March/April 2016

Practical PR: Tell your district's story in 60 seconds

By Margaret Van Duch

Margaret Van Duch is communications director for Fremont District 79, based in Mundelein.

People crave information. We desire it instantly and want it delivered in a way that is useful to us. As a mobile society, we also want it delivered wherever we happen to be. In the United States, three-quarters of adults use social media sites. The global Internet population represents 2.4 billion people. Every 60 seconds, email users send 204 million messages, Twitter users tweet 277,000 times, Facebook users share 2.5 million pieces of content, and YouTube users upload 72 hours of new video.

When traveling coffee drinkers want their brew, they can easily stop at Starbucks, the giant of the coffee world with over 20,000 stores and resellers in over 61 countries. The company listens, researches, and tests the market. Starbucks has more than 36 million followers on Facebook, 11 million on Twitter, and 7.2 million on Instagram. In Starbucks cafes, tables are bustling with individuals conducting business, working on laptops, and talking on phones while enjoying a chocolate mocha, cafe latte, or caramel macchiato. Starbucks introduces new sweetened drinks or skinny lattes to customers on a monthly basis. Most recently, Starbucks has launched a mobile order and pay app for the customer who doesn’t want to wait five minutes for that foamy drink.

Starbucks gives customers what they want.

For educators, it is essential that a district’s message will reach its audiences. Like Starbucks, school districts can use Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Pinterest, LinkedIn, email, and more. Each platform holds different attractions for its audience.

The key in telling stories is to use the various media seamlessly.

And it is vital to tell the story quickly: 90 percent of readers will view online content or data for 30 seconds. Seven percent of viewers will stay on task for three minutes. A mere three percent of a school district’s audience will devote 30 minutes to content shared with them. What this means is that a district has less than 60 seconds to reach the majority of its audience.

That’s not to say that the three percent of viewers researching a topic are not crucial to any conversation. For hot topics like referendums, building expansions, and budget cuts, that small percentage is consuming everything they can access. These communication ambassadors are attending PTA meetings, soccer games, and cocktail parties ― and sharing their knowledge and opinions on the subject. For this reason, it is paramount to ensure that information about hot topics is well placed and available where people can easily access it. For school districts, this is typically the website.

For example, on a district website, a finance page might provide readers with information about the district’s spending and revenue habits. This is where a business manager will want to place information about tax levies, an easy-to-view PowerPoint about the district’s budget, and other meaty documents like the state budget form. When an issue arises, this is what the public sees.

It is important to make sure the message is repeated — and repeated often — if your audience is to remember it and stand behind the message. Psychologists have documented that the more an audience is exposed to the same message, the more familiar it becomes, and the more attached people will be. An individual will be more apt to “buy in” to what it is being sold or told to them. This, too, is true of school districts that are reaching out to taxpayers, for example to approve bond referendums to renovate their schools or to approve pay hikes where their teachers may make more than the average household income in town.

Keep district messaging clear and concise, and use a variety of platforms that will reach many individuals. What is nice about many of the social media sites is they dictate how much content to add. Short is best. Keep messaging simple. Send short emails with pictures. Use one-sentence statements for Facebook with lots of photos. Create one-word statements for Twitter or Instagram with a telling photo. Educational videos, pictures, Tweets, or headlines can tell a district’s story in a few seconds. If you don’t think brevity has impact on an audience, look at advertising campaigns with slogans like Nike’s “Just Do It.” A district could manage a similar slogan with 1:1 devices using photos of students with iPads and a phrase that states, “1:1 opens a world of learning.”

What makes for effective messaging is when — as in advertising campaigns — messages are short, consistent, and repeated often using a variety of platforms.