What’s the best way to stay up-to-date on school communications in this fast-changing world?
It’s a tough job, but I think the best answer is to surround yourself with others who do what you do. And one place to connect with all of them IRL is at the annual National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) summer seminar!
NSPRA is an association of nearly 3,000 members across the country who are focused on “developing professionals to communicate strategically, build trust and foster positive relationships in support of their school communities.”
The most recent NSPRA seminar was in St. Louis, MO in July 2023, and I was fortunate to have some time with Ashley-Michelle Thublin, APR to talk all about it! Ashley-Michelle is the Director of Strategic and Crisis Communications for Dublin City Schools in Georgia. Get ready for a Master Class in the latest trends for school communicators!
Attending NSPRA is a Job Requirement
When Ashley-Michelle accepted her job at Dublin City Schools, she asked that annual attendance at the NSPRA seminar be included in her job requirements.
In her own words: “I knew from my very first experience that these were my people and I needed to recurrently attend these events… If you’ve attended NSPRA, you know these are your people. They understand what you do, they get the nuances of being a public relations director in a school district. My superintendent, although fabulous, doesn’t fully comprehend all the facets of my role. However, at NSPRA, being in a room with 1,500 people who understand what you do, who understand the implications of dealing with social media trolls or an upset parent, that’s truly compelling. This job may not have me directly teaching a student, but what I do greatly impacts the school district.”
Ashley-Michelle’s superintendent, Dr. Frederick C. Williams, wholeheartedly agreed with her suggestion that she should attend NSPRA every year. He understood the value of the conference not just for networking but also for the knowledge gained and the innovative ideas she could bring back to Dublin City Schools.
By the way, if having this kind of support from leadership sounds like a dream, I have a blog all about how to ask for the funding you need for Professional Development. Go after it – you deserve it!
NSPRA Seminar in a Nutshell
Typically, the seminar starts with the pre-conference, held on Saturday and Sunday. The official kick-off for the conference usually happens on Sunday afternoon and includes an awards program and a speech from the incoming NSPRA president.
Sunday also kicks off the first mixer, which is an excellent opportunity to network and meet new people. A highlight of these events is getting to meet people that you have been following on Twitter!
On Monday morning, the formal sessions begin and continue through Tuesday. Die-hard conference attendees will pack their days from 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. – and there’s no shortage of session options. There are also several events during the evenings where you can socialize with new friends or attend events organized by vendors.
The conference ends on Wednesday with the Gold Medallion lunch, which is a great way to celebrate the BEST in School PR.
Getting the Most out of the NSPRA Seminar
Ashley-Michelle and I are both extroverts, so we are absolutely energized by meeting new people all day long! But what about those who don’t enjoy socializing or find it challenging?
Ashley-Michelle has this advice: “I believe the key to the NSPRA seminar is that you get out what you put in. A humorous yet profound motto from NSPRA a few years ago was, “Work Hard, Play Hard, Sleep When You Get Home.” I personally aspire to embody that motto during the seminar. I make an effort to participate in every activity I possibly can because I’m there to meet people and listen to their stories… The amount you enjoy and learn from NSPRA truly depends on what you’re willing to invest in the experience. My mindset is that these are my people and I want to interact with them as much as possible. For many, it’s like a small annual family reunion because these are people, especially those not from your state, whom you only get to see once a year!”
She also shared a valuable tip: If you attend a session that piques your interest to learn more, grab dinner with the speaker so you can pick their brain and learn about their strategies and tactics. This might be a less high-pressure way to meet people since it’s a targeted approach.
Key Takeaways and Trends from NSPRA 2023
We could’ve talked for hours about all the takeaways from NSPRA! But it boiled down to these main areas that we saw as the most impactful for school communicators in the year ahead.
Focusing on Enrollment
While Ashley-Michelle’s district didn’t see a significant drop in enrollment numbers post-COVID, they did remain fairly stagnant, so adopting new strategies and tactics for their enrollment campaign is a top priority.
She got the most out of “Wish You Were Here: The Relationship Strategy of Enrollment Marketing” presented by the Salina Unified School District, which was an NSPRA Gold Medallion winner. The district’s “Greatness Grows Here” marketing campaign helped grow enrollment – surpassing the goal – and strengthened the overall brand.
The keys to enrollment success for Salina included “key messaging, face-to-face marketing events and community outreach,” according to this article.
Crisis Communications and the People We Protect
As school communicators, we all deal with crises at one point or another. A particularly impactful NSPRA session came from St. Louis Public Schools: “The Club You Never Wanted to Join.” It covered their response to a school shooting.
Another impactful session was with Greg Turchetta from the Richland School District Two in South Carolina, who spoke on “From the Frying Pan to the Fire: How to Thrive in Chaos.” It is focused on protecting your superintendent amid chaos or crisis. The key takeaway from this session was how crucial it is to safeguard the leadership, particularly during times of distress.
Ashley-Michelle shared: “Especially when you work closely with your superintendent, as I do, you get to understand the personal aspect of their lives. It’s not just professional; sometimes, I find myself telling my superintendent that he needs a break, to spend time with family, or to stay hydrated. The key here is recognizing that our superintendents, and bosses, are people too. They’ve taken on the enormous responsibility of leading their district, but that doesn’t in any way negate their human aspects. They, too, are affected by chaos, pressures, and dilemmas. That’s why sessions focused on protecting the leadership, especially during crises, made a significant impression on me.”
Artificial Intelligence in #SchoolPR
Ashley-Michelle agreed that AI was a key discussion point at this year’s NSPRA seminar, too. She said: “Within the Georgia School Public Relations board, we’re placing significant emphasis on ChatGPT and AI for our upcoming conference. The goal is not just to enhance school public relations, but also to aid educators in their interactions with students and parents.”
Just last week, we brought one of the AI sessions to our membership group! Rebecca Bultsma from Westwind School Division in Alberta, Canada shared her presentation titled, “ChatGPT Central Perk – Making FRIENDS with AI.”
Rebecca taught us ChatGPT hacks to maximize efficiency, the basics of generating incredible photos with Midjourney, and how school communicators can use AI in every aspect of their role – from crisis communications to research.
Involving Students in Storytelling
A significant theme was how to involve students in your storytelling process, specifically on social media. This helps in keeping up with the continuous content demand while also maximizing engagement on your platforms!
Inspired by NSPRA, Ashley-Michelle now has two students serving as Communications Apprentices on her team. One apprentice aspires to enhance her photography and Facebook proficiency, while the other wishes to delve into videography. To help reach their goals, Ashley-Michelle crafted a roadmap, focusing on their unique aspirations, based on tips she learned from Jill Filer, Director of Communications at Harrisonville Schools, Missouri. The students are responsible for weekly features and biweekly newsletters and are also researching to see what other schools are doing.
Ashley-Michelle shared: “I’m thrilled with their dedication and commitment to make this experience meaningful! In just our second week back to school, they already offer incredible ideas and insight. I believe it’s essential to cultivate these skills in students interested in Communications and Public Relations, giving them real-world experiences, getting them ready for college and their future careers. We are not just taking them to various events but aiming to make this initiative sustainable and impactful.”
She continued: “Even though it’s more responsibility on an already busy schedule, it’s inspiring to see the ideas and enthusiasm they bring. We often overlook that we have these creative minds right in our schools, even at the K-8 level. If we can just steer these passionate students in the right direction, the results could be astounding.”
Did you attend NSPRA 2023? I’d love to hear some of your key takeaways and trends that you observed while hanging out with 1500 of your closest #SchoolPR friends. Comment below!