Last winter two outside consultants from the National School Public Relations Association conducted a comprehensive audit of the communications functions at Oak Park and River Forest High School. The consultants prepared and presented to the school administration and District 200 school board a 58-page report that contained its analysis and came up with seven major recommendations to improve the school’s communications and public relations efforts. OPRF administrators have been somewhat frustrated at what they see as a perception of OPRF that doesn’t jibe with reality.

One takeaway from the report was that OPRF parents and staff members have a more positive view than members of the community who do not have a direct relationship with the school. While 77 percent of OPRF parents and 61 percent of school staff rate the school as excellent or above average, only 34 percent of the non-parent community did the same. Reaching out to non-parents will be a focus going forward.

“I would say that, overall, I was very pleased with the results,” said Karin Sullivan, OPRF’s executive director of communications. “They were largely positive, especially from the perspective of our families and from our employees. There are always things we can improve, but on the whole those folks have very positive feelings about our communications. Where we really need to do better is communicating with the community, so that’s definitely a focus of mine for the coming year.”

The report identified many strengths at OPRF saying the school is widely viewed, especially by parents and staff, as a high-performing school with a proud tradition. It notes that the school produces and sends out a large volume of communication materials and described Superintendent Greg Johnson as a “skilled communicator who understands the importance of public relations.” But the consultants say there is much the school can do to make its public relations efforts more effective, especially by making its communications more targeted and focused.

The consultants conducted surveys and focus groups. Survey data showed that community members who are not OPRF parents or staff are far more reliant on “local media sources,” which the report said means Wednesday Journal, for information about the school, than on parents or staff members. Local news media was the top source of information about OPRF for community members who are not parents or staff with 47 percent of those respondents saying that they always or often rely on the local news media for information about the high school. But local news media only ranked eighth for parents and 10th for staff members as a source of information about OPRF.

OPRF officials believe that reliance on the Wednesday Journal for news about OPRF by community members contributes to a negative perception of OPRF by some community members. They are sometimes frustrated that what they see as the good news about OPRF is being underreported.

“We need to do a better job of sharing all the positives,” Sullivan told Wednesday Journal. “People most closely connected to the school hear these things, but the broader community their biggest source of information is frankly, Wednesday Journal and you guys tend to cover the negative stories.”

However, the report also indicated that both parents and staff are often frustrated by a lack of information about incidents at OPRF.

“Participants in all parent and staff focus groups voiced concerns about communication when an incident happens during the school day,” the report said. “The consensus was that information is incomplete and that there is a lack of follow-up to let people know the situation was resolved.”

Teachers seemed especially frustrated.

“There were concerns expressed by staff about seeing school news in the local newspaper before getting information from school leaders or supervisors,” the report states. “Teachers said they are ‘frustrated’ by ‘incomplete’ information they get about incidents in the school.”

Overall the report stresses that OPRF needs to focus on getting its message out in a strategic manner. The seven major recommendations are that the school develop a strategic communications plan, add an issues management function to the communications office’s responsibilities, place a greater emphasis on professional development within the communications office, focus on procedures and protocols to improve communication, make communications more marketing-orientated, use social media and the revamped school website to engage stakeholders, and to implement tactics to engage stakeholders with no connection to the school.

“There are a lot of suggestions; the improvements won’t happen overnight,” Sullivan said. “There is a lot of information in there about how we can strengthen our program.”

Sullivan said her most immediate priorities are to develop a strategic communications plan and to publish and mail out a quarterly newsletter next year.

“We’re going to do a quarterly, probably a four-page, print newsletter that will be mailed to all residential addresses in Oak Park and River Forest four times a year,” Sullivan said.

The report emphasizes the importance of targeted communication, branding and staying on message. It recommends providing communications training to all staff and reminding staff that they are ambassadors for the school.

“Staff members should be prepared to relate one fact or story about an OPRFHS success or achievement and make it as powerful as possible, preferably something that is personal to the storyteller,” the report states, adding that staff should be reminded to be positive and not share problems or frustrations with community members.

“It is worth having staff members discuss how sharing personal complaints about their jobs, co-workers, or the school out in the community might negatively affect constituents’ overall trust and support of all OPRFHS initiatives,” the report states.

The communications department, meanwhile, should identify the “brand identity” of OPRF based on the school’s core values. It recommends putting the English translation of the school’s motto below the school’s treasured logo. The motto appears in Greek, Ta’Garista on the logo. That literally translates as the best and the OPRF motto is “Those Things That Are Best.”

“This motto can be used as a tagline in conjunction with the logo to give the logo more value as a branding marketing tool,” the report states. “With only three schools in Illinois offering Greek language studies, according to a 2017 American Councils report, this would help community members who do not read Greek know what is meant to be communicated to them by the logo.”

The report states that while most in the community have a positive impression of OPRF, believing it to be a very good school, there is a perception that the school leadership could be more cost-conscious.

The report states that many parents in focus groups expressed a desire to be more engaged with the school.

“Several suggested that OPRFHS try to revive its former parent-teacher organization, which is dormant due to lack of leadership,” the report states. “While most view the high level of parent involvement as a positive factor in the school’s success, some focus group participants called it a ‘curse’. They noted that parental expectations place added stress on school administrators and teachers, which they perceive as having led to higher-than-normal turnover of top administrators.”

The audit also noted that focus group members from what it described as “partner agencies” said they receive little or no information from OPRF.

“Several said they feel ‘unappreciated,’” the report notes.

The report was presented to the school board at the June 8 Committee of the Whole Meeting. School board members seemed impressed by the audit.

“This was a really good report,” said Tim Brandhorst.

But Fred Arkin was concerned to learn that most of the people who completed surveys and participated in the focus groups were white women.

“The people we primarily need to communicate with are those that are not responding,” Arkin said.

The communications department at OPRF is a two-person department, Sullivan and a communications and community relations coordinator. The coordinator position has been held by Jackie McGoey who resigned in late May to take a communications job with a Lincolnwood elementary school district.

Sullivan is currently seeking to hire someone to replace McGoey.

“We need somebody who can do video, who can do social media, who has a good design sense and can design a lot of publications, and really help shape some of our campaigns,” Sullivan said.

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