Class Action: PR in Schools (1991)
Charting the future of public relations
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Class Action: PR in Schools (1991)

Paul Holmes

 

In 1988, business donated around $2.1 billion to edu­cational causes, of which only about ten per cent went to public schools (the rest being spent on universities and vocational colleges.) Last year, the total business commitment to education was closer to $4 billion, and considerably more money was being directed toward children from kindergarten through 12th grade.

The declining standard of public school education in the United States is clearly one of the major concerns of busi­ness leaders, who are already seeing its results in an untrained and often illiterate and innumerate workforce, and who fear its implications for their future competi­tiveness. Today's educational programs are more likely to target disadvantaged inner-city high schools than the alma maters of CEOs.

"We've finally realized that you can't wait until college to develop critical­ thinking skills," says Sharon Hake, a pub­lic affairs specialist who runs DuPont's $15 million elementary and secondary school contribution program.

Programs such as that initiated by Apple Computer in 1978, offering educa­tion grants and free computer equipment to school administrators who come up with proposals for improving education, are becoming increasingly commonplace. So are mentoring schemes like one launched by the Federal National Mortgage Association in 1988, with execu­tives working one-on-one with students at an inner-city high school.

Apple chairman and CEO John Sculley explains his company's involvement thus: "In the Industrial Age, success in the cor­porate world was measured by the size of your enterprise. This is not the case in the information economy. The strategic resources of our economy, which are information and ideas, no longer come out of the ground. In this context, suddenly you begin to realize how important our public education system is."

Even so, there are some who believe that corporate America must shoulder some of the responsibility for the current state of education, having supported federal government in reducing many of the pro­grams that aided—both directly and indi­rectly- public high schools, particularly in inner-city or minority communities.

"When Ronald Reagan assumed the Presidency in 1980, he claimed a mandate to shrink the role of government in peo­ple's lives," says J. Richard Johnson, direc­tor of corporate communications for the National Bank of Detroit, writing in a recent White Paper of the Public Relations Society of America. "That philosophy manifested itself in a rollback or redirec­tion of social programs where government touched the lives of individual citizens.

"For the most part business leaders were pleased with the conservative approach of the Reagan administration. Many, however, were less sanguine about the increased responsibility of the private sector for social and economic needs. The federal government appeared to be aban­doning social programs aimed at people in need and leaving such concerns to a pri­vate sector that was generally ill-equipped to assume the task."

Indeed, it was not until the end of the Reagan era—when the effects of social program cuts on education became evident—that companies began to pick up the slack, driven as much by a realization that the sup­port of education was in their own interest as by the idea that it constituted good corporate citizenship.

Ron Watt, chairman and CEO of Cleveland-based PR agency Watt Roop & Co., has worked with several clients to promote educa­tion-related programs, and has involved his own agency in programs that tackle illiteracy. He says the motivation, for most companies is twofold: first, a realization that improving educational standards is good for business and second, that campaigns promoting education "are almost a definition of good corporate citi­zenship."

Some companies, clearly, get a more direct benefit from education-related pro­grams. Apple and IBM, for example, both make the majority of their grants to pro­grams that involve the use of computers, and their public relations efforts are geared to winning the hearts and minds of educators who are also potential cus­tomers. Bic, the pen manufacturer, spon­sors a program to encourage writing and heavily brands the materials it sends into schools.

The New York Stock Exchange's motives in funding a videotape that explains how public markets work are equally obvious, as are GTE's in promot­ing a program that aims to interest high school students in science.

Others have used their corporate advertising money to draw attention to the problems facing schools. Rockwell International last year created a program that focused on the need for an educated workforce, featuring students and Rockwell employees involved in a variety of the company's more than 200 educa­tions programs. Ashland Oil recently ran a series of ads urging young people in its Ohio and Kentucky headquarters areas to stay in school.

"Ashland is one of the largest employ­ers in Ohio and the largest company in Kentucky," says Jay De Bow, president of the New York PR firm that bears his name. "It has been involved in education issues for almost a decade."

Two other Ashland pro­grams have focused on funding visits by young people from inner city and disadvantaged backgrounds to college campuses, allow­ing them a first-hand glimpse of an environment many would not otherwise be exposed to, and a series called "Recipes for Self Esteem," which helps young people overcome low self-esteem and has even be extended to make teachers feel better about their work.

Mentoring programs are another pop­ular means of getting involved. Procter & Gamble has donated more than $1 million to the Cincinnati Youth Collabo­rative, and encourages employees to get involved with students on a one-to-­one basis, placing one exec­utive on two-year loan to help set up the programs. Similarly, Kodak encour­ages employees to do vol­unteer work with students, both in schools and in Kodak plants, where they demonstrate the real life applications of scientific principals.

Such programs have their critics. Consumers Union has said that the majority of corporate education programs are "brainwashing and not advertising." Others suggest that while one purpose of education is to provide workers for American corporations, it should not be the only—or even the pri­mary purpose. And others questions whether business, which does not have an immaculate record of educating its own people, should be encouraged to get involved in the education of the nation's youth.

Is it too far-fetched to suggest that while there are things business would like young people to learn, there are other things it would prefer them not to: the history of the labor movement in America, for example, or economic theories that emphasize private profit-motive less heav­ily than our own?

Such criticism is infrequent however. Ron Watt says the response to his clients' education-related activities has been almost universally favorable.

One of Watt's clients, Society Corp., was among the pioneers in the "adopt-a-high ­school" movement that has been gathering momentum recently, and the agency has donated its time to Project: LEARN a regional program that has provided one-on-­one tutoring to older students who read at third-grade level or below.

"This is a cause that public relations profession­als have to be involved in," says Watt. "It's all about the ability to communi­cate."

The National Bank of Detroit's Richard Johnson agrees: "The process of partnership building will rely heavily on the public relations function, because it begins together the skills of constituency analysis, research and communica­tions. The practitioner must be clear, however, that a decision to proceed must have the commitment of executive management.

"If a business-community partnership is viewed as only a publicity tool, it is almost certainly doomed to failure."

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