Does good news really travel fast?
In other words, are people outside of your operation likely to hear about the good deeds, the discipline and the dedication of your school bus drivers?
Many people — even among those who work for school districts — are not aware of the training, testing and daily challenges that the job entails. And certainly many are oblivious to the superior safety record that drivers and others in the pupil transportation industry have worked to achieve.
But is the public even interested in all of this school bus business?
According to Kimberly Eloe, communications specialist at Dallas County Schools, “Parents increasingly want to be involved in their children’s education — including the transportation element. It’s important to let them know what we’re doing to ensure safety and that the bad things are rarities.”
Bonnie Russell, general manager of transportation at Houston Independent School District, says that good news happens every day in her department, and it should be heard outside of the department as well as inside.
“We want to help the public understand how tough the job of a bus driver is,” Russell says. “This is a very dedicated group of men and women.”
Inform the public
Eloe is charged with creating community awareness of what’s going on with transportation and other services that Dallas County Schools, an intermediary agency, provides the various independent school districts throughout the county.
Terry Penn, executive director of transportation at the agency, and Eloe have developed a strong business relationship and work toward spreading good news.
“Our main avenue is press releases,” Eloe says. “I try to send out one or two a month that highlight the positive things we’re doing.”
One of those positive things involves a driver who has helped tutor her passengers (see sidebar on pg. 30). In this case, a parent contacted Dallas County Schools and asked, “How do you recognize bus drivers?”
Eloe, whose position is in the agency’s public information office, says she encourages the transportation department to let her know what’s going on. She also stays up to date by attending transportation meetings.
For pupil transporters that don’t have access to a public information office, press secretary or other entity of that sort, contacting the press yourself is feasible. Eloe says that the chances of getting a school bus-related story in the paper or on TV are probably better in areas less populous than Dallas, where she has worked to get on good terms with reporters.
“I think that smaller communities tend to have more of a desire for this type of information; they’re more invested in their community,” Eloe says.
Eloe suggests sending out press releases or making calls to media outlets on slower news days. In general, holidays are good bets. Days following major events, such as a Hurricane Katrina, are not.
At Houston Independent School District, the transportation department works with the district’s press secretary. When good news occurs, Russell says she brings it to his attention. He then forwards a summary to his contacts in the media.
Recently, a Houston school bus driver made it into the local news for helping to prevent a 6-year-old passenger from choking to death.
Gwendolyn Hardy, a 27-year veteran driver for the district, took decisive action after the girl swallowed a rubber band and began to choke. After assessing the situation, Hardy called base, which in turn called emergency responders. The youngster was taken to the hospital and made a full recovery.
Hardy was later interviewed by Houston’s KTRK-TV.
“She was in trouble, and I did what I was trained to do,” Hardy told the station. “These are my babies — my bus babies.”
While a story doesn’t necessarily need to involve a lifesaving effort, it helps when there’s a more personal, human element to it. Russell says that her district has sent out media advisories on things like emissions reduction that don’t end up drawing much interest.
Peter Lawrence, director of transportation at Fairport (N.Y.) Central School District, says that he typically works with his district’s public relations department when he wants to get the word out about something. But he has also dealt directly with a reporter at the Perinton-Fairport Post.
“If he has questions about transportation, he feels comfortable calling me, and I can call him as well,” Lawrence says.