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Friends in High Places:
States Legislators as Targets of Public School PR Campaigns
Tien-Tsung Lee, Ph.D.
Edward Murrow School of Communication
Washington State University
PO Box 642520
Pullman, WA 99164-2520
Phone: (509) 335-0113
E-mail: [log in to unmask]
Mark M. Havens, J.D.
Public Relations and Fundraising Consultant
429 First Avenue #208
Lewiston, ID 83501
Phone: (208) 746-7116
E-mail: [log in to unmask]
Paper submitted to the Public Relations Division, 2004 AEJMC Annual
Convention for consideration for presentation
Friends in High Places:
States Legislators as Targets of Public School PR Campaigns
State legislators are an essential public for school public relations
efforts at any time, but especially during a state budget crisis. To
identify effective ways to target this audience, a mail survey of all 105
Idaho state senators and House representatives was launched in May 2002.
Findings reveal the most common channels through which legislators receive
information about public schools, their self-estimated level of knowledge
on various issues, and factors affecting their knowledge. Because
legislators rarely rely on the news media for information on public
schools, school PR campaigns should not utilize this channel. Alternatives
are discussed. Such knowledge may be applicable in other states.
Friends in High Places:
States Legislators as Targets of Public School PR Campaigns
Due to state budget deficits, public schools and colleges across the
United States have been receiving less funding from their state
governments. This is a time when support from state legislators is crucial
(Ewen & Hart, 2003; Finnegan, 2003; Hernandez, 2003; Mannies, 2003; Wong,
1999; Zoeckler, 2003).
Although textbooks have offered helpful information on public relations
efforts for public schools (e.g., Cutlip, Center, & Broom, 2000; Hughes &
Hooper, 2000; Kowalski, 2004), little advice is found in existing
literature on how to target this important audience. The present study
seeks to fill this void.
There are many channels of communication between public schools and state
legislators. Dealing with the media is an essential duty of school PR
practitioners. The news media appear to be a good source of information on
public schools for this and other audiences (Conners, 2000; Ordovensky &
Mark, 1993). The present research will examine this assumption and attempt
to identify other effective channels.
Key Publics for School PR during a Budget Crisis
According to Cutlip, Center and Broom (2000: 538), the four main
objectives of public relations for public schools: 1) "Increasing awareness
of education and heading off misinformation and rumor"; 2) "Building the
public support necessary to obtain adequate funds"; 3) "Gaining public
acceptance and cooperation in making educational changes;" and 4) "Building
amicable working relationships with news executive and reporters." The
authors also identified seven key internal and external publics: board of
education members, school employees, students, parents, business community,
community groups, and local news media. This thorough list covers PR
audiences in normal circumstances. Elsewhere in the book by Cutlip and
colleagues, political lobbying in general is discussed. A particular or
alternative audience may have to be chosen due to a specific PR problem
(Austin & Pinkleton, 2001). As discussed earlier, during a budget crisis,
one's state legislators should be considered a critical target. Therefore,
the "public" on the issue of education funding should include state
Working with the news media is a crucial element in many school PR
efforts, which is reflected by the content of school PR manuals (e.g.,
Hughes & Hooper, 2000; Kowalski, 2004). Entire books on how to work with
the media from a PR standpoint have been written also (Conners, 2000;
Ordovensky & Mark, 1993). However, the news media may not be an effective
channel to convey positive (and accurate) information about public schools
to this particular audience.
Patrick Jackson (2002), a PR veteran who has addressed the National School
Public Relations Association (NSPRA) multiple times, questioned the
effectiveness and usefulness of the news media as a channel for schools to
generate public support. Also, state legislators may not have access to
news on school districts outside their electoral constituencies. For
example, a key member on the education committee who lives in one area of a
state may never read a newspaper from another part of the state. In such a
case, public school districts in other areas will have to rely on other
channels to serve the informational needs of this lawmaker. Therefore,
alternative channels should be identified, and a mail survey is an
effective research method (Austin & Pinkleton, 2001).
Research Questions and Method
The research questions of the present study are:
RQ1: Are the news media an effective channel to reach state legislators?
RQ2: What are the most trusted sources of information on public education
issues for state legislators?
RQ3: What are the more effective methods of communication for PR efforts
directed at lawmakers?
The Idaho School Public Relations Association (IdSPRA) commissioned this
survey with funding from the National School Public Relations Association
(NSPRA). The questionnaire was drafted and pre-tested with the assistance
of several IdSPRA members, and approved by the Institutional Review Board
of the university that employs the first author of this study. A separate
descriptive report has been delivered to both sponsoring organizations. The
present study, while utilizing the same survey data, is written
specifically for an academic audience.
In addition to typical demographic questions, the questionnaire includes
items on: 1) respondents' connection with local public schools (e.g.,
whether currently or formerly they have served on a school board, have been
a public school employee, or have had children in public schools); 2) their
self-professed level of knowledge on 26 issues measured on a 5-point scale
(e.g., Idaho public school budget, statewide school building needs, and
graduation rates in their own districts) related to public education in
Idaho; and 3) the "value and helpfulness" of each of 20 sources of
information measured on a 5-point scale from "extensive/excellent" to "very
little or none" (e.g., the Governor's office, State Board of Education,
parents of school children in their district, and their own children in
public school if they have any). At the end respondents were asked to
identify the five most valuable methods (e.g., TV reports, local newspaper
articles, e-mail, person-to-person meetings, and school site visits) in
which they receive information about public schools.
The 35 senators and 70 members of the state House of Representatives in
Idaho received this mail survey in May 2002. Twenty-five questionnaires
were returned within two weeks. Those who did not return the survey were
sent another copy in June 2002. The second wave of mailing resulted in 16
returned surveys; the last one arrived on August 20, 2002. In total, 41
surveys were returned, which translates to a response rate of 39%. The
response rate among senators is 40% (14 out of 35), and 38.6% (27 out of
70) among House members. Therefore, the distribution between both chambers
is about even. Given the trend of declining response rate of surveys
(Pinkleton, Austin, & Fortman, 1998; Sheehan, 2002; Steeh, 1981), a rate
close to 40% is acceptable.
Demographics and Connections with Public Schools
Among the 41 respondents, 65.9% (N = 27) are male and 34.1% are female (N =
14). In terms of age, the majority of them fall into the rage of 51-65
(46.3%, N = 19), followed by over 65 (34.1%, N = 14) and 36-50 (19.5%, N =
8). Almost everyone is currently married (95.1%, N = 39). Over one-third
(35%, N = 14) of those who reported their household income (one of them
refused to answer) have an annual income of $70,000 to $100,000, and about
a quarter of them earn $40,000 to $70,000 (27.5%, N = 11), and over
$100,000 (25%, N = 10). Only 12.5% (N = 5) of the respondents have a
household income less than $40,000 annually.
In terms of educational background, 24.4% (N = 10) earned a Bachelor's
degree, another 24.4% went to graduate school, yet another 24.4% received a
Master's degree. Those who hold a doctorate account for 4.9% of the
respondents (N = 2). Thirty-seven (90%) of the respondents received at
least 10 years of their K-12 education in a public school, and 23 (56%) of
the respondents received their entire K-12 education from public schools in
Two respondents (4.9%) have pre-school aged children, eight of them (19.5%)
currently have children in public schools, and only one (2.4%) has children
in home school. None of the respondents have children in private schools.
Republicans account for 82.5% (N = 33) of the respondents, and Democrats
account for 17.5% (N = 7), with one refusing to report partisanship. This
ratio does not deviate far from the partisanship distribution among all
Idaho legislators at that time: 8.6% or three out of 35 senators, 12.9% or
nine out of 70 House representatives, and 11.4% of the members in both
chambers, were Democrats in 2002-3. The years served in the legislature
among our respondents ranged from 1 to 22 years, with a mean of 7.9 years.
Both the median and mode are 6 years. Most of the respondents (92.3%, N =
36) visited a public school for any reason last year at least twice. The
mean is 13.51 times, the median is 5 times, and mode is both 4 and 5 times.
Four (9.76%) out of the 41 respondents have served on a local school board.
Nine (21.95%) of the 41 themselves or their spouses are or were school
teachers. Eight (19.5%) are or were employed by public schools, and 11
(26.8%) are or were officers in a PTA/PTO unit. Using any of the four
factors above as an indicator, over half (53.7%, N = 22) of the respondents
have had some form of connection (beyond being parents of school age
children) with K-12 schools.
The majority of our respondents have had some type of personal connection
with public schools in Idaho, including receiving their own education and
having children in public schools. A significant portion of the respondents
(nearly 20%) currently have children in public school. Many of them have
additional forms of direct contact with public schools, such as through
employment and PTA/PTO.
Level of Knowledge about Public Education Issues in Idaho
There are 26 issue items (Cronbach's alpha = .94) about public education
in the survey. Respondents were asked to estimate their knowledge on each
issue on a 1-5 point scale.
Judging by mean scores, the top five issues of which legislators have the
most knowledge are: 1) "Idaho's public school budget (mean = 4.44); 2)
"school building needs in my legislative district (mean = 4.3); 3) "the
budget situation of schools in my legislative district" (mean = 4.24); 4)
"the new Idaho State Achievement Standards" (mean = 4.11); and 5)
"implementation of the State Achievement Standards" (mean = 4.10).
By contrast, the five issues that received the lowest mean scores are: 1)
"drop-out rates in my legislative district" (mean = 3.38); 2) "the
priorities and concerns of students in my legislative district" (mean =
3.38); 3) "current issues in special education" (mean = 3.42); 4)
"demographic information about students in Idaho" (mean = 3.46); and 5)
"efforts of Idaho's colleges of education" (mean = 3.61). Nevertheless,
these five issues are still above the midpoint of the scale (3.0). The 26
scales were combined into an overall knowledge measurement. It has a mean
of 3.86, a median of 3.92, and a mode of 3.12.
Respondents have a relatively high self-reported level of knowledge of
public education issues. They seem to know more about budgetary and
measurement issues, which is understandable. It is their job to determine
and monitor money and achievement standards. Specific information about
students, in comparison, receives lower ratings of knowledge estimation.
Sources of K-12 School Information
Twenty items about sources of information (Cronbach's alpha = .90) are
included in the survey. Examples include information from the Governor's
office, the State Board of Education, and "school principals in my
district." Respondents are asked to rate the "value and helpfulness" of
each source on a 1-5 point scale. The top ten sources are: 1) "school
superintendents in my district (mean = 4.08); 2) "a legislative education
committee" (mean = 3.92); 3) "my own school-age children" (mean = 3.84); 4)
"school board members in my district" (mean = 3.82); 5) "school employees
(teachers, staff) in my district (mean = 3.77); 6) "the State
Superintendent and Education Department" (mean = 3.68); 7) "school
principals in my district" (mean = 3.62); 8) "other members of the
Legislature" (mean = 3.61); 9) "parents of school children in my district"
(mean = 3.59); and 10) "the State Board of Education" (mean = 3.5).
The five sources ranked the lowest are: 1) "the Idaho PTA" (mean = 2.59);
2) "the political parties" (mean = 2.62); 3) "Boise-area media (newspapers,
TV, etc.)" (mean = 2.71); 4) "non-parent constituents in my district"
(mean = 2.86); and, 5) "Idaho Education Association (IEA)" (mean = 2.97).
Local media in respondents' own district does not fare well. The mean is 3.0.
The twenty items about information sources are combined into one aggregated
scale. The mean is 3.40, the median is 3.33, and mode is 3.37. All three
figures are above the midpoint of 3.0.
In terms of public education issues, our respondents highly value
information from high ranked school officials in their own legislative
districts, their own school-age children, and employees of local schools.
They also find information from legislative education committees helpful.
By contrast, they tend to pay less attention to the media in general,
statewide organizations (the Idaho PTA and IEA, and political parties), and
constituents who are not directly involved with public schools
(non-parents). Apparently, legislators mainly trust sources with first-hand
information about the day-to-day operation of public schools.
Correlations between Level of Knowledge and Sources of Information
Correlation tests were run between the combined scale of knowledge level
(alpha = .94) and each source of information. Only the following sources
are significant statistically: 1) "a legislative education committee" (r =
.47, p < .01); 2) "the Idaho Education Association" (r = .39, p < .05); 3)
"State Superintendent and Education Department" (r = .36, p < .05); and 4)
"information from the political parties" (r = .36, p < .05).
A correlation indicates a "the more ___ the more ___" relationship. In
other words, the more a respondent values a source listed above, the higher
he or she would rank him or herself on the level of knowledge in general
about public education. Those who pay close attention to a legislative
education committee, or the State Superintendent and the Education
Department, tend to believe that they have a higher level of knowledge in
Although the IEA and political parties rank very low in terms of valued
sources of information among all correspondents, they turn out to have a
significant correlation with knowledge level. Superficially this is
puzzling. One possible explanation is that, for those lawmakers who are
leaders in their own political parties or have close ties to the IEA, they
have a high level of self-confidence about their knowledge on public
education issues and value these sources highly, although the average
legislator does not.
Methods of Receiving Information
At the end of the survey questionnaire, respondents are asked to list
their five most valued methods of obtaining information about K-12 public
schools. Examples include newsletters, phone calls, e-mail, the news media,
and personal face-to-face contacts. In terms of the frequencies of any
methods mentioned, the top five methods are: 1) personal contact (N = 30);
2) "school visit and tours" (N = 17); 3) "group meetings" (N = 16); 4) "any
news media" (N = 16); and 5) "newsletters and other publications" (N = 14).
Please note the item "any news media" is a combination of five categories
of media including newspaper articles, newspaper editorials, TV reports,
radio reports and local media. Interestingly, except for newspaper articles
(N = 15), each of the other media items has a very low frequency.
As is well known among public relations professionals, personal contact is
often the best method to reach a target, be it one-on-one or group
meetings, or school visits and tours. Also, respondents report that they
like to read information-rich materials such as newsletters and newspaper
Conclusion and Recommendations for PR Campaigns
The answers to the research questions are: 1) the news media are not
effective channels of communication in a school PR campaign targeting state
legislators; 2) the most trusted sources of information for this public
include school superintendents and school board members in lawmakers' own
district, and lawmakers' school-age children if they have any; and 3) the
best method of communication to approach this target is through
Based on our findings, the following PR strategies are recommended for
public school PR officers to better serve the informational needs of state
A Focused Target
Most Idaho lawmakers have had some form of personal experience with public
schools, including being a student themselves, or being a parent of
school-age children. They know, and care about, public education issues.
The fact that education is the single largest item in the state budget, and
that a majority of school district revenues come from the state level, also
focuses legislative attention and scrutiny on public education
matters. However, current communication efforts in support of education
can be more focused.
According to the survey sample, a significant number (one-fifth) of
lawmakers have children in public schools, and their own children are
highly valued sources of information about the day-to-day operation of
schools. This is not surprising because most parents will likely use their
own school-aged children as their primary source of school information.
These parent-legislators are likely to pay more attention to public
education issues, and may even want to serve on legislative education
committees. Such committees are highly valued sources of information among
all legislators. Therefore, PR practitioners are encouraged to focus their
communication efforts on education committee members in their state Senate
and House, especially those who have children in public schools. These
lawmakers should be mobilized to communicate with their colleagues on
public education issues on a one-on-one basis whenever possible.
Methods of Communication
The news media do not appear to be a good way to reach and consequently
influence state legislators according to our data. However, if public
school PR officers still choose to use the news media as a channel of
information, they should focus their efforts on newspaper articles.
Alternatively, lawmakers should be regularly invited to visit schools in
their own legislative districts, and have face-to-face contact with school
officials, employees, and parents. Local school superintendents and board
members should have frequent personal contact with legislators. Lawmakers
should also receive newsletters from their own school districts. The Idaho
State Superintendent is an effective source of information, so she should
be encouraged by PR officers to aid in any communication effort, especially
in the form of personal meetings with legislative education committee
In addition, because this research indicates that local school officials
are influential sources of information for state legislators, school PR
officers are encouraged to provide materials (explaining how to effectively
communicate with legislators from a PR standpoint) for these school officials.
Coordinated Efforts among Public School PR officers
PR officers are encouraged to study the professional and family background
of legislators in their own districts. The goal is to find out whether
their local elected representatives are on an education committee in the
legislature, have school-age children, or otherwise have close ties to
public schools such as they or their spouse being a current or past school
employee, school board member, or a PTA/PTO officer. If the answer is yes
to any of the items above, these legislators should be targeted when PR
officers need to communicate certain issues to the legislature.
The present study has generated new knowledge that school PR students and
professionals may find useful. Although the sample is from a Pacific
Northwest state, the findings should be generalizable across the nation.
This report, although aiming to serve the needs of school PR professionals,
has some academic implications. First at all, books on school PR may want
to add some discussions on how to target lawmakers effectively. Second, the
importance of news media in certain PR campaigns appears to be minimal,
which is an issue for consideration for PR curriculum in higher education.
In addition to journalism classes, it may be advisable to encourage
students to study interpersonal communication and political campaigning if
such classes are not already required or strongly recommended.
A limitation of this study is the survey contains no questions on
respondents' opinion on public education, such as whether they think the
funding is adequate, or whether they are satisfied with the quality of
public education in the state. This survey did not include any question
that could be perceived as sensitive politically because of the timing. A
statewide election was scheduled in November 2002. Therefore, even though
this was a confidential survey and the principal investigator does not
reside or work in Idaho, legislators running for re-election would likely
object to questions regarding their opinions on funding and other
controversial issues pertaining to public schools. Another limitation is
that only self-reported levels of knowledge are reported, which
understandably can be inflated. Future studies, if conducted during a
non-election year, may want to consider measuring opinions or evaluating
respondents' actual knowledge on issues. In addition, a further survey can
ask respondents to name two or three individuals (especially their fellow
legislators and people in their own district) whom they turn to for
information and advice on school issues. If a few legislators and school
district officials are identified, these "key influencers" can be
invaluable in a PR campaign targeting state lawmakers in general.
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