A universal language

International space stationOver the holiday weekend I watched a few things that solidified my appreciation for mathematics and science.

For two nights in a row the international space station “flew” over North Texas at a rate of about 27,700 km/hr (or 17,210 mi/hr). It looked like a star shining across the night sky. I watched in amazement that this man-made machine was orbiting the Earth with people inside. We’ve forgotten how cool space exploration can be.

I also watched as a control room of rocket scientists (seriously) cheered as the Phoenix Mars Lander made it safely to the red planet. For fun I started to follow the Mars lander on Twitter to get updates from the mission. (Note: This is a clever use of the micro-blogging platform.)

Lastly, I enjoyed some Mythbusters on the Discovery channel. They do some very cool, fun, and dangerous stuff on the show.

All three of these led me to a common theme: We would be lost without mathematics and science.

Consider what Thomas Friedman says in The World is Flat in the section called The Quiet Crisis where he explains the areas in which he believes the United States is deficient:

Today, we should be concerned about the gaps in our education, infrastructure, and ambitions that threaten to weaken us from within…

We simply are not educating, or even interesting, enough of our own young people in advanced math, science, and engineering…

It takes fifteen years to train a scientist or advanced engineer, starting from when that young man or woman first gets hooked on science and math in elementary school. Therefore, we should be embarking immediately on an all-hands-on-deck, no-holds-barred, no-budget-too-large crash program for science and engineering education.

I want to encourage young parents to consider working through fears of math (especially word problems) or science confusion. Seek out the answers to your kids’ questions to light that intellectual spark early in life.

Of course, we keep in mind the right-brain tools as well, but consider what Jodi Foster’s character, Ellie Arroway, in the 1997 movie Contact had to say: “Mathematics is the only true universal language.”

I’ll be encouraging my kids to appreciate math and science. I want them to know It will be ok to be smart. And who knows, maybe my kids or grandkids will be blogging from the moon.

New Media for School Districts

Being Social has its benefits!

How do you engage your district’s community?

How much do you rely on the traditional media to reach your community?
School PR people can have some fun with new media, but where does one begin?

There is a difference between talking to and talking with. It should be understood that social media, when applied correctly, like a conversation, is talking with a community.

New Media (or social media) can be categorized into 7 main types
[From Kami Huyse’s Communication Overtones blog: If the Shoe Fits…Social Media in Seven Boxes]

I. Publishing Platforms: These consist of platforms and tools that allow the author(s) to set the content of the initial offering. Most offer a way for others to comment on the content and include RSS feeds to syndicate the copy

II. Social Networking Sites: These sites allow users to interface by becoming friends and/or sharing favorites. They allow the individual user to have their own space, while also incorporating links and other connections to other users

III. Democratized Content Networks: These sites allow all users to contribute equally, usually with some sort of ability to vote for the best content, or to override, in the case of Wikis, previously submitted content.

IV. Virtual Networking Platforms: These often require third-party interfaces to participate (though some can be accessed through the browser), and consist of a virtual reality experience with other users.

V. Information Aggregators: These are publicly available, machine driven aggregators of niche content, usually with some human editing (such as adding RSS feeds) involved in the process.

VI. Edited Social News Platforms: These are sites where users recommend links and can make comments on the stories that make it through the human editors

VII. Content Distribution Sites:
Sites that allow the user create, collect and/or share content and distribute by providing RSS, code and/or e-mail options. Widgets would also fall into this category.

In School PR we can start by focusing on Categories I and II. (The others might have some school PR use and commenting on their uses is highly recommended.)

I. Publishing Platforms
Blogging – A school district official blog can be a great place to get the conversations going. Think of the district’s Web site as the source for information and a district blog as the water cooler, around which you engage in more of an opportunity for conversation

[Example from Mansfield ISD’s Your Mansfield ISD blog]

The basic idea behind the Your Mansfield ISD blog is that if your home is located within our district boundaries, our schools are your schools. And let’s face it – a school district is a large organization with lots of moving parts…Our goal with this blog is to simplify many of these complexities and also key you in on many of the great things that are going on.

Some considerations when starting a district blog: Do you have blogging policies/guidelines? Will commenting be turned on/off? Note: this one will make administrators nervous. What will you do if/when your staff decides to blog?

Podcasting – Podcasts from a school district can be integrated and, like blogging, become part of any effective communication plan. Many teachers are already using podcasting to engage students in and out of the classrooms. School PR people could explore this option at a district level as well.
[Example Grapevine-Colleyville ISD Off The Page Podcast.]

II. Social Networking Sites
For many school districts sites like YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, etc. are likely blocked from student/staff use because of potentially inappropriate content. In a few cases, sites such as Twitter, Flickr, LinkedIn, etc. are left open. I am not going to argue for or against any social networking site’s being blocked/unblocked at this point. But, when this opportunity arises I would encourage school PR people to explore the potential for district use. Consider creating a Facebook, Ning, or even MySpace profile for your school district.
[Example: Mansfield ISD uses Twitter: http://twitter.com/mansfieldisd, related post on districts using Twitter.]

These new media tools can be used to deliver relevant and useful content to communities in a format that is either already gained in popularity or continues to be on the rise. Either way, catching up or keeping up with social media’s impact on school communications is at least worth looking into or even worth jumping into with both feet.

School districts could Twitter too

twitterI believe there are useful applications of Twitter (and other microblogging sites) for school districts.

I recently started using Twitter after listening to Geoff Livingston at a Ft. Worth PRSA luncheon earlier in the year. He was helping us understand how to integrate social media into communications plans (and sell a few copies of his book, Now is Gone, which is really an excellent read.)

I became hooked on this online tool. I started noticing many organizations using it as well for various uses (DFW Airport, CNN, Red Cross, etc.) and I began to think that school districts could (and probably should) use this microblogging tool for updates. As more and more people become aware and use social media tools like Twitter, it is imperative that school districts go where the people are to get stories out.

We setup the Mansfield ISD Twitter account and began with a few posts. We were met with mild success so far without much in the way of publicity. The only thing done at first was a soft-launch in the district’s blog. This received a mention in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Education Blog. We even received a nice tweet from a follower.

Our communities are quickly coming around to using new media tools. It is our job as communication professionals to move forward (or in some cases keep up) with the conversation.

So how do you get some Twitter love for your district? Try some of these resources:

I suggest using Twitter to post general (read: useful) happenings, articles, pages, etc. from a district’s Web site. Plus, consider using a “tweet” (yes, that’s really what they are called) to give updates in the event of problems that tend to arise. I’d like to see if others are considering or are currently using Twitter in this way.

Don’t forget the online pressroom

I planned to present a round-table session covering Online Pressrooms at the 2008 Texas School Public Relations Association Conference in Houston, TX in February. However, life has a way of adjusting plans. What I wanted to tell attendees was that an online pressroom wasn’t a luxury that school districts could take lightly, but rather an integral piece of a Web site.

An online pressoom can be used as a simple and effective gateway to the important pieces of news and announcements for a school district’s stakeholders: parents, students, staff, community, and media. Notice that I put the media at the end. This is intentional because the traditional media should not be the primary way a school district gets its message out. If managed correctly, a school district’s Web site will be the first place the community will go to get accurate information. They may get stories (good/bad) from the media, but our communities should be engaged directly, not indirectly via our media friends.

School districts and their PR/Communication professionals should be maintaining online pressrooms on their Web sites. It can be called many things (Press Room, News, News Room, District News, News & Media, etc.) but it must be easily found, easily read, and easily updated.

In an article in PR Tactics, Ibrey Woodall cites an annual survey conducted by TEKgroup International, which was distributed via email to more than 5,000 journalists. Among the elements of an online press room most important to the respondents were press releases (92 percent), a search module (85 percent), PR contacts (84 percent) and product information (76 percent) – for school districts, this may include information about the board, administration, general district info, etc.

Some district’s are already doing a pretty good job with this:

There are more but you get the idea. Get more online pressroom samples and other useful links.

Just remember to include the following:

  • Put the emphasis on information and navigation
  • Complete PR contact information
  • Make the title of the release a link to the full text
  • Don’t remove your old releases

This is certainly not a complete list, rather some things that usually get left out. Bottom-line: no district’s site is complete without the online newsroom. Get the basics down, then move on to the Social Media Newsroom…

Do Schools Kill Creativity?

I found a informative and disturbing video from Sir Ken Robinson @ TED sharing ideas on education and posing the simple question: Do schools kill creativity? I recommend reviewing this video (running time 19:29) and thinking about what you remember about school. I’ve heard it said that if you were to bring someone from the past, say from 1960, and showed them your kitchen, they would likely be amazed to see the various electronic contraptions available to ease the burdens of cooking. They would also be astounded at the flat TV hanging on the wall with crystal-clear images. They might even be uncomfortable at all of the advancements in everyday life. But, put them in a typical classroom of today and they would likely feel right at home: a teacher at the front of the classroom talking to a group of students sitting at desks.

What makes schools so different that we don’t spend the same resources to aid the instruction to make life better for our students and teachers? Many advancements have taken shape and technology integration in classrooms is well beyond where it used to be, but we could do so much better.

Things are changing (for the better) and I look forward to the advancements that my kids will enjoy in their educational experiences. When the focus is truly on the students needs, education will have evolved:

Let’s get started…

People are social creatures and long to communicate. Clearly I am not breaking any new ground in anthropology, sociology, or biology. What I hope to deliver is an interesting if not entertaining take on communication, public relations, education, and anything else that strikes me as interesting along the way. My jump into the blogosphere stems from a recent decision to get off the sidelines and play with some social media tools in order to hone my communication skills. Should go along nicely with my other skills. You know, like nunchuku skills, bow hunting skills, computer hacking skills…

As a school PR guy, I believe there obvious opportunities for educational institutions to use the online tools that are available to engage communities. More to come on this later. I don’t agree with the notion that our educational system is broken, specifically public education. I believe public school districts are doing what they can with the resources they have been given, under the requirements thrust on them by state and federal decisions. I’ll probably get into some of this later as well. That’s it for now.