• Left to right: Dorenia Villalona and Jisette Duran, both with the New Brunswick Board of Education, were among the dozens of attendees at the School Public Relations Program.

A mix of board members, school administrators and communications professionals turned out for the New Jersey School Boards Association’s annual School Public Relations Program at the Association’s headquarters in Trenton on June 2.

Janet Bamford, chief public affairs officer at NJSBA, welcomed attendees and the program’s first speaker, Tom Slater, formerly the risk communications director at the New Jersey Department of Health and a nationally known trainer in crisis communications.

Slater noted that school officials and staff must respond to events whether they like it or not. “You don’t get to decide what is a newsworthy event,” he said. “Being ready and prepared is the main keystone to what we are doing today.”

He reviewed the history of the news cycle, including the importance of social media. He also reminded attendees, “The media is not your audience — the general public is the audience.”

He then got into the finer details of risk communications, emphasizing that “risk communications is a science-based approach for communicating effectively in high-concern, high-stress and emotionally charged or controversial situations.” He gave attendees a variety of tools and strategies to respond to the media and members of the public during crisis situations.

After Slater’s talk, attendees broke into small groups to respond to a made-up scenario involving a mold outbreak at a school. Then, each group elected a designated spokesperson to respond to an on-camera interview in NJSBA’s film studio. The entire group then reconvened to analyze how each spokesperson performed, with Slater providing insights on what each speaker did right and what they could improve.

Attendees also had the chance to hear from a panel that focused on “Engaging Your District’s Parents,” which included Chanta L. Jackson, NJSBA’s vice president for legislation and resolutions, who is also a seasoned journalist, president of the Neptune Township Board of Education and the communications coordinator with the Asbury Park School District; Kia Bergman, director of communications at West Windsor-Plainsboro School District; and Paul Brubaker, director of communications at Paterson School District.

During lunch, attendees had the chance to network and hear from the program’s sponsor, Critical Response Group. The company’s president, Phil Coyne, highlighted how the company’s mapping products and services can help school districts, emergency responders and police navigate an emergency.

Laura Bishop teamed up with representatives from the Cresskill Borough School District to deliver a session titled “Cresskill’s Perfect Storm: Communicating with the Community through COVID, a Flood and a Bond Referendum.” The panel included Dr. Peter Hughes, superintendent; Dawn Delasandro, business administrator; Denise Villani, board president; Mary Klein, board vice president; and John Massaro, school principal.

Capping off the program was Cindy Mullock, the New Jersey coordinator of Braver Angels, which brings together people of diverse political beliefs in a bid to bolster communication and bridge divides. Mullock is also the founding executive director of the Harriet Tubman Museum in Cape May.