May/June 2013

Gary Adkins, IASB director, editorial services, answers the question for this issue.

Question: How can schools combat the grapevine of negative chatter and gossip from undermining important school district messages?

Answer: School leaders can make that same “grapevine” mode of communication – a word-of-mouth set of contacts – work for the district by harnessing its unmatched power while turning it into a two-way communications tool.

The Key Communicators (KC) approach, which many in schools first discovered three decades ago through the National School Public Relations Association, involves simple networking. It was developed by the late school public relations pioneer Donald Bagin, then a professor at Glassboro State College, New Jersey.

Technology may have changed how people communicate, but the concept essentially works the same today as it did 30 years ago.

It simply consists of developing a list of individuals who like to talk and who are already key, trusted sources of school information for lots of people.

The cost to implement the plan is absurdly low, and it takes only a small amount of staff time. But once established , the network requires little maintenance.

It is launched, Bagin suggested, by asking for help from a few people who know and can identify the key communicators in the school district. These chosen people serve as KC “identifiers.” They should include, as far as possible, a cross-section of the community’s formal and informal social groupings: civic groups, clubs, churches, bowling or softball leagues, etc.

In meeting with these KC identifiers, someone from the school system simply explains that the goal is to communicate for the district via a word-of-mouth network, and then asks how the community can best be reached. KC identifiers can also be asked to help in identifying all community segments.

The identifiers are asked to conduct informal surveys over several weeks time among the people they come in contact with, posing questions like this: “We are doing a casual survey about how well our schools are getting the word out about the good work they are doing. Can you name a few of the people you have recently communicated with about school teachers or taxes?”

The written lists of names gathered by identifiers can then be tabulated, and names that keep appearing over and over are the school district’s key communicators. The names should be scrutinized to classify each person in relation to the segment or segments of the community to which they communicate. If any segment is missing, the next task is to fill in the gaps so that the whole community is represented.

The same process can be used to create key communicators from within each school building. Students and teachers are vital sources of school information for the community, but so are the bus drivers and cafeteria workers and janitors. Many people trust these individuals as their primary source of news on schools.

The superintendent or another administrator sends a letter or note to these individuals, explaining the program and then calling each one to organize small-group meetings of seven or eight people each.

At each meeting, the enlisted communicators need to be assured they are not being asked to do anything—at least nothing new. The only goal is to make sure that those identified know some things. Future meetings will not be necessary, either, because the KCs will be kept informed by telephone or email.

After this informal network is set up, it can be used as needed. Best practice suggests that they usually are contacted in the following situations:

•  to counteract rumors during a crisis with facts

•  to take a quick, informal survey on issues or questions of importance

•  to spread a favorable “good word” about school or district achievements

•  to bring information back to the district, especially when they hear significant rumors, rumblings or ideas about the schools

Maintenance of this word-of-mouth network only requires a review of the list on occasion to make sure every segment of the community is being reached and heard.

Thus Key Communicators can provide fast help for school leaders, particularly during a crisis. The main idea is simply to maintain a communications network that can respond quickly when required, turning “heard it through the grapevine” to the school systems’ advantage.