Small PR staff a surprise to COMPASS attendees

Newsletter should be mailed, 90 percent of participants say

By BURKE WASSON

While the Facilitating Team for the Mehlville School District’s public-engagement process recently stressed the need for a district communications plan, participants at a community-engagement session last week said they are surprised at the communication department’s “understaffing.”

An estimated 132 people — 77 residents and 55 district employees — in attendance at the Jan. 14 session identified the district’s small number of communications staff members compared to other districts as their top surprise in an assessment of the district’s communications.

Based on 2007 figures, the Mehlville School District has two communications employees for a ratio of 5,603 pupils per communications employee.

Compared to other school districts’ communications departments, Rockwood had 2,004 pupils per employee, Lindbergh had 1,866 pupils per employee, Parkway had 1,843 pupils per employee, Clayton had 1,333 pupils per employee, Pattonville had 1,151 pupils per employee, Ladue had 1,067 pupils per employee, Ritenour had 1,041 pupils per employee and Kirkwood had 527 pupils per employee.

But to combat the district’s perceived understaffing in communications, the Mehlville Board of Education voted unanimously in August 2007 to pay an additional $77,000 to consulting firm UNICOM•ARC for assistance and guidance in the district’s public-relations department through June 30.

UNICOM was originally hired in November 2006 to organize and assist the district’s public-engagement program, which eventually became the district’s public-engagement program, COMPASS — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools.

Between its services for COMPASS and the district’s public-relations department, UNICOM will have received a total of $132,000 from the district.

That’s on top of the $73,618 salary that Director of School/Community Relations Patrick Wallace is receiving for the 2007-2008 school year.

Based on 2007 statistics, Mehlville’s communications staffing paled in comparison to communications staffing at such districts as Lindbergh’s three employees, Ladue’s equivalent of 3.3 employees, Pattonville’s five employees, Ritenour’s six employees, Kirkwood’s 10 employees, Park-way’s 10 employees and Rockwood’s 11 employees.

Participants at last week’s COMPASS session also developed the following conclusions:

• More than 95 percent believe it is “very important” for the district to focus on the quality of its Web site to enhance communication efforts.

• More than 90 percent would prefer to receive the district’s newsletter, the Mehlville Messenger, through direct mail rather than through its current method of insertion into the Suburban Journals newspapers.

• More than 80 percent would prefer that the Mehlville Messenger continue to be published monthly as opposed to less frequently.

• More than 70 percent would prefer to receive information about the school district in the Mehlville Messenger as op-posed to the district’s Web site and local media.

• Roughly 42 percent believe the district’s Web site is “not so good,” 33 percent believe the site is “good” and 25 percent believe it is “poor.”

COMPASS attendants last week were presented a status report of the district’s communication by Kathleen Woehrmann, the director of communications for Cooperating School Districts. She has previously worked in communications for the Parkway, Pattonville and Rockwood school districts.

A comparison of the Mehlville School District and other local school districts to 11 key characteristics identified by Woehrmann as indicative of a school district that performs well in communication also was shown to the public.

Those district characteristics include: focused on supporting and promoting district goals and objectives; guided by regular research; directed by an annual strategic-communications plan; planning and implementing internal/external communication strategies to reach appropriate audiences; valued by the superintendent and school board and viewed as integral function; positioned as a direct report to the superintendent and represented as a strategic member of the district’s leadership team; supported by appropriate funds, staff allocation, equipment and materials.

Also: dedicated to promoting a consistent, professional image for the district; advised by school and corporate communications professionals regarding trends and best practices; prepared and ready to provide leadership/professional assistance in district crisis and issues management; and respected by media in promoting accurate and timely information to district constituents.

But to tie in all of these characteristics as well as a consistent message from the district, Woehrmann and Facilitating Team members also have advocated the need for a strategic-communications plan, which Wallace recently told the Facilitating Team that the district has not had.

Compared to other school districts, Woehrmann showed that only Mehlville — whose administrators are developing a communications plan — and Kirkwood are not directed by a strategic-communications plan.

Along with drafting a communications plan directed at specific target audiences with defined themes, the COMPASS Facilitating Team also stressed its desire to do so in a cost-effective manner.

Facilitating Team member Paul Goldak previously said that while it is important that the school district form a communications plan with the public, it needs to be tailored to the public’s views of what is necessary information instead of the district’s views.

Additionally, Facilitating Team co-chair Dan Fowler also has recognized that even with a defined plan, public attention to the district will always be amplified because the Board of Education is one of the few elected local governments within the school district’s boundaries.

Because of this, Fowler recommends that a method to address that extra attention be included in any communications plan.

Other comparisons show that Mehlville is among six of the nine school districts in Woehrmann’s study that is being guided through regular communications research. Mehlville began that effort last summer, and Kirkwood and Lindbergh are not guided by communications research.