PROFILE: Keeping you informed: Local school PR officials play integral role

Published 12:19 pm Friday, March 22, 2024

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Written by Alec Etheredge

At her mother-in-law’s house shortly after the loss of her husband in late March 2023, emotions raced through Nicole Knight’s veins as she tried to cope with a devastating moment.

Then, in an important time of need, two visitors arrived at the door—Ainsley Allison and Kim Kiel.

Ainsley, the city of Pelham communications manager, and Kim, the Pelham High School principal, had worked closely with Nicole for years in her role as the Pelham City Schools communications manager.

Those two were the first to be alongside Nicole during a difficult time, but it didn’t take long for others to follow suit, flooding Nicole and the Knight family with love and support.

“Being part of this community is really what has lifted us up, my whole family, and given us the strength and wherewithal to push through,” Nicole says. “I’ve said it from the very beginning, it was evident from day one, literally day one. I was out of town when this happened. We went straight to Mike’s mom’s house and Ainsley Allison and Kim Kiel were the first two people besides my family that I was with. From there, it was just a continuous ripple effect of people who have always been friends and colleagues, but they provided such a level of love and support for us, that it has really been what has carried us through.”

When she talks about the community of support, it extends beyond the city of Pelham and beyond the Pelham City School system to include people from across the state, but one group in particular continually sticks out—the tight-knit group of public relations officials.

Nicole Knight

While Ainsley is one of those key supporters in the same city, Nicole has formed strong relationships across each school system in Shelby County over the past eight years, building a group friendship with the likes of Shelby County Schools’ Cindy Warner, Alabaster City Schools’ Jason Gaston and Hoover City Schools’ Sherea Harris.

It’s a group that, despite working for different school systems, is intertwined with respect for one another, so much so that Nicole’s son Griffin works for Jason at Alabaster City Schools in his first communications position.

“We are all really close friends and highly admire and respect one another,” Warner says, adding that they try to be there for one another as a support system during their most difficult times.

For each, though, the priority remains tackling one of the most important jobs a school system can have by keeping students, parents, faculty and the public informed, and they aren’t afraid to work together to do the job properly, playing an integral role in making Shelby County one of the top in the state for education.

Making the transition 

Considering herself the grandma of the group, Cindy is the most experienced of the four local public relations specialist representing the school districts in Shelby County, and the other three often solicit her for advice, a role she loves, but like the other three, this job wasn’t the original dream.

From a small town outside Tupelo, Mississippi, she hoped to make it big in broadcasting as a communications major at Mississippi State University.

“Originally, I wanted to be a broadcast journalist, but my thick Mississippi accent had other plans for me,” Cindy says with a chuckle. “I had a college professor that was actually my speech and debate coach as well, but she was from the Midwest and had that perfect Midwest accent. One day, she sat me down and said, ‘Cindy, I’m not sure you’re ever going to get rid of that thick southern accent, but you’re an excellent writer, so why don’t you choose something in communications that will play up your writing strengths.’”

Cindy Warner

She had no plans of doing print journalism, so she went the route of public relations, but right after graduating college, sure enough, she landed in print journalism.

She got her start at the Itawamba County Times, her hometown newspaper, for two years before she and her husband moved to Alabama where she took on a job at the News-Aegis for two years before joining the Daily Home not too far down the road in St. Clair County.

Cindy covered all of St. Clair County basically by herself in her 20s and was struggling with the balance of always working and being away from her husband and home life.

With that, she made the decision to transition into a public relations role, taking on her first PR position with The Literacy Council of Central Alabama in Birmingham.

After five years there, the dream she didn’t realize she had came knocking.

In February 2002, Cindy was hired to take on the public relations manager role at Shelby County Schools as well as the community education programming leader, handling all after school programs.

Now, she is APR certified and in year 22 with one of the top county school districts in the state.

“My mom and sister are both in the medical profession, and when I first thought about PR, I envisioned myself doing healthcare PR and marketing, but that never played out,” she says. “When I landed this job with Shelby County Schools, I had a lot to learn in all facets of the job, but I was fortunate enough to have great mentors.”

Now, she is the mentor for others, and Nicole, Jason and Sherea each have followed almost identical paths of diving into the unknown.

Jason and Sherea both have TV broadcast journalism backgrounds, while Nicole spent 16 years as a marketing manager at Brookwood Medical Center before taking the scary leap into a completely new role at Pelham City Schools.

Each, however, was drawn in the same direction for one reason—the love they found in education.

Sherea Harris-Turner

For Jason and Sherea, the two spent years covering local schools and school systems for ABC 33/40 and Fox 6, respectively, gaining a love for telling their stories and highlighting what was happening in the school walls, while Nicole jumped on the Pelham job when it was open due to being a 24-year resident of Pelham and her kids going through a school system that the family fell in love with.

Now, Jason has served as the public relations specialist at Hoover City Schools and Trussville City Schools before taking over as the first coordinator of public relations at Alabaster City Schools where he is in his second full year. As for Sherea, she is in her first PR job, serving Hoover City Schools, while Nicole enters year nine with Pelham City Schools.

For each, there is a lot that happens within the job that many don’t realize are part of their daily responsibilities, but they all come back to one aspect as being their favorite—highlighting the students and schools

Telling the stories

Sitting on the edge of her chair behind her desk, Sherea’s eyes peak up and to the left as she talks about her favorite part of the job. Quickly, she erupts into a cheerful clap and says, “Look, this is what I was talking about. Yay! This makes me so happy.”

She couldn’t help but be distracted as Gwin Elementary School’s Veterans Day program made it on the news, bringing a positive light to the students and the school.

“There is always something positive going on and I want to promote it,” she says. “Honestly, I feel like I’ve won when I get our schools on television or in the news. Anytime I can get them that recognition, it’s a huge win.”

Jason Gaston

A similar situation unfolds at the Alabaster City Schools Board of Education building as Jason bounces back and forth from setting up pictures and interviews to get pictures of students engaging with Superintendent Dr. Wayne Vickers and his Student Advisory Committee.

The goal of the committee is for the superintendent to get feedback from each school in the district, and on this day, they’re visiting with Vickers to share their feedback.

Jason’s goal? To highlight the words they share and the images of the engaging and interactive atmosphere happening within Alabaster City Schools.

“I like telling the untold stories,” Jason says. “I believe there are things in a school system setting that naturally are going to garner attention, and there are a lot of positive things that, by their very nature, just fly under the radar. Perhaps what I enjoy the most is making sure that those stories that largely go untold find a place. It’s my job to help them find that place.”

That part of the job is something Cindy says is key in building relationships and trust with the community, but she also admits that it takes more and that communicating thoroughly in every situation is what makes their job one of the most important in their districts.

“Communications as a whole is so important for building trust and positive culture,” Cindy says. “When you build that culture and have good engagement with your teachers, your students, your parents, your community members, all of that is ultimately going to lead to student achievement.”

She also says it’s important to make sure to allow the stakeholders in to help with the process but to at least be informed, highlighting similar advisory councils to Alabaster that Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dr. Lewis Brooks has also implemented.

“The importance, I feel like, of our jobs, and it’s obviously important to tell the good stuff, because we do want people to have an inside glimpse of what happens every day, but at the same time, also offering people the opportunity to come in and be part of the process,” she says. “Dr. Brooks for example, having his voice advisory councils where he now is bringing in teachers and parents and students to be able to have those face-to-face conversations and allowing people to be part of the process is helpful for building that culture.”

She also made sure to note that it’s not always positive, but you can’t hide from the hard stuff, mentioning the recent tragic death of an Oak Mountain staffer in a car accident, the death of a Calera student athlete early in the school year, a recent bus accident that ended with a driver of another vehicle passing away.

“A lot of those examples all had within a few weeks, and unfortunately, things like that occur,” Cindy says. “That’s the not fun part of the job, having to communicate through those crises, but it’s necessary to be transparent and keep trust.”

For Nicole, her main goal in taking the job at Pelham was to highlight the good of what was happening in Pelham and at a new school system.

“I have so much pride in my job,” she says. “I’ve been 100 percent invested since day one to go above and beyond because I have such pride in this community and the relationships we have within the school system and the residents of the city. I love my job because I get to do so many things and see what is happening in our schools. It is very inspiring.”

With that sense of pride, she loves that each day brings a new challenge and playing a role in making Pelham City Schools one of the best systems in the state, but it’s a job that extends beyond what you see daily on social media.

Behind the scenes

When you think about public relations within a school system, telling the stories of what is happening in the schools and staying informed about your school are two of the big aspects you imagine, and most of that can be found through email and social media platforms.

That, however, barely scratches the surface of what each handles on a daily basis, almost offensive to assume it’s nothing more. In actuality, it is what happens behind the scenes that makes the biggest difference in making each school system in Shelby County one of the best.

“A lot of people to this day still don’t understand the scope of this role in terms of, ‘What do you do all day?’” Jason says. “My response when I get that question is, ‘What do I not do.’ It is a catch-all job of sorts. If I had to boil it down, it’s management of all internal and external communication process. That’s everything from websites to rapid-notification software, event management, social media, liaising with city, state and county entities. This job is very multifaceted, it has a lot of tentacles to it, and no two days are alike.”

That last part, “No two days are alike,” is what sticks out, as each of the four public relation specialists said word-for-word the exact same thing.

For each, they may come into the day with an idea of what their tasks may be, but then, a media request may come in, a school may go on lockdown, a bus gets delayed, a website crashes, the weather cancels events, a last-minute event is added.

Those are a few of many examples of last-minute issues that can arise in addition to other job duties such as handling communications among the district, putting together strategic planning with the superintendents, etc.

“The list of things I do on a daily basis is everchanging,” Nicole says. “In some ways it’s the most challenging part of my job, but in other ways, it’s also the best part of my job. When you go in one direction and start working on something, there is a lot of times where the end is not always as easy as, ‘Let me finish this and move on to the next thing.’ There is always juggling going on. It requires a mindset that allows us to be nimble and pivot and not get frustrated with having to change direction on a dime.”

For each, that adrenaline and rush of no dull moments is part of what they love about the job.

“You’re always juggling,” Sherea says. “You may have a plan for the day, but then you have a fire to put out or something comes up. You have to organize and prioritize and that strategic side of the job is a lot of fun.”

Several of the school systems have been working on new websites and each has worked with their superintendents on strategy, and for Cindy, it’s that side of the job at this stage of her career that has been refreshing as she looks for the most effective way to not only communicate but help the schools in the district.

“I don’t think I could have ever been content to just sit behind a desk all day and do the same thing day in and day out,” Cindy says. “That’s what I loved as a journalist and what I love to this day. What drives me more now in the latter half of my career is the strategic planning. I’m a little bit of a geek now when it comes to research, implementation, planning, evaluation and seeing whether or not this particular thing has the impact you were hoping it would.”

For each, however, it can be a lonely job. As the only person who handles it in their school system, they don’t have as many people in their buildings that understand what they are going through on a daily basis.

That’s where their friendship comes into play and ultimately leads to them working together to create the best for their schools.

Working as a team

One of the best coping skills to be able to handle stress or one of the best ways to find new ideas is to bounce it off someone who may have a similar train of thought.

For the school public relations specialists across Shelby County, they have friends in the building and co-workers that help, but it’s a group text thread between the four of them that ultimately helps the most, or, as Cindy puts it—admire and acquire.

“We love sharing ideas, or admire and acquire as Cindy loves to say,” Nicole says with a laugh. “We don’t feel this sense of, ‘Oh, you can’t do what I’m doing’ kind of thing. It’s a willingness, not a competitiveness, to share and help each other in our roles. I am immensely grateful for that.”

It’s that mindset of admire and acquire that helps the schools feed off of each other to continue growing and remain atop the mountain of school systems in the state.

“Being able to have them there to bounce ideas off of and pull resources from is important for each of us,” Cindy says. “If somebody else has already done a big campaign, don’t start from scratch building yours, go ask your friend if you can borrow their template and tweak it with your own research to make it work for your district. The main thing is to work together to help get ideas and help our school systems thrive.”

Jason says it’s an integral part of a school system and one that is a unique club.

“Not every school system has the luxury of this position, but I guarantee every school system wants it,” he says. “The few of us that there are, it is a tight-knit group and we bounce ideas off of each other. We can all learn from each other. Some are technologically advanced, others are better at crisis communications, so we all lean on each other for camaraderie, advice and sometimes therapy.”

And that all ties back to the support that was there for Nicole during a difficult time and the support that has been there for her since the day she started the job, just as the support was there when Cindy started hers, Jason started his and Sherea started hers.

“In this position, it is the most collegial and supportive group of professionals that I have ever had the opportunity to work with,” Nicole says. “My relationships with them honestly started the week I started my job. Jason and Cindy both reached out right away and introduced themselves. It is truly a network of people who are experienced, super smart and are willing to be a support network of colleagues and friends that I can turn to anytime. We support each other and provide assistance and feedback.”

It’s an extension of what each of them sees as one of many important roles in a school system to help make them run smoothly for the success of future generations.

“I can’t think of a bigger role in American society than educating and taking care of children,” Jason says. “I don’t think people really understand the gravity of the role. We literally have peoples’ kids for eight hours of the day, and of course, we have to educate them, but we have to ensure their safety, there’s feeding, there’s gym time and sometimes there are medical needs. It’s a big job for everyone in k-12 with a lot of moving parts. School systems are the bedrock of our society.”