I had the pleasure yesterday of participating in a discussion with Dale Russakoff, author of The Prize.
Her book reports on what happened in Newark, NJ, when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million towards an overhaul of the city's failing school system.
The idea was to use Newark as a "national model" from which other urban school districts could learn.
Russakoff drew many lessons from her 5-year investigation, but two especially resonated with me:
- A top-down effort to change an entrenched system doesn't work, It has to be bottoms-up. The people affected need to be part of finding a solution.
- If you want to improve the education of students in disadvantaged areas, you have to focus on more than what goes in the classroom. You have to address their family and social environments as well.
It struck me that addressing issues like those is what the function of public relations is all about.
Not the kind of PR that deals in schmoozing public officials, issuing news releases, or staging photo ops, though all those tactics play a role. But the kind of public relations focused on building and nurturing dialog with communities.
The Newark experiment had some notable successes, such as bringing in a number of new school principals who were able to coach and develop their teaching staffs. But it never achieved its lofty goal of serving as a model for other school districts. And as Rustikoff vividly describes, its biggest mistake was trying to shove a pre-conceived solution down the throats of local communities.
A good public relations counselor would have advised against a top-down approach and would have made community outreach the engine of the process. It would have been messier and taken longer, but it would have had a better chance of working.
The Prize is a terrific book I can highly recommend to anyone concerned about America's schools or the larger issue of social mobility.