Marketing NCLB

On several occasions, Eduflack has advocated for a national “marketing” effort for NCLB, seeing public support and demand for the law as one of the only means to get it reauthorized with real improvements, but without significant overhaul.  Earlier this week, a reader asked, “Wonder what I would write for a NCLB marketing campaign. Isn’t Spellings a walking sound bite?”

Anyone who has been reading the ed blogs — particularly Alexander Russo’s — knows there’s been a lot of talk about the teacher unions’ ability to scuttle any talk of NCLB reauthorization this year.  AFT and NEA deserve a lot of credit for their execution of a good communications strategy.  They were able to control the NCLB story, keeping it an inside baseball discussion and limiting to a small collection of policy wonks, education organizations, researchers, and, at times, ed bloggers.  Thus it was easy for the House and Senate decisionmakers to table the issue for a new year.  The unions planned and executed an effort  that worked.  The set a goal, the set the terms of debate, and they dominated the discussion.  That’ll get you victory on just about any stage.

Which gets us back to the question about a marketing campaign.  Are communications victories won by sound bite, or won by solid strategy?  If we go with the former, Margaret Spellings should indeed be taking a victory lap on NCLB reauthorization.  Last year, she deemed the law, like Ivory soap, 99.99% effective.  And this year, she’s had many a good turn of phrase with the education media, the general media, Jon Stewart, and countless others.  Yes, she knows her message, nows how to stick to it, and knows how to get folks to listen to it.

The NCLBers are fine when it comes to message.  The law works.  It’s effective.  We have data to prove it.  Education improvement shouldn’t be flavor of the month.  Et cetera, et cetera.  But message is one of the last pieces to the effective strategy.  And in many ways, the U.S. Department of Education has skipped over many of the needed steps, in the hopes of advancing directly to Boardwalk and Park Place.

What’s missing?  Eduflack suggests a few key components to a solid communications strategy:

* Goals — Media coverage is not a goal for a communications plan.  Goals are things like effective implementation, reauthorization, teacher recruitment, etc.  Any campaign needs clear and achievable goals.  And we must recognize we can’t be everything to everybody.  If we have multiple goals, we may need multiple strategies to get there.

* Analysis and Application of Research — No, I’m not talking the student achievement data.  Year after year, we get public opinion surveys from PDK, NEA, and others charting NCLB satisfaction.  That data should be analyzed, broken down, and used as a foundation for communications planning.  It tells you what messages work, and what don’t.  And it provides third-party validation for communications activities.

* Audience Identification and Segmentation — Who are we talking to?  For years, NCLB was a dialogue between ED and educational researchers.  It should be a discussion on Main Street USA, not in the ivory towers.  Who is important to getting the law effectively implemented?  Who is important to getting it reauthorized?  It’s parents, teachers, business leaders, and community leaders across the country.  It may be easier dealing with the AFT then rank-and-file teachers, but those individual teachers are the ones who carry the message into the classroom.

* Message Development — Some like to call these sound bites, but sound bites are canned sentences.  Messages are the themes that all should be communicating.  Whether it be the SecEd or the Secretary of Labor talking about jobs, the message needs to be on the need for NCLB, the progress to date, and the impact it will have on education and economy for decades to come.

* Relationship Development — Be it the media, influencers, organizational leaders, or the like, relationships are key.  The days when ED could exclude organizations from the debate are over.  They need all the help they can get on NCLB, and need to build the relationships that result in that help.

Then we get into the PR 101.  Media relations.  Public events.  Conferences.  New media/Internet.  Speaking opportunities.  Etc.  These are the tactical pieces that ED tends to do well.  The key is to bring them together under one umbrella, so all activities are working toward a singular, clear goal.  If the tactic doesn’t help us reach the goal, then it isn’t necessarily worth doing.  Time is precious.  We use it on those activities that make a difference.

This is just the early outline of what an NCLB marketing plan needs to focus on.  Sound bites are great, but they are a tactic, not a strategy.  Just like the law itself, an NCLB communications plan needs goals.  It needs methods of measurement.  It needs feedback loops.  It needs highly qualified professionals.  It needs accountability.

Get a half-dozen communications professionals (with education policy knowledge) in a room for a day.  Set some programmatic goals.  Embrace the Yankelovich model for changing public behavior.  And you could have a real blueprint for selling NCLB across the nation, and moving the debate from inside the ed blob to onto Main Street USA. 

NCLB is all about doing what works.  This sort of approach works.  And it may be the only way we see NCLB reauthorization before the end of 2009. 

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