A new state law aims to accelerate the process of getting a commercial driver’s license by enabling private vendors to conduct the knowledge and skills tests.
There’s good news every day in school transportation. But getting that news to the public can often be a difficult and frustrating task. As we all know, the media prefers to focus on the negative. It’s what the public wants, they insist. To be honest, it’s not what the public wants; it’s just easier to get. Bad news travels fast. A school bus accident involving passenger injuries will make its way to the local newspaper in a matter of minutes, but a bus driver saving the life of a young passenger choking on a hard candy could take days to reach the media, assuming it ever does. On a perhaps less dramatic level, there’s good news that deserves telling in all facets of your operation. Newspaper articles about noteworthy drivers, mechanics, attendants. TV news stories on your new buses, your impressive vehicle inspection record, your comprehensive driver training program. A community parade showcasing one of your buses and your staff. To help you spread good news about your transportation program, we’ve compiled 28 helpful hints from people all over the country, including transportation managers and media representatives. We’ve divided these 28 tips into three sections - print, broadcast and miscellaneous. We’ve also included a sample press release to help you coax the local media to attend a school bus roadeo. After reading this article, we hope you take the opportunity to spread the word about the positive happenings at your operation. If you don’t do it, who will?
The key to placing a positive story in the local newspaper is to understand what the editor wants - to inform, entertain and engage the readers. Publishing a story about a school district that operates a sound transportation program may help to inform the readers, but it probably doesn’t entertain or engage them. However, a story about a school district that has learned through an outside audit that its transportation program is among the best in the state . . . that’s a story worth publishing. 1. What editors want
Look for an angle. Find a hook that will push the story closer to the top of the editor’s news budget. Seek human interest. The bus driver who is also the town’s mayor. Or technology. The introduction of alternative-fuel buses into the fleet. Or safety. The installation of crossing gates on buses will help to prevent children from crossing too close to the front of the bus. Or awards. The bus driver who captured first place in the state roadeo. At many school districts you’ll have to coordinate your efforts with the public information office. Let school district officials know that you’re being proactive in seeking positive publicity for your department. But don’t wait for the public information office to suggest ideas. You should be assertive in promoting your good news and take the initiative whenever possible. 2. Think visually
Remember that newspapers like to publish photos with stories. Photos, especially those that include people, can breathe life into an otherwise dull story. Enhance your story pitch by offering to set up a photo session, whether it’s at your bus compound or along one of your routes. Make your staff available for these photo opportunities. It also helps to submit a head shot of the transportation director to the local newspapers that they can keep on file. In the event of a breaking news story involving the transportation department, the newspapers have ready access to the photo and are more likely to call for a comment. 3. Timeliness is critical
Lyndsey Layton, a reporter for the Washington Post, said she received a great tip about a transit bus driver in the Washington, D.C., area who stayed on his route, assisting passengers along the way and even stopping for bathroom breaks, despite a several-hour traffic delay caused by the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon. In many ways, this bus driver was one of the day’s heroic figures. Unfortunately, Layton said she didn’t receive this tip until two weeks after the attack. “I couldn’t use the story,” she says. “It was just too old. If they had called me a day or two after the attack, I might have been able to use it.” The lesson here is don’t hesitate to call your local newspaper if there’s an event that merits some coverage. If one of your drivers performs a heroic feat on the highway, call the newspaper (and the other media) right away. If you wait too long, the window of opportunity will disappear as the reporters rush off to cover “fresh news.” 4. Be a good source
Developing a good working relationship with the reporters who cover the education beat can help to improve the coverage of your department. That means being accessible when they need a comment on a school bus-related issue and being open and honest. “Reporters won’t cover the positive aspects of what you do if you’re not willing to comment on the negative things that happen,” says Ray Feldmann, a public information specialist for the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority. “The most important thing is not to be adversarial and not to lie.” Being a quality “source” for a newspaper reporter can help to leverage coverage of your own story ideas. 5. Be open and honest
Gordon Wilder, transportation director at Vance County Schools in Henderson, N.C., can attest to the importance of being truthful and open with the media. He described a recent incident in which a driver allowed a student to drive her bus by duping her into believing that he was a sub driver who needed to learn the route. “Dumb move all around,” Wilder says. Wilder and the superintendent were “truthful and open” about the incident and received “very fair” TV coverage. But he feared a roasting in the local newspaper, which he describes as “not very school system friendly.” To mitigate the damage, he spent a lot of time with the reporter explaining the training and licensing required to become a school bus driver and the department’s policies and procedures. “While he did not print anything about what good we do, he dropped the story at that point,” Wilder says, emphasizing the importance of an open relationship with the press and the need to continually review and update policies and procedures. 6. Help with the legwork
Newspaper reporters often write inaccurate stories because they don’t have the necessary background information and are under deadlines that preclude them from obtaining this information in a timely fashion. So, unfortunately, they often “guess” at the facts based on the information at hand. At best, this practice leads to harmlessly inaccurate stories; at worst, this practice can damage someone’s reputation and livelihood. One way to help a reporter avoid these mistakes is to provide him with the facts, preferably in written form. John Eschenbacher, transportation manager at Moses Lake (Wash.) School District, has developed a good relationship with the local newspaper and is comfortable working with the reporters who cover the school district. ”Any time I present to the school board, I type up my version of a press release and give it to the reporter,” he explains. “He enjoys not having to take notes, and I find the information published is much more accurate.” Transportation department fact sheets also work well. Providing reporters with a simple list of facts about your transportation program, such as number of students transported daily, drivers, buses, routes and mileage per year, gives the often harried writer more time to focus on the key elements of the story instead of the basic information contained in the fact sheet. 7. Buy positive publicity
Aurora (Colo.) Public Schools doesn’t wait for opportunities to promote positive stories about the school district. It purchases space in a local weekly newspaper to ensure that the space is available. According to Augie Campbell, the district’s transportation director, the back page of the Aurora Sentinel is reserved by the district to help spread good news about education. The transportation department is highlighted at least twice a year, Campbell says, with additional spot coverage throughout the year. 8. Write a press release
One of the most effective methods of communicating with newspapers is through a press release. Whether it’s an invitation to a special event such as a school bus roadeo (see sample letter on pg. 22) or a roundup of the happenings at your annual state association conference, a press release can serve as the basis for a staff-written newspaper article or, in some cases, can be published as submitted. Some of the possible topics for a press release: employee promotions, awards, significant anniversaries (20-year drivers, for example) and ground-breakings. Community newspapers, especially, are happy to receive and publish these types of announcements. As mentioned earlier, photos enhance the appeal of these stories. (One word of caution: If you’re going to submit digital photos, use the largest pixel size that your camera permits.) If your school district has a public information office, you can probably pass along the information with a phone call, short memo or e-mail. The public information officer can then determine how to submit the information and which newspapers might be interested. 9. Communicate within, too
To be able to spread good news about your organization, you have to be aware of good news. If one of your department employees performs a newsworthy feat, but you don’t know about it, it’s not going to make the newspapers, is it? The key is to communicate well internally as well as externally. Keep your staff informed about the potential for positive publicity, whether it’s appropriate for the local daily newspaper, the monthly school district publication or the transportation department newsletter. Even if it’s not going to be used for publication, good news is always something that managers should gather and help to disseminate, even if it’s just in a friendly conversation at the watercooler. 10. Write a letter
If you’ve tried unsuccessfully to entice the local newspaper to send a reporter to your operation to write about the good things that are happening, maybe it’s time to take matters into your own hands - or handwriting. Although newspapers are often reluctant to publish articles on what they consider non-newsworthy subjects, they often will publish a letter to the editor on the same topic. “Editorials are published. Editorials are read. Blow your own horn,” says Linda Barnwell, owner of Educational Transportation Consulting in Mesa, Ariz. It’s much easier to place a letter in the newspaper than it is to bring a reporter to your bus yard for a “good news” story. “Brag about your safety record or the number of miles that your buses drive each year,” Barnwell says. “A letter to the editor can also help to educate the public on what an applicant has to do to become a bus driver. Explain the training that is required, the criminal background checks, the drug testing and the love for kids.” But don’t stop there, says Barnwell. “You know all the great things your folks do? How they take up collections for local families during the holidays? How they provide mittens and coats for children standing at the bus stop on a cold winter’s morning? How they go the extra mile to take care of the child that got on the wrong bus or forgot to get off at their stop? Tell your local paper!”
With people increasingly reliant on television and radio broadcasts for news and other information, it would be beneficial for you, as a school bus operator, to look to the broadcast media as an ally. Television and radio can be used in various ways to promote the industry and to help fill those department vacancies. Here are eight ideas for using the broadcast media to your advantage. 1. Employee recruitment
Television and radio ads can frequently reap much more bang for the buck than newspaper ads. Especially if the audience you are targeting is likely to be watching television or listening to the radio at a predictable time. John Salter, president of Salter Transportation Inc. in Newbury, Mass., says that he targets retired or semi-retired people and mothers who want to take their children with them to work. He’s designed and produced ads that run on about 15 cable TV stations, such as CNN, ESPN, USA and TNT. The ads get his operation an average of 100 different exposures over the course of a month, and cost less than running a decent-sized newspaper ad for a week, says Salter. “I can’t remember the last time we had a driver shortage,” notes Salter, who started this year with three or four drivers to spare. At Washington Elementary School District in Phoenix, driver recruitment ads take on a unique form. Last year, for instance, the district selected one of its most personable, professional drivers and had a local TV reporter ride the bus and follow her to her stops. “It was like one of the things you see filmed professionally, because she got along real well with the kids,” explains Transportation Director Bob Allen. The video was instrumental in recruiting drivers, as it gave a positive face to the profession. In fact, Allen says, the driver shortage he’s experiencing this year is lighter than ever. “It [the video] really got us a lot of comment, because she made bus driving look like so much fun,” says Allen. Video segments are not the only way to make use of the broadcast media for driver recruitment. If you can secure some time on a local cable channel, for example, you can run a text ad on television. The Borger (Texas) Independent School District runs a scrolling Microsoft PowerPoint presentation on a local cable channel 24-hours-a-day. The presentation, which includes district announcements, school information and other data, features a few slides advertising the transportation department and its job openings. This enables the department to get widespread exposure without having to go through the process of filming an ad. 2. Image boosting
Television, radio and film can each be used to broaden the public’s understanding of the industry. At St. Johns (Fla.) School District, a local talk radio show broadcasts three school bus drivers’ names each morning and details the good job they are doing. Similarly, the Minneapolis branch of First Student Inc. launched a Cool School Bus Salute program last year, whereby it singled out exemplary drivers and passengers for recognition on television and radio. Joyce Rhoades, regional safety manager for First Student, says that it was important to use the company’s media funding to help promote the industry. Through affiliations with Radio Disney, KDWB, KKMS, and AT&T Broadband, she was able to do just that. “I view it as an inspiration to help drivers do their job well,” notes salute winner Juedi Lapowski-Alexander. Geoff Rodgers, transportation director for Los Alamos (Texas) Public Schools, uses a local radio show as a vessel for his message about school transportation. “I’m trying to change the image of drivers, by highlighting the variety that we have in our department,” he says. “We have a guy with a Ph.D., we have an opera singer and a mortgage broker.” By improving the image of drivers, says Rodgers, the industry will have a better reputation and he will have fewer vacancies to fill on his staff. 3. Industry development
Another route you can take to promote your operation, to your own staff and to the public, is to produce a school transportation video. Thomas Merrill, president of Faribault (Minn.) Transportation, says his company has produced two inspirational videos that are shown in student assemblies and to community clubs and organizations. Focusing on the importance of teamwork, Faribault’s videos feature students, faculty, drivers and community members discussing topics such as vandalism, video cameras and rider behavior. In one video, a student relives the fear he felt on his first bus ride to school in kindergarten. A driver reveals that he visits every new kindergarten rider at home before the first day of school to alleviate such fears. “The message [of the video] needs to be positive, because people will follow when they feel good about things,” notes Merrill. Though he had no filmmaking training, Merrill says he was able to shoot and edit the films for about $1,500 apiece, thanks to the help of many volunteers. “These tapes have as much of a message for the people working in the system as they do for the kids,” says Merrill, noting that an enjoyable, cooperative work environment is key to recruiting and retaining staff. 4. Relaying information
Arthur Keller, transportation director for York (Neb.) Public Schools, believes that the media should be used for more than just public relations purposes. He calls reporters when emergency situations arise and delivers information to update the public. When an activity bus was held up due to a tornado warning, Keller turned to the media to disseminate the message. “I called the radio station and told them to broadcast that the buses with the soccer teams were held up at a town west of us and that we were holding them up there until there was an opening,” says Keller. “When it opened, I gave them the exact time they would be arriving and they put us on the air when they [the buses] arrived.” Keller says that knowing what’s going on while their children are in transit relieves a lot of anxiety among parents and community members. 5. Safety training
The mainstream television news programs feed on safety issues involving school transportation. It falls on school bus operators to educate the public on school bus safety and allay unfounded fears. At Paradise Valley (Ariz.) Unified School District, TV news coverage has focused on the importance of children sitting properly in their seats, along with instruction on the basics of compartmentalization. Using the TV news in this way enables operators to effectively educate a wide audience on school bus safety. North Carolina Public Schools are entering into the third year of a partnership with Alltel, a telephone service provider, which helps them disseminate school bus safety messages statewide via the North Carolina News Network. This school year, Alltel will provide a total of 65 public service announcements on school bus safety that will air on 85 affiliate radio stations. The announcements, drafted by Derek Graham, North Carolina’s section chief of transportation services, cover such topics as back-to-school safety, School Bus Safety Week activities and the importance of stopping for loading and unloading school buses. In addition to the public service announcements, Alltel publicizes school bus safety issues in the Community Calendar section of the Raleigh News and Observer and the Greensboro News and Record several times over the course of the year. 6. Community education
At Marion County (Fla.) School District, Kevin Christian, public relations and communications officer, has used TV broadcasts to educate parents and community members on the issue of school bus overcrowding. The news coverage focused on the newly combined middle school and high school routes, which saved the district $1.8 million over the old routing system. Concerned parents were interviewed in the broadcast. They communicated fears that their children were being placed in danger by sitting three-to-a-seat or standing in the aisles on overcrowded buses. “We are not putting kids at risk,” Christian said, noting that the overcrowding was a temporary situation occurring at the beginning of the school year. Upon further investigation, standees were determined to be students who chose not to sit in the seats available to them - a situation Christian vowed to remedy. “As you know, the first of every school year presents big challenges when it comes to overcrowding on buses. We endured several press stories questioning the decision to combine routes, but in the end garnered great exposure and support for the move,” says Christian. By addressing the public’s concerns on television, administrators at Marion County Schools helped calm not only those parents’ fears, but also the unspoken fears of silent community members. 7. Fueling initiatives
Christian notes that the media can also be a great resource for establishing an alliance with the public on transportation issues. “By pitching the story as a news item affecting students as well as parents, we are able to disseminate our message rather quickly,” explains Christian. For example, a recent budget cutback reduced Marion County’s funding by $16 million. To prevent that money from coming out of the classroom, much of it was taken from other areas, such as transportation. Among the impacts of the budget crisis were combining middle school and high school routes and the potential suspension of courtesy busing (a decision that was later overturned). The TV news coverage of the potential busing cutbacks focused on children who would have to walk to school on country roads with no sidewalks. “These children are being made to walk in unsafe conditions. Not just in my area, but in other areas,” noted Terry Price, a concerned parent interviewed in the report. Superintendent James Warford went on the air to calm parental fears and explain the situation. “Safety is not going to be compromised,” he said. “But, where children can walk to school, there’s no money in the budget to pick those kids up. We cannot provide every service for every parent and every child,” he explained. Though nearly 75 parents had complained about the proposed suspension of busing for middle school and high school students who lived within a two-mile radius of the school, Christian says that speaking out on television and radio enabled him to build an alliance with the public. He explained on television why the cutbacks were necessary and where they would have to take place. He also made it clear that he wanted public input, inviting viewers to attend the school board meeting. Though the suspension of courtesy busing was not implemented, the combining of middle school and high school routes was. “We used print, radio and television to convince our community that this was the best way to save $1.8 million this year alone,” says Christian. 8. Publicizing meetings
Many school districts, including Marion County Schools, broadcast school board meeting on a local cable channel. This, according to Christian, can be an invaluable tool for communicating with the public and soliciting public opinion. “Our board meetings are televised, so we utilized this opportunity to present our reasons for the budget cuts,” he says. In addition to broadcasting board meetings, making occasional announcements on television or radio updating the public about the department’s developments can be especially effective. At St. John’s School District, Purvis speaks periodically on a local noon or drive-home call-in radio show. “Discussions revolve around practices, procedures and questions from callers,” says Purvis. Simply staying in the public eye and being responsive to their inquiries can go a long way toward boosting an operation’s image.
Besides the traditional media, there are other effective ways to promote your operation and generate positive public awareness. Some measures take planning, money and careful coordination among staff members, while others are relatively simple and inexpensive. In either case, the value of a solid reputation will outweigh the costs incurred creating it. The key is to expose your operation to as many people within your community as possible. The following 10 methods will help your department build a stronger image. 1. Open your house
A common problem associated with student transportation, especially early in the school year, is a high number of unreasonable requests made by parents. These requests are partially due to a lack of communication between parents and transportation staff. Parents often don’t take the initiative to find the answers to their questions beforehand. Consequently, it is the department’s burden to reach parents in advance and ensure that the answers are available. One way to do this, while getting some extra publicity, is to hold a transportation open house, in which parents, students and other interested parties have the opportunity to meet staff members and learn more about school transportation. At an open house, you can speak directly with parents and students, cutting down on the potential for them to be ignorant of important rules, regulations and safety issues. If organizing and preparing such an open house is too taxing, work in conjunction with the schools, which already provide their own open houses. These meetings provide a forum for many members of the community to interact with both educators and transportation personnel. 2. Keep a high profile
At some point, most school bus operations have an opportunity to participate in community events or public functions attended by a large number of people. These activities let the community see the operation, and they are usually covered by the press. They also can help to establish a working relationship with other local services such as the police and fire departments. Parades, fairs, festivals, cookouts and holiday celebrations are all events that fall into this category. “We participate in as many community activities as possible,” says Karen Gullett, director of transportation for Montgomery County Schools in Mt. Sterling, Ky. “We take part in an annual Memorial Day parade and a Christmas in the Park ceremony and attend all school open houses and safety fairs,” she says. Gullett maintains that if you do a good job for the community, people will always be there for you when you need them. Jim Penton, director of transportation for Sycamore (Ill.) School District, says that taking part in a local parade shows the transportation department to the public in a different light. “Every year, we enter one of our newest school buses in the local parade and decorate it. It really shows the taxpayers what their money is doing,” he says. 3. Ads can build image
You can build the image of your department and of the industry itself by placing specific messages in as many visible places as possible. The themes of these advertisements should emphasize important school transportation issues. For example, in Delaware, school bus safety messages are imprinted on state employee paycheck stubs. Other operations rent space on billboards and benches showing school buses and children, forewarning drivers of their presence at the beginning of each school year. Most school bus operations have a limited budget, so advertising can be difficult. However, many companies are willing to provide funding for this type of endeavor. Businesses will sponsor safety campaigns and the like as a method of gaining their own positive publicity and a reputation for community involvement. Additionally, operations can place transportation department announcements or notices of achievement on school marquees at no cost. 4. Freebies, with a message
If budgetary constraints leave little room for expensive promotional activities, you must be more creative with your efforts. One idea is to create posters, T-shirts or other inexpensive items that can be given out or even sold to people in the community. Some of these can be given to local businesses where they will be displayed in a popular setting. Placemats at restaurants or welcome mats in front of shop doors are good examples. At Vineland (N.J.) Board of Education, brochures and calendars are made each year and distributed throughout the school and local community. “The calendars are a wonderful program,” says Joseph Callavini, coordinator of transportation/registration services for the district. “We mail them to every student in the district and pass them out on open house night,” he says. They are also placed at strategic points around the schools for anyone to pick up. Callavini adds that making these items is ideal for the school board’s limited budget because they are low-cost. 5. A catchy phrase helps
Another way to spread awareness about the importance of school transportation is to coin a slogan or catchy saying that will help people remember the work of your department. It can be used to describe a specific event, program or activity. The goal is to spread this slogan around to drivers, school administrators, parents, teachers and students. If possible, print it on banners, posters, signs or any other transportation-related documents. Montgomery County’s Gullett says that her department has come up with a motto –“Kentucky’s Team to Beat.” They print it on company letterhead and on fax cover pages. She says that it not only adds to the district’s reputation but also “encourages our staff and drivers to work together as a team.” 6. Charity works wonders
Investing time and effort in a charity or a philanthropic event will give your operation very positive exposure. Charitable programs are always looking for people to participate, and there are plenty of community service activities that you can organize independently. Functions like food drives, charitable donations and collections present an opportunity to give to the needy, sick, disabled and other charities, while providing a forum for communicating with the public. Kathleen Braselton, supervisor of transportation for the School Board of Manatee County in Bradenton, Fla., says that her department takes part in several charity events such as a “Fill the Bus” partnership with Wal-Mart, which provides school supplies to disadvantaged children. These programs, she says, offer help to a specific cause, while letting the operation talk with members of the community. “We try to be involved in any event for children that is going on in the district. It gives us a chance to get safety information out to the public and in turn recruit new school bus drivers, aides and monitors,” she says. 7. Ride coattails
If a well-known elected official is coming to town for a public appearance, it might be an opportunity to piggyback some publicity for your transportation program. For example, Florida’s lieutenant governor, Frank Brogan, recently spoke at an event in Bradenton and used Manatee County school district’s Buster the Bus to help with the presentation. Both were featured on the local news. Earlier this year, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White traveled across the state with an animated character called Toby the Tire to promote educational initiatives and school bus safety to children in grades K-3. In combination, White and the photogenic animatron guaranteed ample coverage of his presentations in local newspapers around the state. 8. Impress with data
If there is one quality of school transportation worth publicizing consistently, it is the incredible safety record of school buses. A compilation of facts and figures on school transportation is a major asset to an operation looking to strengthen its community image. Crash and injury statistics for school buses are impressive, especially when compared with those of students who drive themselves or ride with parents. Sharing this information at events or in distributed documents is an effective way to spread good news about pupil transportation. Cave Creek (Ariz.) Unified School District recently worked with the Arizona Department of Public Safety in a public awareness program for school bus safety. During the event - which included serving refreshments to the public, giving coloring books to children and conducting an in-service driver training meeting - transportation staff distributed safety literature and statistics to attendees. Cathy Erwin, transportation director for Cave Creek, says that passing out positive information, including statistics collected by the Department of Public Safety, is a great way to connect with people. “It really convinces people of how safe we are,” she says. 9. Go ahead, make my day
Creating a special day with celebratory events, contests, awards banquets and other activities will help an operation build a solid reputation. Holiday-type days improve the morale and camaraderie among staff and give the public a chance to see a more appealing side of the industry. These days should be dedicated to a specific theme or cause and can provide an occasion to reward employees for their performance. On Oct. 18, 2000, the Utah State Office of Education initiated a school bus driver appreciation day. The public relations director for the office worked with Governor Michael Leavitt and drafted a declaration for the observance. It was the first special day ever called into effect and signed by a governor in Utah. Brent Huffman, the state director of pupil transportation for Utah, says that copies of the declaration were sent out to every school district in the state, and most of them held special programs to honor their drivers. “We left it up to the districts how to celebrate. One district had its own proclamation of events, others had banquets but every district did something to celebrate,” he says. The office is currently working on making the driver appreciation day an annual event. 10. Work with schools
Schools frequently offer educational and community service-oriented programs that your school bus operation may be able to take part in. These activities can improve relations among transportation staff, administrators and educators. Also, they provide a means of procuring positive publicity, while helping attain a specific goal. Examples of these types of programs are safety campaigns that include both bus and school safety lessons, transportation for special activities and any form of instruction on the bus ride. Colorado Springs School District 11 has taken part in a number of similar programs. One of them is the “Reading on Wheels” program, in which the schools provide students with books to read on the bus based on their age and reading level. If the student proves to be a good participant in the program, he or she is rewarded with a new book to keep. Michelle Mockerman, head of certification, safety and training for the district, fully endorses the program. “It promotes literacy and helps to control the behavior on the school bus,” she says. She also notes that these types of programs show the people in your community what your operation does, making them more likely to help and support you.
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