Then & Now: Johnson’s eye remains on community 20 years later

by Robin Mero ([email protected]) 548 views 

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following story appeared in the Sept. 3 issue of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal. “Then & Now” is a profile of a past member of the Business Journal’s  Forty Under 40 class.


Holly Brain Johnson has witnessed big changes and improvements to the methods schools use to communicate with parents, students and teachers from her position as director of communications and public relations for the Fayetteville School District.

In her almost six years with the district, social media has become essential for chronicling the activities, celebrations and academic and athletic endeavors on the 16 campuses that serve 10,300 students, with 1,440 teachers and staff members.

Facebook followers have risen from 5,000 to 24,000, video has become vital for capturing events, and the district relies on daily texts and push notifications to disseminate information to parents about events, meetings, snow days and activities.

Johnson leads a team of five, including a public information officer, webmaster, videographer and an assistant.

“We get to share the good news of everything happening,” she said. “All that we do is geared to supporting initiatives — both academic and athletic — and showcasing our brand. We’re going to use the newest tools to communicate as swiftly and accurately as possible.”

This summer, her team planned implementation of a new website and app built by Apptegy, a Little Rock-based tech startup company. The website and app work in conjunction as one platform, with the website being almost secondary — as so many users are now mobile, she said. School principals, for instance, can quickly update calendars and send messages to parents via their mobile devices.

During the first few days of this academic year, the team produced footage of back-to-school events, including the convocation of 1,400 teachers to hear from the district’s new superintendent, John L. Colbert.

The event featured a color guard and performance by members of both the junior high and high school choir and high school band. Footage was posted on Facebook and YouTube, with a link pushed to teachers and parents.

Holly Brain Johnson

Johnson’s team also informs the community about increasingly varied types of education available. For instance, three years ago the district launched the Fayetteville Virtual Academy, which now has 200 students.

To stay current on best practices, Johnson relies on the National School Public Relations Association, and she keeps up with her peers in other districts. She also gleaned ideas while visiting colleges with her own kids, who are now a freshman and a junior at the University of Missouri.

Johnson, a native of Little Rock, studied journalism at the University of Arkansas and met her husband David there. He swept her away to Tennessee, and then to Eunice, La., where she worked as a substitute teacher.

“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” and the experience increased her admiration for teachers in the classroom, she said. She briefly was a reporter for The Eunice News (her only time to work in journalism). The couple returned to Fayetteville in 1995, and David is now director of the Fayetteville Public Library.

“We always will have a soft spot for books, magazines and newspapers in our household,” she said. “When our kids took AP English, we joked they never had to use the library because we had all the books on their reading lists.”

But for her brief stint as a reporter, Johnson has devoted her career to nonprofit endeavors, primarily in the Northwest Arkansas community.

Twenty years ago, when she was one of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 honorees, she was then in her third year working for the Washington Regional Medical Center Foundation.

Johnson wrote grant proposals that brought thousands of dollars of community healthcare to the region, and she also served as senior development officer for the foundation.

She then worked as executive director of the Fayetteville Public Education Foundation, a charitable organization providing grants for schools and teachers in the district. She took her current position in 2013.

Johnson is on the board of the Economic Opportunity Agency, which helps low-income families succeed economically and socially in Northwest Arkansas. In her free time, she kayaks the Kings River, hikes, paints and draws, and collects vintage Arkansas pottery.