Across the pupil transportation industry, there are positive stories unfolding every day — heroic acts performed, service milestones reached, innovative safety programs launched — but they don’t always make the evening news.
While some reporters might be more inclined to cover the rare shocking incidents involving school buses, the mainstream media isn’t the only way to inform the community of your department’s successes. It might just require a more extroverted approach.
As Pete Meslin puts it, people who work in school transportation tend to “fly under the radar.”
“It’s frequently not in our makeup to be out in the public bragging about ourselves,” says Meslin, the director of transportation at Newport-Mesa Unified School District in Costa Mesa, California. “However, there is a massive benefit to your organization for people to know about the good things you’re doing.”
The benefits of good PR can include increased support from the school board and the community, improved staff morale and an enhanced reputation as a great place to work — which helps with recruiting efforts.
Consider these 15 tips for promoting the positive things that are happening at your operation.
1. Identify good news
Some developments at your operation will be obviously newsworthy; others might be subtler but still of interest to the public. Here are several types of positive pupil transportation news stories, all of which we’ve seen covered in the nation’s news outlets:
• A school bus driver or other staff member performing a heroic act, like saving a choking student.
• A driver going beyond his or her usual duties. For example, launching a reading program on the bus.
• A driver or other staff member reaching a milestone anniversary, such as 30 or 40 years on the job.
• What it takes to become a school bus driver — the array of training, testing and checks required for the job, which many people in your community might not be aware of.
• Safety achievements, such as high scores on state school bus inspections.
• A driver or technician qualifying for a national school bus safety or maintenance competition.
• Going green — implementing an anti-idling program, adopting alternative fuels, retrofitting older buses with filters to reduce emissions, etc.
• Professional development — a transportation director or other staff member earning a certification, such as those offered by the National Association for Pupil Transportation.
2. Go social
While most school districts have a general Facebook or Twitter page for the district, it could prove useful to set up a social media account specifically for your transportation department.
At Seminole County (Fla.) Public Schools, the transportation department has its own Facebook page, www.facebook.com/scpstransportation. The department uses the account to provide safety and service announcements and to share good news with the community. Also, posts that are just intended for transportation employees can be limited to that group.
“The employees and public have really used this avenue of communication,” says Julie Murphy, Seminole’s assistant director of transportation.
Of course, social media shout-outs from others in the district can provide good exposure. Tracy Clark, public information officer for Broward County (Fla.) Public Schools, says that after school bus driver Gwendolyn Brinson and attendant Kathy Ritter protected a student from a man accused of lewd behavior, Superintendent Robert Runcie tweeted about it to his more than 2,000 Twitter followers.
3. Work with district PR people
If your school district has a communications or public relations office, develop a working relationship with them and occasionally share story ideas with them. They can help get the word out by writing a press release, talking to their contacts in the media or promoting the news through the district website or newsletter.
At Round Rock (Texas) Independent School District (ISD), communications personnel recently helped promote the transportation team’s valiant efforts.
In late February, a group of 230 Round Rock ISD students, staff and chaperones who were in the Dallas area for a competition got stranded in icy conditions. Their charter bus provider canceled the trip because of the inclement weather. So Round Rock Director of Transportation Fritz Klabunde led a group of seven school bus drivers nearly 200 miles along snow-covered highways to pick up the group and bring them back safely.
To share that story, a district communications staff member took a photo of the transportation team and posted it with an article on the district’s website and Twitter feed. From there, district students and parents passed the story along to their own followers, and then the local media picked up on it and came out to interview Klabunde and the drivers.
Klabunde says that the positive coverage has “really brought a different attitude and shed a different light on our department.” It has boosted his staff’s sense of pride, he adds, and it will even be used in a new recruiting campaign.
4. Make a video
Shooting a video is a great way to convey safety messages and to present school bus drivers and other transportation staff in a positive light. Some operations have created fun and catchy music videos. For numerous examples, click on the “Videos” tab at schoolbusfleet.com. A few highlights to look for are “School Bus Shuffle,” “School Bus Jive” and “Father prepares son for first school bus ride.” Tying in with tip No. 3, if your district has a communications person, he or she can probably help with a video project.
5. Work with local media
In some cases, transportation directors may be able to develop their own relationships with local reporters, particularly those who cover the education beat. “Just don’t release anything without district permission,” advises Walter Prothro, director of transportation for Georgetown (Texas) ISD.
Meslin recommends writing and submitting articles to the local newspaper. “They are always looking for new content. Seize that opportunity to publicize the great things you’re doing.”
Kim Crabtree, director of transportation at Greater Albany (Ore.) Public Schools, has gotten connected with a reporter at the local newspaper.
“[The reporter] is really good about promoting when my drivers do well at local-level roadeos or safety exercises. She’ll put their pictures in the paper,” Crabtree says. “If they go on to nationals, she’ll write a little article. Of course, she’ll also contact me if things don’t go right. [But] she’s more than happy to put a little PR in the paper.”
6. Hold an event
Interesting events often attract media coverage. There are opportunities throughout the year — such as school start, National School Bus Safety Week in October and Love the Bus in February — to put on an event that promotes school bus safety, recognizes drivers and potentially makes the news.
Prothro of Georgetown ISD recommends publicizing training sessions on topics like first aid, terrorism awareness and bus evacuations. “We have a week of training at start-up this year that we are going to arrange press coverage for,” he says.
Greater Albany Public Schools has been holding events in which prospective drivers can get behind the wheel of a yellow bus. Crabtree’s contact at the local newspaper has covered the events, which have been successful in recruiting new drivers for the district.
Washoe County (Nev.) School District stages an annual event to showcase its winter preparedness. Todd Duncan, assistant transportation director, explains that drivers take part in a competition in which they install tire chains on their buses. Also, transportation officials talk about the procedures that are in place to deal with winter weather, and there is a wheelchair loading competition for bus aides.
Broward holds a back-to-school tour in which Superintendent Runcy rides a bus. Clark says that all of the local media outlets come out to cover it. “We work really closely with the transportation department on this,” Clark adds.
7. Give presentations
Take advantage of opportunities to give presentations — whether it’s at a conference or a school board meeting — as another way to tell your department’s story. “It’s important to highlight the complexity and scope of the services we provide,” Newport-Mesa’s Meslin says. “When doing so, be certain to highlight the core values of your department.”
8. Send out a newsletter
Newsletters are an efficient way to disseminate information within the transportation department, throughout the district and to the community.
The Seminole transportation department produces a monthly newsletter, dubbed BUSLINE. The publication includes a calendar for the month, announcements and good news, such as kudos letters. Leila Link, an administrative assistant, serves as editor of the newsletter.
A recent issue featured photos from the transportation department’s annual fundraising efforts in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life. “It is just one of the things we do to give back to the community,” Murphy says of the fundraiser.
At Fairport (N.Y.) Central School District, Director of Transportation Peter Lawrence sends out an email bulletin about once a month. The bulletins go to transportation staff members as well as to district administrators, principals and vice principals, and school board members. “It’s a great way to make them aware of what’s going on,” Lawrence says.
9. Have talking points at the ready
As another way to promote the value of school transportation, Meslin recommends having talking points, such as your operation’s key metrics, handy at all times. “You never know when an administrator, customer or boss might be conversing with you,” Meslin says. “For example, mentioning how many total miles your buses travel per year is frequently a very impressive statistic to cite.”
10. Awards: give and receive
Presenting departmental awards to staff members or nominating them for outside awards is a great way to recognize dedicated employees for their efforts and to promote those efforts outside of the department.
At Broward, the transportation department nominated Brinson and Ritter — the driver and aide who protected a student, as noted earlier — for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Bus Operator of the Year award. Broward Terminal Manager Rick Rothberg says that the school bus duo’s vigilance is representative of “the quality of our staff and how much they care about kids.”
Salem-Keizer Public Schools in Salem, Oregon, gives out a positive-acknowledgement award called “The Pickle.” Teachers can nominate school bus drivers who provide extraordinary customer service. Michael Shields, director of transportation and auxiliary services, honors Pickle recipients at “Dialogue with the Director” meetings that he holds with staff.
Meslin recommends recognizing partners from outside of the transportation department.
“If there’s a relationship that your department has built with another department or school site, publicize this beneficial connection by nominating a key member of their team to a district-wide or company-wide award,” Meslin says. “Make sure you point out the benefits to the customers achieved through the hard work of your partner. People will get the message about the good things you’re doing without you having to make it about yourself or your department.”
11. Post messages in the driver lounge
Promoting good news isn’t just an external effort. Informing employees within the transportation department of the positive things that are happening can help boost morale and instill pride in the team’s work.
At Salem-Keizer, electronic reader boards in the driver lounge display a variety of messages, such as safety reminders, welcome notes for new drivers and recognitions of drivers of the month. The reader boards are “one of the ways that we try to keep our folks informed,” Shields says.
Fairport’s transportation department has a magnetic board for daily announcements. Along with such items as news stories and policy reminders, Lawrence posts positive comments about staff members.
“When someone calls in to recognize a driver or attendant, we’ll ask them to submit an email to the director,” Lawrence says. “I’ll respond to that person and copy in the assistant superintendent of business and the superintendent of schools. I’ll also meet with the [staff member], give them a copy of the email and put it in their file, and I’ll ask if they don’t mind sharing it on our daily announcement board.”
12. Create a slogan
Clark of Broward County Public Schools says that the district has been rejuvenating its transportation department. To help promote that effort, one of the school bus drivers came up with a slogan, “On the Road to Success.” T-shirts with that wording were made and distributed to all of the drivers. Also, the driver who devised the slogan was recognized at a school board meeting.
13. Use buses for good PR
The school buses themselves can help promote a positive image of your operation. Prothro of Georgetown ISD recommends performing “really good external maintenance. Make your buses shine for the public.” Similarly, bus drivers’ appearance can affect the community’s perception of the transportation department and the district. “Have good dress, grooming and hygiene standards that can be enforced,” Prothro suggests.
14. Take part in community gatherings
County fairs, parades, safety events and other community gatherings can serve as opportunities to inform the public on school bus safety topics and to enhance the transportation department’s public image. At Greater Albany, Crabtree is planning to talk about transportation at “kindergarten roundup” events — in which incoming kindergartners and their parents visit their new school before the year starts. “We’ll dazzle them with statistics on how safe we are and the service we provide,” Crabtree says.
15. Contact us
As you may know, there are publications that cover school bus industry news. School Bus Fleet is one of those publications. Send us an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) when you have success stories or other positive developments to share. Even if it’s just a quick note about a job promotion, a retirement or an award, we’ll help get the word out.