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Mentoring the Next Generation of School Communicators
Barbara M. Hunter, APR

The other day I was captivated by a colleague’s heartfelt description about how she was feeling working on the frontlines of school communications. I leaned in as she described herself as a warrior, an emotional first-responder and a shock absorber for her school district. She was in the midst of dealing with an intense ongoing crisis, which was taking an enormous toll on her mind, body and spirit.

Then she paused and shared how critical it was for school communicators to be able to “call their people” when tumultuous events happen to help sort out the feelings and reactions and lend guidance on how to move through them. I am so proud that our school communications profession is filled with “our people” who understand the twists and turns of our work in a school district.

With more new professionals entering our field,* it’s crucial that established school public relations professionals provide that kind of support as mentors to our newcomers. Not only are mentors ready when a crisis hits, but they can help a new school communicator chart a path for individual career success. Mentorship is also key to the sustainability and future of the profession at large. 

Serving as a mentor isn’t exclusive to practitioners with 20+ years of experience, though. If you’re a veteran or mid-career professional, I encourage you to explore how mentorship can provide you with an opportunity to give back to the field. I promise you, you’ll get just as much, if not more, in return.

The Value of Mentorship in School Communication

Navigating Challenges

Veteran school communicators have experienced it all. Sharing lessons learned from navigating crises, both big and small, building trust and engagement with a divisive community, and serving as strategic counsel to district leaders can be invaluable to new practitioners.

Over my career, I’ve had a couple of mentors who significantly changed the way I approached my work. Both of them took the time to share lessons from their craft, one in editing and one in leadership, that I still draw upon today. I came to admire my two mentors for their expertise and their belief in me to continually improve and grow as a professional. And definitely, I leaned on them for their guidance when I faced hard days.

Nurturing Professional Development

By providing constructive feedback, guidance, and support, mentors can help new professionals identify their strengths and develop a plan to work on areas of opportunity. This investment in a mentee’s growth benefits them as individuals and helps strengthen the profession as a whole.

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Broadening Horizons

Mentors provide a wealth of diverse experiences and perspectives that can expand the horizons of a new school communication professional. Offering a new or different approach to critical thinking and problem-solving can cultivate creativity, versatility, and a strategic mindset. Strong mentor-mentee relationships can also allow mentees to provide their mentors with fresh ideas and important perspectives.

Developing Future Leaders

At a time when effective school communication is more important than ever, cultivating a pipeline of leaders in the field is critical to the future of school public relations. Just as veteran school communicators benefited from the counsel and expertise of mentors early in our careers, helping new professionals develop a career path and encouraging them to become champions of the profession will yield long-lasting results in both their careers and the field.

Becoming a Mentor

Many times, a mentor-mentee relationship begins organically. Perhaps a professional new to the field proactively seeks guidance from a more experienced practitioner on their team. Or maybe they form a relationship with a veteran colleague in another district or organization they meet at a conference like the NSPRA National Seminar.

There is also an opportunity through NSPRA’s Mentor Match program for seasoned school communicators to offer mentorship to NSPRA members looking for counsel who may not have yet had the opportunity to form an organic relationship.

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A  voluntary, self-driven program, Mentor Match reflects the association’s mission of developing professionals to communicate strategically, build trust, and foster positive relationships in support of their school communities. Through the program, experienced school PR professionals provide advice and support to those newly joining the field or seeking to advance their careers.

NSPRA members can participate in the Mentor Match program as either a mentor or mentee – or both. Mentors in the program serve to provide invaluable guidance, perspectives, and experiences to program mentees; NSPRA members committed to further developing their professional careers.

In our profession, the opportunities for lifelong, continuous learning are endless, and we’re so fortunate to be in a field alongside some of the most gracious, supportive and knowledgeable practitioners of public relations and communications. I urge you to take advantage of this by serving either as a mentor or seeking one out as a mentee. It could just change your professional life in ways you never imagined.

This blog post is part of an ongoing series from the National School Public Relations Association and Finalsite. Finalsite is proud to partner with NSPRA on the new School Communicator of the Year Award to honor one outstanding individual from the school public relations profession. The first SCOY award will be given at the 2024 NSPRA Seminar in Seattle/Bellevue.

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Barbara M. Hunter, APR, became the executive director of the National School Public Relations Association in November 2020. Prior to joining NSPRA, she spent five years as the president/CEO of Hunter Communications LLC, based in Alexandria, Virginia. She also spent 14 years as the chief communications officer in two school districts in Northern Virginia, including Fairfax County Public Schools, the 10th largest in the nation.

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