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You've done the work—do people know about it? Getting your group's name and message out to a wide audience, in the right way, is an essential part of success.

by Darylen Cote


As a PTO leader it's easy to get bogged down in the day to day details of making your group run. There are always a million things to do, and of course you want to make sure they get done.

But true leadership involves more than day-to-day management. It includes creating visibility for your group, putting out your message and stating your accomplishments for a wider audience to see. That's the way you create support that builds on itself, resulting in real strength for your organization. Communicating with people one at a time is important. Adding to that a concentrated effort to communicate with a wider audience can pay tremendous dividends.

Visibility doesn't just attract new members, though it certainly does that. It also makes it easier to approach local businesses for donations and to get help from school administrators and even municipal officials. It makes it easier to raise funds, too, even when the kids are doing the fundraising. Who wouldn't want to buy a candy bar or a roll of wrapping paper when they know it's going to help that group that does such good things for the school? But you have to get the message out. Otherwise, people will never know.

As a first step in accomplishing the kind of visibility that encourages growth, check your own enthusiasm meter. The old maxim “enthusiasm makes the difference” certainly holds true in the area of visibility for parent groups. Enthusiasm doesn’t mean being the loudest or acting the most foolish. According to the Dale Carnegie and Associates book The Leader in You, “enthusiasm is a feeling that comes from inside” and must not be confused with manipulative, surface-only boisterousness or phony shows. It comes from a genuine belief in the importance of your mission and how your specific activity relates to it.

All the know-how you need to be an effective and successful parent group leader!

Enthusiasm grows from a person’s eagerness about an idea or organization combined with that person’s assurance. So expressing both your excitement and your confidence in the ability to accomplish the objective equals the kind of enthusiasm that is contagious. Once you have it, others will know you have it and they will soon have it, too.

If you don't have that kind of enthusiasm, it may be time to reevaluate your group's goals and how you achieve those goals. Confidence and enthusiasm come from achieving success. Success then builds upon success. It's fine to aim high, but don't constantly set goals you can't reach. You'll just burn out yourself and your members trying to achieve them. Start with modest aims, then walk up the ladder to greater success. And as you do, trumpet each victory to others.

In addition to being a product of the enthusiasm that comes from within, creating visibility is also a management function. It must be coordinated. If people in the community don’t know what your parent group is and how it helps the school and community, the impact it can have is reduced.

To build visibility successfully, you have to look for opportunities for publicity in everything you do. Conventional public relations wisdom advises that people need at least seven PR “hits” (hearing or seeing the message) before they begin to consider its importance to them, their family, or their situation.

A Clear Message

Your communication goal in any particular instance might be large or small. You might want to create more awareness of your group among parents, or you might want simply to get out word about the upcoming science fair, for example.

No matter the goal, the first rule of communications is to have a single message and make sure that message gets through. There are two common mistakes that people make in public relations. The first is to try to communicate too many messages at once. Most people just won't spend a lot of time reading your communications. Even when the message is spoken, people's attention tends to wax and wane. So have one primary message and, at most, one secondary message.

The second mistake is not making the primary message clear and obvious. If the title of the event and the time and date are the most important on your flyer, put them—and only them—in large type. Let people get the main message at a glance, whether they choose to read more or not.

Likewise, if you message is spoken, raise your voice for the most important information. Or repeat it a few times, perhaps at intervals. When you’re done, state the main information again. Your last words are the ones people are most likely to take home with them.

Also, it's important to be specific when you communicate benefits and accomplishments. Express them in terms of what the school gets. Not, for example, "We raised $27,000," but "We funded an after-school program that provided these specific learning opportunities for the children."

Talk to Your Audience

The next step is to think about your “audiences.” Who they are depends on the particular message. Sometimes you want to share your enthusiasm with your current members (otherwise known as motivating them), perhaps needing volunteers for a particular project. On another front, you may want to address an external audience, encouraging donations from local businesses for fall festival prizes, for example.

Then there are the times you need to reach a more general, community-wide audience. Other examples of potential audiences for the PTO include students, teachers, administrators, bus drivers, school support staff, parents of incoming students.

On the most basic level, spreading the word takes place person to person. You enjoy your work in the PTO, you accomplish something you are proud of, and you tell your friends. In this way, all of your members can be ambassadors for your group.

The next step is to talk to groups of friends. Some of your board members likely belong to other community groups, in addition to the PTO. Ask them to talk at meetings of these other organizations, when appropriate, about what they do with the PTO. A PR message that comes from a friend is one of the most important. So-called "word of mouth" still is a huge factor not only in what we choose to purchase but in how we spend our time. All of your key leaders—officers, committee chairs, dedicated volunteers—should be ready to talk about the benefits of helping the PTO.

Media Basics

Don’t overlook the mass media in your community. Get to know the contact people for community news or features, and the deadlines and requirements for each outlet.

The wide range of smaller, community-based media can also be very important for your purposes, such as locally published magazines, shoppers’ newspapers (give-away papers supported by advertising), civic associations with neighborhood newsletters, church or other religious news bulletins, community-based websites, even community access television.

The more local the media outlet, the better chance you have for coverage. If you live in a small town, the local paper might send a photographer to your spring carnival. In a big city, that's much less likely. But all media outlets love stories that involve children, so sometimes you'll get coverage when you don't expect it. But first, you have to make contact.

A press release is one way to initiate contact with a media outlet. Your press release will get more attention if it contains a few basics. Give it a headline. Be sure to name a contact person with a telephone number at the top of the page. Follow the "five W’s.” Tell the readers: who will be involved, what will happen, when it will happen, where it will happen, and why it will happen. Keep it short. One page will usually do it.

Public service announcements are 10-, 20-, and 30-second commercials that radio and television stations provide at no charge as a public service for groups or issues that have a general public interest. Send a written announcement to the station, but make sure it fits allotted time. Radio stations sometimes will record your spot for you and run it frequently. Typically, this service is offered only to groups certified as nonprofit charities by the IRS, called 501(c)(3) groups. Some smaller TV stations will do this as well.

There are also larger avenues of communication, such as radio talk shows and even local television talk shows. If you feel comfortable with the idea of appearing on these types of shows, they can have a very powerful effect. You won't be invited to talk about your latest fundraiser. But a host might be interested in talking about the project to renovate the school gym. Or an issue such as how declining school budgets mean parents are being asked to contribute more and more to schools.

Appearing on these shows is just like any other communication task. Know what your primary message is before you start, then make sure to communicate it. Don't be afraid to emphasize or repeat it. And let your natural enthusiasm show through.

Originally posted in 2004 and updated regularly.

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