Bad marketing from the Austin Independent School District.

August 20th, 2011

The Austin Independent School District starts next Monday. You can imagine how stoked my kids are for this.

A.I.S.D. has had a slew of challenges over the past year or two. Some of these are common to school districts across Texas, and they can be summed up under the heading “Way Less Money.” My sister, who’s an educator in a suburb of Dallas, has faced the same kind of trouble, as has the sister of a coworker who feels lucky that she’ll be commuting only an hour each way to her job as a first-year teacher. At both of them have a job, which is more than many Texas teachers can say.

But some many of the Austin district’s troubles are self-inflicted, especially in the area of public relations. My wife has been a PTA officer for one of our children’s schools for the past couple of years, which has given her a great view of the unfolding train wreck that is our superintendent’s record of decision-making. Possibly many things are being handled expertly, and it’s only red-letter failures like the botched school closure plan that are drawing all the attention. But somehow I don’t think so.

Even If You’re Not in Business, You’re Still in Marketing

My lack of faith in the current A.I.S.D. leadership was reinforced by the e-mail that hit my inbox on Thursday night. I’ll preface my dissection of it by making a general point that seems to be lost on too many people, especially in the public and not-for-profit sector: if your organization does something that any slice of the public cares about, the organization needs good marketing.

I say “marketing” rather than “public relations” or “community relations” or “communications” to emphasize something: even our most essential public institutions have to sell themselves in the marketplace of ideas and money today.

Why? Because if the Austin school system doesn’t sell itself well, more parents will see to it that their kids go to school in suburban districts, or at private schools. More citizens will complain about their tax dollars going to waste, and these complaints may eventually lead to even less money for A.I.S.D. Given the anti-tax and anti-government rhetoric that many Texans (among others) carry in their back pocket at all times, those arguments find a bigger audience with each passing year.

All of this is bad news for the school system, and in the long run it’s bad for the city, too. Given all these realities, much less the controversies that have beset A.I.S.D. the past couple of years, the school district ought to be making every little detail count. Alas.

“Who Are You? What’s This Even About?”

Which brings me to the details of the e-mail that I and many thousands of my fellow citizens received the other night, which appalled me as a marketer. Sure, it’s just one e-mail. But it represents a key missed opportunity to do a small thing right in a way that could lead to other good things.

Back to School 2011-12

That was the subject line in my Gmail. “What is this?,” I thought. “A sales flyer?” I honestly thought it might be a promotion from Zappos or something. Seeing the sender — “Dept. of Public Relations and Multicultural Outrea” [sic] — didn’t help much, either.

It makes me think of two things. First, I wonder if the A.I.S.D. folks who composed this e-mail gave a moment’s thought to the overflow in most people’s inboxes. We’re all winnowing messages on the go, deleting anything we can get away with not reading. Marketers run through brick walls to come up with subject lines and greetings and so on that will hook people immediately, because we know it’s a challenge to get people even to look at your e-mail before deleting it.

The crazy part is that I’d be happy to read something from A.I.S.D. to kick off the school year. I take a strong interest in my kids’ education. I know the district isn’t going to try to sell me something. Yet they didn’t even think to put “A.I.S.D.” at the start of the subject line.

Which brings me to the second thing. I spent several years in the Hoover’s editorial department, where the editors are constantly poring over companies’ annual reports. We used to see dozens of A.R.’s per week. Some of my colleagues and I would joke about the companies who titled these PDFs things like “2003ARcomplete” or “AnnualReportFY2003.” The smart companies, by contrast, would use titles like “GeneralElectric2003AnnRpt” or “IntelAnnualReport2003.” Apparently, it just doesn’t cross some people’s minds to put the name of the firm right up front. But it should.

Hello. This is a message from the Austin Independent School District to welcome your child to a new school year.

This is going to be a great year! And parents, we need you to join forces with us to make this a successful year for you and your family.

One of the ways you can support your child’s success is to make sure he or she attends school, all day, every day. Because every day counts. Attendance increases student achievement, improves the quality of your child’s educational experience, and it prepares them for college, good careers, and successful adulthood.

Okay, I get it. They have to send this to tens of thousands of parents, many of whom don’t have the focus on education that my wife and I do, so they’re keeping it basic. (I would have liked better copy-editing, but I can live with it.)

I am also asking you to help your child in little ways as well… These may seem small but their impact is huge!  Get them to bed on time, feed them a good breakfast and set up a dedicated space for them to do their homework everyday…and most importantly, ensure that they are reading!  In the early years, our students learn to read. But in later years they must read to learn! It impacts learning in all other subject areas.  We all need to make sure our children are reading—every day. So grab some good books from the library and start encouraging them!

As for the overall message, it’s fine. A teacher friend of mine was a specialist for A.I.S.D. one year, visiting the homes of children who were struggling academically. Things like getting a good breakfast and having a well-lit place to study were far from common in many of these families. I do wonder how well an e-mail like this would start a family down the road of regular library use, but who knows — it might nudge some people in the right direction.

But who is “I” in this paragraph? The reader hasn’t been introduced to anyone. Hold that thought as we hit the homestretch . . .

Please remember that Every Day Counts.

And don’t forget: school starts NEXT Monday, August 22nd!

See you at school!

Thank you and have a great school year!

Well, we had been told that “every day counts” above, but I didn’t realize it was “Every Day Counts.” Is that a motto that they’re trying to get across? Apparently it is, given that the district held a student contest last year to come up with public service announcements promoting school attendance. The announcement of the contest winners included this statement:

“Improving student attendance is a key component of the District’s Strategic Plan and is a top priority for the 2010-2011 school year. AISD is working with students, families, and the community to ensure regular school attendance and improve academic achievement.”

It’s easy to see why steady school attendance is important, so why didn’t they use this e-mail to link me to their page describing the “Every Day Counts” initiative? That would have been a good opportunity for the tiniest bit of integrated marketing — one medium reinforcing another — but they missed it . . .

. . . maybe because they have no such page to point to. As far as I can tell, “Every Day Counts” is a tagline they’ve used a time or two, but there are only minimal references to it on the school district’s site. You’d think that they would make it a mantra, possibly with its own real estate on their home page. But no.

Missed Opportunities Everywhere You Look

The rest of the e-mail is just an overkill of one-liners. It’s the sort of thing you come up with in a first draft as you’re trying out different ideas. You leave them all in only so you can shuffle them around to come up with something better. In this case, improving the e-mail could have been as simple as putting “And don’t forget . . .” in the same paragraph as “Please remember . . .” (the thoughts are pretty strongly linked), and then eliminating “Thank you and have a great school year!” altogether.

“See you at school!” would have been fine as a friendly sign-off, but cutting “. . . have a great school year” would also help keep me from suspecting that this is the last I’m going to hear from A.I.S.D. — or, rather, from our mystery correspondent at A.I.S.D. — for a while.

The note definitely needed a personal signoff from the superintendent, the director of curriculum, the director of community relations, or whoever the “I” was who wrote the e-mail. There was no attribution of the e-mail to any person, which represents another missed opportunity from a marketer’s perspective.

Beyond that, though, this note could have been the opening of an ongoing communication from the district to me. Maybe they could tell me more in a few weeks about how attendance numbers have been really good, or about how a new program is helping kids with their reading. But I’m guessing that I’ll hear from A.I.S.D. haphazardly.

The moral of my story is simple: if it’s worth saying — especially in an e-mail that goes out to tens of thousands of people — it’s worth saying well. If you have to communicate to that many people, you’re in marketing, whether you know it or not.

Given how much respect I have for A.I.S.D.’s teachers and my children’s schools, I just wish the district had done a better job of it.

Photo by Robb North.

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