First Student

Communicating Back-to-School Safety During a Global Pandemic

In 2020, back-to-school season was anything but back to normal. First Student, the largest school bus transportation provider in North America, faced extraordinary challenges as it adopted new COVID-19 health and safety protocols to provide safe experiences for children; educated the public about its school bus safety practices; and calmed parent fears about sending children off to school during a global pandemic. Understanding media and social media would be important channels for reaching the diverse audiences within each community, First Student partnered with Vehr Communications to facilitate critical connections; gain recognition of First Student’s leading-edge approach to virus mitigation and employee / student safety through its Start Safe™ program; and importantly, continue to celebrate the joys of going back to school.

Vehr worked with the First Student team to create a comprehensive messaging guide — continuously updated with evolving CDC and transportation industry protocols — to ensure market spokespeople were consistent and confident when speaking to the public, parents, districts and media. We developed media materials to highlight cleaning protocols and school bus safety; b-roll to showcase the bus sanitation process; and photography to reveal new safety features. All materials were easily accessible on a First Student Start Safe parent resource page. In addition, we took a market-by-market media approach tailored to each local school district’s situation, setting up in-person interviews prior to the first day of school. Vehr conducted media training with market spokespeople across the county.

To demonstrate how the bus ride would look a little different, Vehr embraced First Student’s beloved Safety Dog mascot and developed a “Rules for Being a Doggone Safe Bus Rider” video that featured Safety Dog, children and drivers wearing face coverings and sitting one per seat. The video was shared with school districts, displayed on the parent resource web page and posted on social media.

Facebook, in particular, proved to be an effective channel to engage school district partners and parents. In addition to writing traditional back-to-school posts and managing parent questions, Vehr developed a series of sweepstakes that included photo submissions of families’ “Safety Pups,” kids conquering distance learning and rocking the coolest face coverings.

First Student spokespeople were prepared to answer tough questions as they headed into an uncertain school season. Parents and school districts appreciated having clear and transparent information, as well as resources to communicate new protocols. The metrics reflect this sentiment as well. From August to November, the back-to-school campaign received 164 media stories (87 percent of which were positive) that generated nearly 4.7 million impressions. Social media content generated an additional 769,000 impressions and more than 5,300 engagements, while the social sweepstakes tallied more than 1,300 entries. The video outperformed expectations with 35,000 views in the first few weeks of school. Ultimately, First Student addressed challenges head-on, engaged its most important stakeholders and emerged a leader in an industry rife with pandemic uncertainty.