Photo by Scott Goble

Photo by Scott Goble

I returned recently from a school bus conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, as part of an NAPT delegation to the 2016 UITP MENA Transport Congress and Exhibition.

While many parts of the Middle East are war-torn, and that’s all you see on the evening news, that’s not the case in other parts of the Arab world where there’s a far more sophisticated overlay occurring rapidly. You can’t visit the Emirates without coming away in awe of what they’re accomplishing and the level of their commitment to civic enterprise, including a desire to have a high quality pupil transportation system.

And, our yellow school bus industry is the model they are emulating.

In fact, they believe the two areas where the U.S. still leads the world are the production of semi-conductors and school transportation! They also believe we are losing our edge in the former but are continuing to lead in the latter.

What an incredible acknowledgement. The more I thought about it, what stood out is this: How can it be that half a world away, they think we’re the best and are trying to emulate us, when back in the U.S. so many school districts seem to be fighting never-ending battles just to keep buses running, and the public served often seems dispassionate?

I’ve written previously in these pages about the importance of connecting the school bus brand with words like safety, efficiency, and reliability. Getting school buses rolling on time every morning and afternoon is a big job with many moving parts to synchronize. I’d bet most people in your community never give much thought to just how much confusion and traffic congestion there would be if children didn’t have a reliable way to get to and from school every day; how chaotic the start of the school day would be for teachers and administrators if students didn’t arrive at school en masse; or that pupil transportation is the largest (and arguably most efficient) mass transit system in the country.

So, I’m back on the soap box again because you’re receiving this issue of School Bus Fleet as another August-September back-to-school news cycle commences. There is no better time every year to beat the drum about what you do and why you do it well, because the news media across the country is focused on the start of the school year and is looking for stories.

If they aren’t served up good story leads, they’ll take whatever ones they can find, some of which not only don’t help our brand but actually harm it. Things like, “School bus breaks down. Children late for school.” Or, “They moved my child’s bus stop and didn’t tell me.”

Sadly, stories of this ilk are all too common this time of year because they’re easy to write and meet the goal of generating back-to-school stories. We play into this lethargic reporting by not offering something better to write about.

Mike Martin is executive director of NAPT.

Mike Martin is executive director of NAPT.

So beginning this year, the six organizations that make up the American School Bus Council are going to take a page from political strategists and “change the narrative and the optics.”

How? By recognizing the phenomenal impact of social media and employing it to promote the yellow school bus. We will encourage reporters coast-to-coast to cover our industry via a continuous stream of tweets and other electronic messaging, suggesting newsworthy stories that are mostly untold. Topics will include safety facts, security measures, environmental benefits of yellow transportation, the contribution of school buses to the educational day, and more.

We hope this approach will ultimately lead to a better snapshot of who we are, what we do, and, most importantly, why it’s a valuable community asset.

Every school district is encouraged to help play a role in this communications effort by showcasing what happens “behind the curtain” every school day. In short, talk about the hard work that goes into facilitating learning by contributing safe and reliable transportation. Your participation is critically important because reporters always want a local angle. If we pique their interest in school bus security measures, for example, they’ll want to know what you are doing about it in the local school district.

Done well, our work will pay off in greater awareness and more favorable impressions in the communities we serve. Together, we can make a difference, telling the story that’s considered exceptional on the other side of the globe but still largely ignored here.

Let’s make “Back to School 2016” a standout for creating greater awareness of the important contributions of the yellow school bus.