Four PR lessons I learned from my middle school cross country team

This fall, I took on a new challenge of coaching the Elizabethtown Middle School cross country team. As I’ve become an avid runner, and my family has taken to the sport, too, I wanted to instill my love of the sport in the next generation. It has been a rewarding experience on every level: My girls’ team was 17-4 for the season, and a 7th grade girl shattered an 8-year-old course record at one of the away meets. Meanwhile, my boys had a terrific winning season. Perhaps more important, one of the seventh grade girls, who had never done any running before, asked repeatedly during early practices about the more experienced kids, “How can they run so fast?” or “How can they run so far?” And now, she’s running without stopping and hitting times she never thought possible.

I’ve learned about myself as a person and an athlete being a coach of a school team. Little did I expect that it would be a great reminder about practicing basics in public relations.

Know and understand your audience

This is the first thing you ask a client when they want you to develop a strategy to ensure you develop the most effective tactics. It’s not unlike being a coach, where you have two distinct and primary audiences: your team members and their parents. Your team members are teenagers, who are also your athletes. They want to know what the workout will be at practice, what time and when the meets are, what time they are dimissed to catch the bus to away meets. It requires time and patience to get the attention of middle schoolers, hold that attention and repeating the message to make sure they understand what you’re saying. The team members are naturally interested in the results from their races, so I make sure I get their times as soon as possible.

Their parents are equally important, and I found that you can’t over communicate with them. They need information about what time to drop off and pick up their students from practice. They also want to know when and where the meets are so they can come cheer for their students. To make this as easy as possible, I put together a Google Doc with dates, times and driving directions to all of the meets and shared it with the parentrs. Parents are also interested in their student’s times, so I started a Google spreadsheet to keep track of each runner’s times from each meet and shared that as well. Finally, I send regular emails out updating them about practices, meets, meetings and other pertinent information. They have loved the open line of communications, and it has fostered good relations between us and among the parents themselves.

Communicate your message clearly, concisely and consistently

Often, I’ll explain a workout to my team, and just as often everyone gives me strange look. And then the questions start: Do you mean we do it this way and then this? Or do we start here and end over there? If I expect my runners to do the workout the way I intend — and if I am expecting specific results — I need to explain my message as clearly as possible. Adding any unncessary information just confuses the message, so I am as concise as possible. And if I’m not consistent, someone is going to do something I don’t want or expect like take a shortcut or make up the workout as they go along. When something like this happens in public relations, it’s easy to lose control of the situation. It’s crucial in PR to take the same approach so you can stay on top of your message and get the results you want.

Develop a strategy, and be confident in it

Coaches develop specific strategies and plans for their runners with the intent of getting them to improve and run faster. The payoff isn’t instantaneous, though. The girl who questioned how fast some of the experienced team members ran is just one example. Another girl dropped 7 minutes from her first race of the season to the last meet. And everyone on the team has improved because they have followed the strategy of building a solid foundation of running and adding specific speed workouts that make them faster. When it comes to PR, the communications planning and strategy help to build the foundation, and just one article in the media won’t be the silver bullet for your organization’s PR. That article is like the first cross country meet of the season. It will build on the foundation, as will other tactics throughout a communications campaign, that should eventually provide solid results for your organization.

Sometimes, good sportsmanship is all the PR you need

PR can come from places you hope will happen but least expect sometimes. The first week in September, my athletic director stopped me to ask about an incident that occurred at our scrimmage another team a few days before then. I was unaware that this happened until my AD told me about it. It turned out, several of the girls from my team cheered on the final runner fromother school’s middle school boys team, encouraging him and even running with him as he finished the race. My AD said she got a call from the Hershey superintendent about this, who was in tears about the sportsmanship — or should I say sportswomanship — my girls showed. Later, I received a handwritten note from Dr. Michelle Balliet, the Elizabethtown Area School District superintendent, who had heard the story from parents in the other district (where she happens to live), and told me she had parents come to her house specifically to tell her about this incident). She had nothing but praise for the girls. This story has resonated with so many people, and it is a great example of how doing the right thing is the best PR in the world.

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