Communications Answers the Challenges of Rapid Growth
Round Rock, TX
The city of Round Rock is a community in rapid transition. This former rural farming community just north of Austin has become a large urban center with suburban neighborhoods for high-tech manufacturing and retail. The Round Rock Independent School District (RRISD) has doubled its student population to 40,000 and is expected to reach 70,000 by 2011. Students are culturally diverse, with more families from Asia and Latin America settling in this community.
While growth has brought prosperity to the community, it also brings additional challenges. Existing problems, such as underage drinking, truancy, and school violence, have grown in scope. Community social services have not kept pace with the rapid expansion, making it more difficult to develop and implement prevention policies consistently across the District. A 2005 Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SS/HS) grant has helped the RRISD meet these emerging challenges, and communications planning is central to implementing effective prevention programs and enlisting parental and community support.
The Round Rock SS/HS initiative began using communications planning from the start. Project Director Willa Rosen said that members learned early about the need for effective communications after several serious incidents in Round Rock schools made news. In dealing with these events, and also in trying to promote their grant to the community, the importance of taking time to plan and think things through became very clear to them.
So in that first year, SS/HS staff members worked with their communications specialist to develop goals in response to the needs of their school community, using the eight-step communications planning model. They formed a committee for each goal so that tasks could be broken into manageable parts, and no one person overburdened. And they regularly invested the resources and time needed to test their messages and products with their target audiences to make sure they were effective.
When school officials identified parent involvement as a top priority, the initiative swung into action. It created a team of part-time, paid parent support specialists to run Parent Centers on every school campus, connecting parents with information, services, classes, and volunteer opportunities. The initiative collaborated with the school district and parent organizations to hold two annual Parent Summits, offering dozens of free workshops covering teen-parent relationships, gang prevention, special education programs, bullying, and other topics that parents identified.
Using knowledge of strategic communications gained through work with their communications specialist, the initiative developed a television public service announcement (PSA) encouraging parents to volunteer at their children’s schools and participate in school activities. The local ABC television affiliate aired the PSA at peak viewing times for parent audiences and won a PSA award from the Texas Association of School Communications Officers. The initiative has since filmed a second back-to-school version of the PSA and is planning additional activities around parent involvement.
In the fall of 2007, the Round Rock SS/HS is launching a district-wide bullying prevention campaign. Previously, individual schools undertook bullying prevention activities, but there was no district-wide strategy. Now, the initiative is helping to develop consistent bullying prevention messages, policies, procedures, and curricula for the whole school system. Student focus groups have inspired creative communications strategies; students in media production classes plan to develop antibullying messages and create videos to air in schools district-wide. Student-driven writing and multimedia competitions with a bullying prevention theme will be held throughout the year as well. Also, the initiative filmed a 30-minute special that will air locally on a major network affiliate.
The Round Rock SS/HS is also developing a community-wide social marketing campaign around underage drinking prevention. The initiative is working as a primary partner with the Williamson County Coalition on Underage Drinking to create a parent-targeted PSA to stop adults from providing alcohol to youth. The group used data from a University of Texas in Austin survey of local adult attitudes on underage drinking and reviewed similar existing campaigns to develop their communications messages. They conducted parent and student focus groups to test their messages, and filmed a PSA themed, “Don’t Buy It,” which points out the health, safety, and legal costs of providing alcohol to minors.
The campaign will roll out in the spring of 2008, when underage drinking increases during spring break and graduation. In addition to the PSA, the initiative will round out its campaign with additional marketing strategies. Ideas currently being tested include point-of-purchase posters for stores that sell alcohol, billboards, movie slides, print ads, parent tip sheets and brochures, t-shirts, event booths, and ads in the high school Jumbotron.
The initiative is turning its attention to sustainability communications. One approach they use is inviting “all the stakeholders to the table—maybe not all at the same place and the same time, and really listen to them,” says project director Rosen, adding that identifying those who need to be at the table, such as community agencies, local business, and area mental health coalitions, is crucial for building partnerships for sustainability. Rosen says that focus groups have helped them identify better strategies for communications and avoid pitfalls. She urges other grant sites to use focus groups to find out what works, what doesn’t work, and what needs to be changed—critical steps in communications planning.
The initiative is reaping the rewards of investing in strategic communications early in its grant. By working effectively with public relations officials, local reporters, and other communications partners, it is not the “best-kept secret in town”; it has succeeded in making the initiative widely known in the community. And this success is evident in the well-considered prevention campaigns it has launched—and continues to launch—for many of its programs.