Back-to-school signs were everywhere a few weeks ago. My friends with school-age children looked a little relieved, and my friends with college freshmen looked a little wistful. For a few weeks, education and school systems were in a bright spotlight as the country switched seasonal gears. How can the cable industry make the most of this annual focus? And, after a month or two, maintain that visibility? Education is one of the top three fields of concern to most Americans, along with the economy and health care. I doubt that most people think education when they hear the word cable. But our industry has an impressive story to tell. Since 1989, when a group of industry leaders founded Cable in the Classroom, education has been the centerpiece of our national philanthropic initiatives. With over 81,000 schools (78%) receiving video and online content via our technology, and 39 networks providing educational programs and materials, our commitment in terms of media time, dedicated staff and just plain dollars is unprecedented and, I believe, unparalleled by any other U.S. industry. The quality of cable resources, such as streaming short educational videos via broadband technology, is outstanding. Educational projects range from the local — the Save Our History Lighthouses program in Time Warner’s Portland, Maine, system, for example — to the broadly national, such as A&E Networks’ Hispanic Heritage Celebration. They touch parents, teachers and students from a wide range of ages and backgrounds. Implemented strategically, these initiatives can strengthen brands, help market new products, provide platforms for advertisers, and build grassroots loyalty. Unfortunately, when the spotlight shines on cable, it often doesn’t focus on its socially beneficial efforts. It shines on the negative. Rate hikes? Service outages? These can guarantee copious media coverage, without your company lifting a finger. But it is up to you to make sure that your customers, government agencies and the media hear the message of your commitment to education. As programmers and cable providers, we all want to be part of that autumnal glow and be focused on the back-to-school scene, and we want to expand that glow into a year-round halo. Here are a few suggestions for making your work in education work for you. Talking about how highly your company values public schools can be a negative if it is not backed up with specific actions and efforts. Keep your message focused and consistent. Supporting education in a well-intentioned but vague way has no impact. Topics that tie back to your brand or corporate message reinforce your overall goals as well. Your company’s college scholarship program, for example, should not be hidden on a dead-end in your website. Creating and running an effective public service announcement forces you to focus your message. You can stream your PSAs on your broadband site as well. If you aren’t promoting your own good works, why should someone else? Everyone wants add-water-and-stir educational projects, but be realistic. Community leaders recognize the difference between a flash in the pan and a continuing commitment. Time and effort pays off in partnerships and in follow-through. And that makes your communications more credible. We all know that building relationships with government agencies and organizations can take a long time. So start now. Once trust has been established, many agencies and officials are proud to be associated with a pro-education message. Perseverance pays off with journalists, too. The CTPAA posts many Beacon Award-winning projects in the field of education at ctpaa.org. (Follow the methodology, don’t replicate the content.) Take a look at the new-and-improved Cable in the Classroom website to check out effective partnership models that are being developed. If you aren’t communicating internally among all departments, your external communications will be weakened. Employee loyalty increases when employees know about the good citizenship of their own corporation. People develop pride in working for a company known for giving back. Cable networks’ and operators’ work in education is something in which we should all take pride. The size of the aggregate commitment is stunning. Lots of industries murmur their support for schools and learning, while we actually deliver content, resources and technology that teachers, parents and students need and use. It’s a very positive, strong story to share with customers and clients. So get out there and focus a spotlight on your company’s achievements in education — and keep that light on all year, not just back-to-school time. Libby O’Connell, Ph.D., is VP, education initiatives for A&E Television Networks and is a member of the board of directors for the Cable Television Public Affairs Association.

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