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Making a Good Impression

Positive public relations can help face-lift the sagging image of an ESP local.

The headline in Nebraska’s Neligh News last May 11 read: “ESPs Denied as Bargaining Agents.” The front page story outlined the blistering defeat suffered by education support professionals (ESPs) at the previous night’s board meeting.

The 15 ESPs who belong to the Neligh-Oakdale Education Association (NOEA) were distraught over their rejected proposal to secure bargaining rights for three groups—paraeducators and clerical and food service employees. (While teachers and ESPs both belong to NOEA, only teachers have contracts. ESPs work “at will.”) The bruising headline only added salt to the wound.

“Our members felt bad about that headline,” says Linda Welch, NOEA vice president and a secretary at Neligh-Oakdale Elementary School. Still, she knew the fight to win bargaining rights wasn’t over. The silver lining in this episode, she explained to members, was that the folks at the newspaper didn’t have to spell out E-S-P.  “They knew that everyone in town knows what E-S-P means,” she says. “It’s a reflection of our good public relations.”

For years, NOEA ESPs had engaged in a public relations campaign to convince the school board, administrators, and community that they contribute more than their share to school activities and deserve bargaining rights. ESP volunteers are known to decorate athletes’ lockers before games, sponsor student scholarships, and distribute pounds of candy and glow sticks at events from a tote bag labeled “ESP.” They also organize pep rallies.

“All of these activities fall under the ESP banner,” Welch later explains. “We get the message out there that we benefit the school far beyond our normal call of duty.”

NOEA’s activism—and unity—paid off. After the school board decision, ESPs in the district pulled together and voted overwhelmingly in November for union representation. On December 3 came the good news: The Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations (NCIR), which handles public sector bargaining issues for public employees, overruled the board and notified NOEA and school officials that the three ESP groups belonging to NOEA were to be recognized as a bargaining unit.

“The whole town was behind us,” said Welch. “People were telling us what a good job we do for the school. This is one result of good public relations.” NOEA representatives plan to meet with the school board in spring to begin negotiating the 2006–07 contract.

Training Can Help

Across the country, ESPs struggle to define themselves as dedicated, skilled support staff crucial to a school’s smooth operation. Too often, they are mistakenly perceived as dispensable.

“Negative perceptions about ESPs can become barriers to communicating effectively at school and in the community,” says Roger Gray, a PR specialist who has worked on dozens of NEA grassroots campaigns. “The response to this by some ESP locals has been to take control of their image through public relations; otherwise they are stuck with either being misunderstood or going unnoticed.” Gray adds that as more ESPs receive training in message development, media relations, and leadership, they will experience greater success negotiating contracts.

This is one reason that the Nebraska State Education Association (NSEA) started a program called Encouraging and Strengthening Potential Leaders. The program trains ESPs who may be called on to bargain contracts, build coalitions, and pitch story ideas to reporters.

Linda Welch, who finished the program in 2003, says the training gave her the confidence and knowledge she needed to promote ESPs in her community. “Getting our image out there is important in a practical sense,” she says. “So when we go to the bargaining table, board members will know we’re worth listening to.”                                                 

—John Rosales

7 Steps to a Better Image

Roger Gray, president of Portland-based Gray Strategies, offers this media plan:

  • Know Your Audience How do you want them to perceive you?
  • Stay On Message List three things you want your audience to understand about ESPs.
  • Identify Resources How much money and how many volunteers are available?
  • Distribute Your Message Consider paid and unpaid media. 
  • Identify Collaborators There is strength in numbers.
  • Write a Game Plan Include a timeline so that priorities are met.
  • Measure Results Higher salaries and increased membership are two signs of success.

Photo: Joan Wright

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