in the field of education policy and hopefully leave with a clearer vision for education reform in their respective communities.

In Washington DC, we provided three presentations to newly elected Latino officials at NALEO’s National Institute for Newly Elected Officials. Those presentations included media training in English (which Ed did) and in Spanish (by Janeth Hernandez). We also did a presentation on the power of storytelling in policy development.

Our pitch to these and other groups always focuses on the importance of making storytelling a critical part of policymaker’s communications strategies. When used effectively, storytelling can be used to shape the narrative around any issue. When you control the narrative, you can ensure your story gets told first and best.

How important is shaping the narrative when it comes to policy development or any other campaign? Ask Gov. Romney who ended up controlling the narrative of his campaign after his “47% speech.” Watch Congress wrestle with the president on who controls the narrative behind the fiscal cliff negotiations. When you can control the narrative, you have the best chance of determining the outcome of any debate or discussion. That’s why we always ask potential clients — “who’s telling your story?”

Race and Politics


My good friend and occasional colleague Mike Madrid is interviewed extensively in this recently broadcast documentary ostensibly about race and politics. Below is just a clip from the hour-long documentary. You can view the entire show at: race-2012

I have mixed feelings about the program. I’m glad the producers interviewed Mike — and there are several folks who speak articulately on the subject. But for those of us who “live the story” as we used to say in the news business, the material seemed to follow well-worn paths. It’s a difficult subject but because of that it requires more discussion. I think it can serve as a compelling tool for panels and group discussions but PBS all to often doesn’t allow producers to explore this subject matter more profoundly. Curious to get your take on the doc and your thoughts on what’s missing.