Advocacy is Part of Our Job

When I worked as a professional lobbyist, I trained our clients in grassroots advocacy strategies. The credo of our firm focused on enabling average New Yorkers to speak out for themselves as the strongest form of advocacy.

We believed that every citizen should learn about and develop their capacity for speaking out about – and to – their government. “Of the People. By the People. For the People.”

We understood and cherished our right to speak and to assemble and to petition which are protected in the first amendment in the Bill of Rights.

We believed firmly in the precept that all professionals have an obligation to their profession to espouse, defend, and advance the work of the profession. Question: if your state is looking for someone to inform them about school bus safety, will they know to call you?

Everything else flowed from those principles.

So how do those concepts roll out in real life? We will discuss a few ways we can all apply the concepts in our lives and operations.

Quick Caveat: You Work for an Institution
Whether you work for a school district, a contractor, or a provider of products and services, your advocacy needs to comply with the policy structures of that organization. Everything you will read below assumes you have the concurrence and understanding of the organization for which you work.

The Best Politics is Good Government
Here is the take-away: if you run a solid operation and take steps to excel, you are already halfway there. Watch the media. You rarely or never see well-run operations paraded in the evening news. But if you make a mistake or have an accident, you will earn your 15 minutes of fame pretty quickly.

Excellence is a Selling Point
This is true in a school or in a contract operation serving a school district. If you take short-cuts on training or on bus inspections, then one day you will have an accident, and someone will point fingers. If you step back on drug and alcohol random testing or training, one day a bus driver will get behind the wheel in a compromised state and nothing good will come of that either.

School Bus in front of State Capitol in St. Paul.

School bus safety is all about excellence and zero-tolerance for mistakes. And for the most part, our industry has a lot to be proud of in that regard.

Does your school board know about your safety record? Do they know about the extra effort you put into training and the costs associated with that? Do they understand the labor-intensity of conducting random testing? Do they know how much effort you and your team put into bus maintenance for safety, as well as to protect the taxpayer’s significant investment in your fleet? If they do know, they will be among your greatest advocates. If they do not know – well, enough said.

You Are Not in This Alone; All You Do Affects the Body Politic
So, the evening news carries a story about one of your bus drivers who blew a 0.15 BAC with kids on-board. Or maybe one of your buses catches fire along a rural highway and is destroyed. When such events occur, we as an industry feel it across the nation.

We all know when there has been a fatality, or a lost child, and it cuts us to our core to hear about it. But it does not stop with us alone.

You see, every time something bad happens with a school bus or a school bus driver, it has considerable effect on our industry’s image, trust-level, and reputation across our nation. Consider the coverage of the awful and fatal accident in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

That accident had several layers of issues that prompted National Transportation Safety Board reviews, congressional oversight, state legislation and national news coverage. And while we all knew where the issues would really lie, so did the press and the legislatures, and they proceeded to paint the entire industry with those issues.

Just as our excellence helps everyone else, our shortcomings can harm everyone else – including the children we care about.

Everything You Do is Messaging
“Earned media” is a public relations concept that applies to news coverage you gain by promoting or advancing the work you do. This is compared to “paid media” which involves paid advertising.

Having people know and understand what you do (and how well you are doing it!) is a critical part of advocacy. Success buys you credibility. You can capitalize on that credibility on when you need to make a case for funding or safety training programs or new buses or anything else. Here are some examples:

  • This year’s order of new buses is scheduled to arrive, which presents a great opportunity to video their arrival and share it via social media or school news outlets. This gives your taxpayers some good news and also thanks your school board or state legislators for providing authority to purchase the buses, as well as the funds to pay for them.
  • One of your school bus drivers has recently completed 25 years of accident-free driving. When you celebrate that achievement, invite school board members, local legislators, police chiefs, PTA leaders, and school administrators to join in the recognition. It is an opportunity to talk about the rigors that go into keeping the school bus safe.
  • Doing training for drivers on bullying prevention and ensuring a positive environment on their school buses? Parents and your PTA would love to know about that training. Bring them into the decision making and let them hear more about it from the drivers. Sharing these kinds of stories is simply providing information to people who give your operation funding and support. It is also an act of goodwill that builds and strengthens your ‘Credibility Portfolio.’

Good Times…Bad Times
That “credibility portfolio” is a clever way of suggesting that you should share your successes and your efforts with people in your school and your community, as well as with policymakers and legislators.

Why? There will come a time when you need those stakeholders to support your efforts, or to not do something that will adversely affect your operations. That time is not the time to introduce yourself.

Advocacy (like life in general) is all about relationships. If you have built up your good name and reputation, decisionmakers are likely to talk with you and seek you out. And they are more likely to be sympathetic to your needs.

The Culture
The women and men who work with you are equally a part of the advocacy formula. Leaders in all walks of life will attest that a major part of the job of leadership is to instill and inspire. You need to instill people with a sense of pride, ownership, and mission. And you need to inspire them to carry out their responsibilities and roles in a manner commensurate with the lofty goals of student safety to which we all espouse.

Once everyone has their ‘eyes on the prize’ amazing things can happen. Instilling and inspiring is your job as a leader or a manager. People want to be asked questions and to be included. They want to support the mission. Remember: Advocacy is based on their doing their jobs well, too (see the first bulleted item).

Start; Do Not Stand Still
There is no reason to wait for someone to tell you what to do. Start your own grassroots. Look around your operation. What are you proud of? What excites you and gives you that feeling of accomplishment? What has someone done in your operation that deserves recognition beyond a simple “attagirl/boy” on your way through the drivers’ lounge? Look to those kinds of things as possible ways to get attention from employees, and to gain recognition and respect.

Even though these seem like difficult budgetary times, survey your needs and current situation. What have you set aside because you knew the school district, or the company, was struggling financially and you ‘knew’ the answer would be no? What regulation is preventing you from keeping kids safe or what regulation, if enacted, would contribute to that safety?

What would you ask your state or federal legislators or regulators to  do to make your life easier or to keep your student riders safer? Beginning to answer such simple and direct questions is a great starting point for us all.

Organize and Seek Out Help
There is strength in numbers. Collaborate with your colleagues and with your state association. Find out what your school superintendent or business official is doing and try to link in with those activities.

We will be publishing more articles on this topic and featuring what some state associations are doing. Look for more information about advocacy in coming editions and in future NAPT ACTS! program offerings. And feel free to contact NAPT if you need assistance or support in your initial advocacy efforts. We are all in this together!

Peter Mannella ( is chair of the NAPT Public Policy Committee

One Response to “Advocacy is Part of Our Job”

  1. Ellen Driscoll

    Peter it’s a joy to see your name and “hear your voice” as I read this article. I am so interested in NAPT, their scope and offerings…and they have the best people! Our school bus world is plodding in fear, disillusionment and disconnection. I for one could benefit by contact with folks with the core values that have always held our mission together. That’s why I’m writing, to thank you for always pulling in the right direction. Hope we stay well and see each other again.
    Ellen Driscoll
    Bethlehem CSD, NY