Getting Education Equity Messages Through the Noise Now Takes a 5-Prong Strategy

The Education Trust’s Nicolle Grayson: Journalists should “leave us with hope.”

Growing up in one of the nicer neighborhoods of Washington D.C., Nicolle Grayson assumed that her fellow students across the city had the same kinds of well-funded schools and highly qualified teachers as she did. Then she started volunteering at an elementary school across town, and discovered how drastically different public education could be for students just a few miles apart.

The volunteering experience stuck with her. As an undergraduate at Spelman College, she chose to research and write papers on the roots of those differences. What was preventing these students from accessing the same resources she had?

And since graduating from the prestigious HBCU, Grayson has spent much of her professional career working on issues of educational equity.

For the past six years, Grayson has been the director of communications for The Education Trust, a national research and advocacy nonprofit whose goal is to get more historically underrepresented students into and through college.

Her days aren’t that different from a reporter’s, she says: Find a way to break through the noise of the 24-hour news cycle and get people to pay attention. She can no longer bank on one TV spot to get a story out. Instead, the process involves five-pronged plans across mediums and innovative strategies to earn people’s interest.

With more than 15 years spent in the professional communications world, she’s had to figure out how to pitch stories to reporters on everything from healthy food in schools to why it’s important to protect the bluefin tuna. Grayson spoke to the Education Writers Association about what drew her to the world of education equity, how the communications world has changed over the years, and the hardest story she ever had to pitch.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

(Courtesy of Nicolle Grayson)

Previous places you’ve worked? The Caraway Group, Widmeyer Communications, Pew Charitable Trusts

You got your master’s degree in education policy from the University of Maryland. What made you choose that as your degree? I majored in sociology in undergrad [at Spelman College]. [When] I started looking at all the classes I was taking, all the papers I was writing, everything was geared towards education, particularly ways black and Latino kids were underserved.

I grew up in D.C. in Chevy Chase. I went to the golden schools — Lafayette Elementary School, Alice Deal Junior High School and Woodrow Wilson High School — and I thought, since I was in the D.C. school district, everyone had the same quality of education that I was receiving. It really wasn’t until high school, when I volunteered in Southeast and I went to an elementary school where the rooms were really dark, the furniture was falling apart, [that I realized] it just wasn’t like the school that I went to.

For journalists who have a very one-sided idea of what communications professionals do, what myths about your job would you like to bust for journalists right now?

Sometimes reporters view us as gatekeepers to block them from getting to our spokespeople. [But] it’s not like you hear from me instead of the person you want to talk to. Nine times out of 10, I work with my spokesperson to make sure they’re prepared to give the best interview. If you want to talk to them about ESSA accountability in Texas, I want to have time to make sure they know what’s going on in Texas to be as much of a resource as possible. I’m here to help our spokesperson give the best interview, whether that be on or off the record.

Journalists gripe a lot about getting PR pitches flooding their inbox, but from the comms side, it must be frustrating seeing a narrative that you know is missing the mark, spreading misinformation or overemphasizing a small statistic. Are there any stories you’re tired of seeing?

I’m personally tired of seeing stories about broken kids and nothing can be done. The hopeless story of the poor city child, where a district has implemented a number of reforms and achievement is still down. Those negative stories, they’ve been told. We know there’s an achievement gap, thank you. My mother, who is not in ed policy and goes to a little church in North Carolina, knows that. I’d like to see more of the schools that are defying the odds and turning things around for kids who are underserved.

Especially for communities of color, it’s really draining to not be able to see yourself in a positive way. It just reaffirms the negative stories we hear over and over again. Still tell the story that you need to, but at least leave us with some hope of what can happen.

The Ed Trust was very ahead of the curve on putting a lot of social justice and opportunity gaps as central to their work. With [former Education Secretary under then-President Barack Obama] John B. King Jr. now serving as the organization’s president, do you find your work is more complicated in our current political climate? 

I don’t think it makes our work more complicated. We just did an interview that’s going to come out on Fox News, which was not a place where we would typically go, but there are certain issues that are bipartisan. [People] care that an educated workforce means more jobs will come to their community, and there are certain issues where we can get bipartisan support. One of the issues Ed Trust is working on that’s getting bipartisan support is increasing Pell for students who are incarcerated. For us, since we’re a [nonpartisan nonprofit], it’s about finding those areas where we can agree, finding the values where we can agree.

You’ve been in the comms world for more than 15 years. How has the role of a comms person changed over that time?

The biggest change that I’ve seen is that this administration is getting a lot more media coverage than previous ones, particularly for broadcast news. If I released a paper, it was easy to get our person on the news at least locally, sometimes on national broadcast or cable news networks. Now, because there’s only a certain amount of stories they can tell at one time, those spots are almost impossible to get. One time I had a spokesperson on, and there was some announcement out of the White House. I could see a story that normally would’ve lasted two weeks literally dying as I’m waiting for my spokesperson to come on. I think they got 30 seconds and one question that was asked. News in this environment moves so quickly.

Before [this current 24-hour news cycle], if I released a report, I’d get about 30 articles, but it’s just not like that anymore. You knew not to pitch to a reporter at 4 p.m. because they were finishing their stories, but that is a bygone era. People are now consuming their news in all types of ways. Now I ask my team, “What are the five ways we’re going to release this paper?” It’s a Twitter chat, maybe; it’s an infographic; it’s a video; it’s a standard press release talking to reporters and maybe an event. What are the ways to keep getting the messages out?

The soundbite you used to get is really shrinking. You used to have more space to describe your story, but now it’s like everybody is speaking in tweets. It’s that much more important to tailor and sharpen your message.

What was the toughest story you’ve ever had to pitch?

The toughest story was not Education Trust-related. It was around graphing calculators in the classroom. That one took me a minute to figure out. What I had to do was find a classroom that was totally innovative and new where technology was fully integrated and students’ achievement looked good. I found one in Ohio and the story I pitched was “This Is Not Your Mother’s Classroom.” I really pitched it to older Gen X-ers and younger Boomers to get them to understand how the classroom has changed since they were there and all the benefits of technology, but that was really hard.

What is the best professional advice you’ve been given, or what advice would you like to pass along?

You have to immerse yourself in the media and know what’s going on. For example, if there’s a school shooting happening, you don’t want to call that reporter at that time and start pitching them about a paper on advanced coursework. Really knowing before you call that reporter, knowing who they are and what their interests are and reading their stories.

Sometimes [early career comms people will] just go and pull a media list, and say, “Hey, I want people who cover education in New York,” and then just blast them a press release and sit and wait for the reporter to call. That’s not how you do it. You really need to know what’s going on in New York and who’s writing and how to talk to that person and pique their interest.