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k12prWell Keeps School PR Pros in the Game

School communications leaders operate on the front lines of community engagement, helping others navigate change, conflict, and crisis response. And when this trauma-informed, high-performance work takes place in a 24/7 news cycle, it puts them at risk for chronic stress and burnout. 

“It never gets easier, watching strong school PR pros leave the profession,” said Tracy Jentz, APR, communications and community engagement coordinator at Grand Forks (ND) Public Schools and NSPRA North Central Regional Vice President. But anyone who’s worked in this role understands just how difficult it can be to manage the never-ending demands, much less find the time you need to rest and recover.”

k12prWell is a grassroots conversation designed to connect, encourage, and educate school communications professionals about the risk factors of burnout and practical strategies to protect wellbeing and continue the high-performing work so vital to school systems and the communities they serve.

Since 2018, Kristin Magette, APR and Shawn McKillop, APR have led k12prWell, reaching hundreds of school communicators across North America. Now, with the support of CEL’s strategic marketing team, the conversation is poised to grow through its focus on personal habits, healthy boundaries, and organizational structures.

Personal habits

The word wellness often brings to mind spa days, goat yoga, or carefully planned nutrition. But the personal habits that become building blocks for real and lasting wellbeing are far more mundane. 

“Too often, people think they need to make sweeping changes in their lives to feel better,” Magette said. “But in reality, it’s the small, incremental changes — going to bed 15 minutes earlier, setting do not disturb settings on your phone, taking micro breaks during the workday — that add up. These types of choices are not scary to start, and they are much easier to master for the long haul.”

Magette encourages colleagues to begin by choosing one small change, such as turning off a device to enjoy a family hour or personal time each evening. Like any new habit, it takes time and consistency for it to take hold in a busy life. That’s why it helps to start small and master each new habit before adding another. 

“If you slowly add something small that improves your wellness ever so slightly,” Magette said, “eventually you’ll realize that you’ve added multiple new habits over a few months. That’s a really great feeling of mastery, and it shows you how much else is possible going forward.”

Healthy boundaries

Professional boundaries are essential to manage workplace stress and avoid burnout, and the topic of how to identify, create and maintain them in a role that can quickly creep into evenings and weekends, has been a mainstay of k12prWell. 

“So often,” McKillop said, “Kristin and I will hear people say, ‘I can’t set up boundaries because my district needs me.’ Or we worry about the way boundaries will compromise our professional credibility. But the reality is — and the message we share — is that boundaries are the foundation of a long and successful professional life.”

The popular Crucial Conversations model plays an important role in the discussion of boundaries, whether the boundaries involve technology use outside the workday, protecting leave time for family obligations, or even just prioritizing a short lunch break away from your desk each day.

“We get it,” Magette said. “Walking into your superintendent’s office and telling him or her that you need to stop checking email all evening — that’s vulnerable,” Magette said. “We help people think through ways to share their needs and brainstorm solutions with their leaders by framing the entire conversation around what is best for the superintendent and school system. That is, a school communication pro who is refreshed and able to perform good work.”

In k12prWell discussions, people often report that boundary conversations go surprisingly well. It may be the first time supervisors learn of boundary problems that were not easy to spot, and it has the ability to begin a meaningful discussion about a shared approach to work/life harmony to protect against employee fatigue.

Leadership and structures

When work amplifies and life gets busy, meaningful workplace wellbeing demands more than personal habits and boundaries. 

“School PR pros are so good at juggling a lot of balls at once,” McKillop said. “But there are leadership strategies we can use to streamline or even automate some of what we’re trying to do while still being highly effective. And when the work is simpler, the stress and demands are also less.”

McKillop suggests exploring workplace structures that can reduce the “figure it out” demand from a high-stress moment, such as message templates, back-up media coverage, content calendars, password storage, cross training, and other operational supports. Cultivating a network of local, state, and national school PR friends you can call in a pinch is also helpful.

Modeling workplace wellbeing as a leadership function in a school communication role also has the potential to influence school system leaders for broader change.

“We’ve heard so many incredible stories of communications people going back to their school system and either having a conversation or two with their boss, or sharing something with a principal,” Magette said. “And then suddenly they’re being asked to help guide a much bigger discussion that can support many more people in their district. It’s inspiring.”

McKillop added, “The goal of k12prWell is not perfection. Far from it. It’s about understanding the risks of a high-performance, trauma-informed role, and being vulnerable enough to make small changes and sometimes ask for help.”

Magette and McKillop credit two school social work leaders, Heather Carter and Christina Mann, with the clinical perspective and expertise to guide k12prWell. However, they stress that it is not a replacement for professional help. 

“When Shawn and I talk about what we’re trying to accomplish, it really is pretty simple,” Magette said. “The work of k12prWell — especially as it grows with CEL collaboration — is to help school PR professionals understand the intense demands of their jobs and make strategic decisions that will keep them at their best for their school system, their loved ones and themselves. And we are excited for what our future holds.”

Join the k12prWell conversation by joining the email list for encouragement, tips, and best practices to help you do great work for your school system, without sacrificing your wellness.

To date, k12prWell presentations have been featured at NSPRA Seminars and more than a dozen state chapter conferences. Contact Kristin to learn more about speaking engagements.

If you, or anyone you know, is experiencing chronic stress or burnout, we urge you to seek professional help from a licensed mental health provider without delay. If you are considering suicide — or think about hurting yourself or someone else in any way — please call or text 800-273-8255 immediately, or dial 911.

Published on: May 5, 2021