New York State School Boards Association

Study looks at value of NYS school PR

by Gayle Simidian

On Board Online • October 14, 2013

By Gayle Simidian
Research Analyst

7aWhen Catherine Knight had to choose a topic for her doctoral thesis at Fordham University, she knew exactly what she wanted to study. She is coordinator of public information for Garden City Public Schools in Nassau County, and she wanted to investigate the impact of school district public relations staff on school budget votes.

She looked at three years of budget votes, from 2009-10 to 2011-12. About half of New York State public schools employed public relations staff during those years.

Her hypothesis was that districts with PR professionals would tend to have budgets approved on the first vote in greater numbers than those without such staff.

Although it’s unlawful to use school resources to exhort the votes to pass a school budget, PR professionals help districts provide objective information to voters. And year-round PR efforts such as newsletters, calendars, websites and social media vehicles help the public understand how the district is pursuing and achieving educational goals.

Knight found that her hypothesis was “weakly supported” by the data. The approval rates on first ballots for that three-year period were quite high, averaging 94.3 percent. Districts that had at least one staff member or a BOCES staff member handling PR enjoyed a passage rate that was 1 percent higher.

However, she found that the passage rate increased to 98.1 percent – almost a 4 percent boost – among districts whose PR staff have access to professional development and peer support through membership in state and national PR organizations (the New York School Public Relations Association and the National School Public Relations Association).

But she isn’t ready to declare that there is a positive relationship between having PR personnel and budget vote passage. “There wasn’t enough in the sample to statistically analyze the correlation” between the two, Knight told NYSSBA. She hopes others will expand on her research on the relationship between school PR and budget passage.

Knight’s doctoral thesis also offers a lot of general information about school PR in New York State. She solicited information from superintendents, got information from the State Education Department and conducted a 52-question survey that asked about PR personnel demographics, work relationships and salaries.

Knight sent her survey to 692 New York State superintendents and 37 BOCES superintendents (excluding the “Big 5” school districts) to forward to their PR personnel, if applicable. One hundred and seven participants partially or fully completed surveys, and many worked in more than one district. For example, 52 respondents serving 274 school districts were employed either through BOCES or the private sector. So, survey responses accounted for about 92 percent of districts that had PR staff during the study’s duration.

Participants were employed by suburban (66 percent), rural (24.5 percent) and urban school districts (9.4 percent).

Knight found that bigger and wealthier school districts had more PR staff than poorer districts, and the majority of PR staff in school districts were women between 50-59 years of age employed full-time (80 percent). Only 44 percent belong to the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) while a higher percentage (68 percent) belong to the New York State School Public Relations Association (NYSPRA).

About 68 percent said they were the only PR staff in their school district, according to the survey. Almost one-half of those surveyed (47 percent) were direct hires of their school district, 48 percent were employed by BOCES and 4.7 percent were employed by the private sector.

While the 2010-11 national “mean of average salary” was $84,629, 60 percent of those surveyed by Knight had a maximum salary of $69,999.

In general, full-time male PR personnel working in New York State make more than their female counterparts. For example, 31.8 percent of men who responded to a question about salary made at least $100,000 in contrast to 3.3 percent of the women. And 18.2 percent of the men earned less than $50,000 versus 36.1 percent of the women, Knight found “no statistical significance in feelings of satisfaction and efficacy … between this group and those who were paid higher salaries.”

Regarding work relationships, 90 percent of those surveyed stated they had a strong work relationship with their direct supervisor, and almost three-quarters of them directly report to the superintendent. They indicated their relationship with those on the board of education was less strong, with “41.2 percent of 97 respondents indicating they `hardly ever’ interact” with them.

Further analyses showed the importance of positive work relationships on PR staff well-being. Knight states that both the PR staff’s working relationship with their superintendent and other school leaders is an important factor of job satisfaction.”

Knight says school boards should consider having dedicated PR personnel for four reasons:

  • Increased use of technology for communication.
  • Greater emphasis on transparency.
  • The need to explain school reform and testing issues to the public.
  • Current economic conditions and the challenges they pose for school districts dependent on public support.

Her recommendations include bolstering membership in national and state PR organizations to enhance professional development opportunities, developing a universal evaluation rubric for PR staff, making salaries more equitable nationwide, and leveling the salary differences between male and female PR personnel in New York State.

Although she says more research needs to be done, Knight says school boards ought to be confident that money spent on PR is worthwhile, especially in months preceding budget votes. “The employment of a community relations employee costs far less than the impact of even one failed budget,” she told NYSSBA.

Knight’s dissertation is available for purchase at http://disexpress.umi.com. The publication number is 3592034.

Editor’s Note: Knight and Garden City Superintendent Robert Feirsen will be speaking on “Aligning Public Perception with Reality: Six Steps to Branding Success” at 2:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 24 at NYSSBA’s Annual Convention in Rochester.


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