Years ago, when Eduflack was working in the proprietary university space, he had a boss who could market just about anything. He was the sort of salesman who could get you to slay dragons with a butter knife, believing that the right brochure, an effective website, and the right messaging platform could sell just about anything. And with him leading the pitch, he usually could sell anything to anyone.
Of course, he did so by under-promising and over-delivering. He identified the one issue that kept a state education official or a superintendent up at night, keyed right in on it, demonstrated empathy, and offered to help. It almost didn’t matter WHAT he was selling, other than he was selling understanding and the promise of a solution to all that ailed a given educational leader. Educators bought peace of mind. He closed a deal.
And so goes the circle of life in education sales. We expect to have companies and entrepreneurs approach school districts with the latest or best shiny object. We expect sales to happen. And we expect those pitches to be more savvy and sophisticated than they have ever been.
But when, exactly, did we expect to see the school district transform into the salesman? Over the weekend, The Washington Post ran a piece on how the school district in Alexandria, Virginia had tapped the services of a marketing guru/adman to help promote the schools and better position them for private and philanthropic support.
Mad Men has officially hit our local school districts. Instead of peddling Pan Am Airlines or the latest cigarette, we are now selling the emotional connection with our local school district.
Alexandria’s motives are noble. It’s nationally known high school — T.C. Williams — is on the persistently lowest achieving list. The large districts surrounding it — notably Fairfax County and Arlington County — are some of the best school districts in the nation. And with so much money floating around school improvement these days, who wouldn’t ask how to draw more attention to Alexandria to gain some of those non-governmental dollars?
But while the motives are noble, the execution is disappointing. Don’t get me wrong. No one is more of an advocate for effective communications in K-12 education than Eduflack. I have many good friends who manage communications for school districts or who work with states, LEAs, and schools on how to effectively position them. And I myself have worked with many and SEA and LEA on communications and outreach.
But such efforts are usually focused on outcomes and results. That old entrepreneur of a boss taught me that you always under-promise and over-deliver, particularly in education. You don’t talk about what you can do or what you might do, you focus on what you’ve done. It may take a little longer, but the time is well worth the effort. Focus on student test scores or recent gains. Target the quality of your teachers and the number of NBCTs on staff. Key in on ratios or spending levels. Find the data that demonstrates your excellence, and use that as your lead to show that the schools are headed in the right direction.
Unfortunately, at least the way WaPo tells the story, Alexandria seems to think that a good slogan is going to fix all that ails their suburban school district. They brought in the “Where’s the Beef?” guy from Wendy’s to help with their marketing efforts. And while he isn’t promising they will necessarily get a new slogan or tagline as a result of his work, he is already market testing two slogans for the LEA. The first, “Try us, you’ll like us.” The second, “ACPS — it’s Alexandria’s best kept secret.”
Really? That’s the best we have? One slogan that can be applied to the latest widget, snack cake, or diet drink and another that’s been recycled by virtually every tourism campaign for a third-rate attraction?
Perhaps I am overreacting here, but this seems to be an exercise of re-arranging the deck chairs. Put the money into additional supports for teachers or additional tutoring for students. A slogan isn’t going to get T.C. Williams off the persistently lowest achieving list. Good teaching, good learning, and good data collection will. So rather than channeling its inner Don Draper, perhaps Alexandria needs a little more Mr. Holland.