Just over a year ago, Patrick Riccards was recruited to serve as chief communications and strategy officer for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, challenged with the task of raising the profile of the 70-year-old not-for-profit organization and boosting awareness of the Foundation’s work and impact in the higher education space across the country. In essence, this involved taking a non-existent communications department and building an operation that maximizes all of the tools and opportunities found in today’s 24/7 media environment. Through his tenacious efforts and communications savvy, Riccards has accomplished that, and more—and was recognized with a Gold Award for “Outstanding Non-Profit Communicator” in Bulldog Reporter’s 2015 Not-for-Profit Communications Awards.
“Change is hard—and it’s even harder in the education space, and even more so in higher education,” says Riccards. “As we look at the work the Woodrow Wilson Foundation is looking to do to transform teacher education in the United States, we must first demonstrate there is a need for change. Then we must demonstrate there is change out there that will improve the process. And finally we must show that such positive change can be implemented. That is the challenge before the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, demonstrating the need, the available solutions, and the will to make those solutions a reality. We are not only seeking to make the intellectual change, but we also need to make emotional change. Such transformation is both a hearts and a minds issue.”
- Dramatically increased media coverage for the Foundation and its work, regularly securing mentions in publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Education Week, The Atlantic, and countless others. On a quarterly basis, the Foundation now secures more than 25 million print impressions.
- Taken, in 10 months, a Twitter feed that started with just 400 followers and has built a 30,000-plus following. With each major WW social media announcement, the Foundation secures more than 4 million Twitter impressions, on average.
- Leveraged a dormant Huffington Post column space of the Foundation president to provide a steady stream of higher education content that is now being cited in traditional media, blogs, and by decision makers at the U.S. Department of Education.
- Created a robust brand journalism platform for the Foundation, including the development of a regular blog and a new podcast series, both focused on education and leadership development.
Patrick has also been able to build a very successful personal platform to advance the role of successful communication and engagement in the education space. His @Eduflack Twitter feed currently has more than 85,000 followers. In addition to blogging on www.eduflack.com, he offers a regular column on Education World and hosts a radio program for the BAM! Radio Network. His commentary last September in Education Week served as a rallying cry for how the education reform community can better engage and collaborate with teachers on school improvement issues.
“The Woodrow Wilson Foundation honestly entered this process with no real expectations. This past year has been a new one for the Foundation, one that has focused on how to amplify our public voice and really harness the power of media and social media to lead important discussions on the future of education,” Riccards says. “Quantitatively, the response to our work has been phenomenal. We couldn’t have asked for more when it comes to media and social media hits and reach. But what is far more important is the qualitative measures—the dialogues that have been started because of the media coverage. The new partners who have come to us because of media coverage. The network we are now able to build to help transform teacher education, both in key states and across the nation. These successes are due, in part, to the media and its exploring of these key issues.”
Launch of the Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning
Perhaps the greatest example of Patrick’s leadership in non-profit communications is his most recent success. In joining the Woodrow Wilson Foundation last year, one of his primary tasks was to successfully launch the Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning, a graduate school and education research lab that stands as the largest single investment the Foundation has made in its seven decades. He was provided a shoestring budget (less than $5,000) to position the Foundation, its WW Academy, and its new partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to drive the necessary fundraising and partnership to make the Academy a success.
Patrick’s approach to the challenge was simple. He laid out an effective messaging strategy that positioned the WW Academy as one part West Point (in terms of its graduate school) and one part Bell Labs (focused on the MIT partnership for an education research lab). He was also able to leverage years of media coverage on the shortcomings of teacher preparation in the United States, positioning the new effort from the WW Foundation as one of the first meaningful responses to transform teacher education in the United States.
In June, the WW Academy was launched at a small event on the MIT campus. As a result of Patrick’s work, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation secured 348 (to date) total media articles, representing more than 50 million media impressions. On social media, the #woodrowacademy hashtag Patrick created garnered more than 10 million total Twitter impressions in the first two weeks.
“As our plans progressed, we saw a real need to make our vision for the future of teacher education more understandable,” Riccards offers. “It is so easy to move into edu-speak, using buzzwords like ‘competencies’ and ‘mastery’ and ‘clinical experience.’ Today, our messaging focuses on being one part West Point, one part Bell Labs. It is West Point in the sense we are building a new graduate school, in collaboration with MIT, that is about recruiting and preparing the very best for careers as educators. And it is an education research-focused Bell Labs, studying all that is known on effective teacher education and putting it to use at colleges and universities across the nation.”
The launch of the WW Academy was included in major media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, Christian Science Monitor, Associated Press, Boston Globe, Miami Herald, Sacramento Bee, Kansas City Star, McClatchy DC, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Education Week. Equally important, the media coverage of the launch resulted in more than a half-dozen potential funders proactively reaching out to the Woodrow Wilson Foundation to discuss supporting the WW Academy.
“The Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s work could be seen as a threat to some colleges and universities, as we look to build our own graduate school. That isn’t the intent,” Riccards explains. “So core to our messaging and engagement has been that all of our work will be open source. All components will be made available, free of charge, to any institutions that want to use all or part of our work to help improve their own educational offerings.”
Highest Standards of Communications Ethics
Throughout his career, Patrick had demonstrated the highest standards of public relations ethics. Today, he works with organizations across the country on best practice for constructing a 21st-century PR operation, the proper uses of social media, and the best ways to measure the effectiveness of PR programs beyond raw quantitative numbers.
Patrick is a highly sought public speaker on public engagement, social media, and effective communications practices, delivering more than a dozen presentations or keynotes a year on the topics. He is also viewed by many in the field as the leading authority of the intersection of research, policy, and PR in the education sector, and is used by the U.S. government, state departments of education, and national non-profit organizations to establish clear guidelines and benchmarks for PR and community engagement in education initiatives.
“Our work over the past year has taught us several important lessons,” Riccards says. “Communications is now strategically integrated into all of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s programmatic work. Internally, we see PR as an education process; it isn’t about securing the clip, but rather it is about engaging in ongoing conversations with the media on important policy issues. And brand journalism is now an important part of defining our work and expanding our networks.”
Role Model for Staff and Those Entering the Field
Patrick is the first to acknowledge that he would not be where he is in his career were it not for others who taught him and gave him new opportunities each step along the way. For 15 years, he has focused on mentoring and working with those entering the field, helping them identify their strengths and interests as they look to enter or grow in the PR profession. Each year, he formally mentors at least three individuals new to the profession. He also works informally with dozens of individuals, providing information interviews, making introductions to others in the field, and providing general advice on how to succeed in PR (particularly as it relates to not-for-profits and policy-focused PR activities).
As part of this commitment, he serves on the Board of Directors for the Cavalier Daily Alumni Association. The Cavalier Daily is the student newspaper at the University of Virginia, Pat’s alma mater. The CD put Patrick on the path to PR. Now, as a board member and chair of the Alumni Association’s development committee, he focuses efforts on raising money and identifying opportunities to provide current CD staff with internship opportunities and communications-focused professional development activities.
In 2014, Patrick’s award-winning Dadprovement book was published by Turning Stone Press. The book chronicles the challenges of fathers in balancing their professional and family lives. In 2015, Roman Littlefield Education Press published Why Kids Can’t Read: Continuing to Challenge the Status Quo in Education. The book is the culmination of Patrick’s work overseeing the communications and public engagement efforts for the National Reading Panel and the U.S. Partnership for Reading in a nearly decade-long effort to improve reading instruction in our nation’s public schools. In addition to serving as lead editor on the book, he also has a chapter written to help parents better understand how to do media relations on issues related to education at their children’s schools.
Secrets of Success: Riccards offers the following pointers to comms pros looking for the stellar level of impact that he has experienced—and demonstrates why he was chosen as this years Outstanding Non-Profit Communicator in Bulldog Reporter’s 2015 Not-for-Profit Communications Awards:
“First, the most successful messaging focuses on the positive and meaningful change,” he says. “Negativity and attacks may sell, but they have a short shelf life. Second, nothing is more powerful than personalizing the story and showing how scary change impacts the individual. Third, don’t be afraid to fail. Particularly when you are starting with a blank canvas, try it all, quickly jettison what isn’t working, and focus on what is most successful.”