January/February 2018

Kara Beach is communications specialist for Wheeling CCSD 21 and co-vice president of programs for INSPRA. Amy Melinder is director of community engagement for Woodridge SD 68 and co-vice president of membership for INSPRA

Communicating with stakeholders is vitally important, and it’s an ongoing effort — not something that can be checked off a list and quickly forgotten as the next task takes center stage. When time and resources are limited, however, how can school board members and administrators maintain an effective two-way dialogue with the community? Where can the district start when it has few — or no — communications basics in place?

Is a strategic school communications program necessary?

The answer is a resounding yes! Conversations are happening throughout the community, whether you, as a school district, are an active participant or not. You should not just be a part of the conversation, but direct that conversation.

What thoughts or feelings come to mind at the mention of Disney, Nike, Google, or McDonald’s? The positive (and sometimes negative) associations with these brands are the result of strategic marketing, communications, and customer service. Satisfied patrons are more likely to share their positive experience with others and continue to support the company themselves.

What thoughts or feelings come to mind when your school district is mentioned? Does your response match the sentiment of your staff, parents, and non-parent community members? How do you know? How likely are those stakeholders to share a positive impression of your school district with others?

Developing a positive brand identity doesn’t happen overnight, but implementing a few key strategies will, over time, develop into those favorable thoughts and feelings you desire.

Where to begin?

Start with an audit of your existing communications tactics. How do you communicate with parents? What about non-parent community members? Are you reaching your stakeholders in ways they want to be reached? Is your communication timely and relevant?

This audit can be done internally or contracted externally, but it is important to thoroughly research and analyze each tactic to identify both strengths and challenges. Be sure to include all of your audiences — staff, parents, non-parent community members, and other elected or volunteer community leaders.

For example, an audit may reveal that a middle school principal puts a great deal of effort into creating a paper newsletter, but the paper hardly ever makes it into the backpacks, and then into the homes, of the middle school students. Likewise, a teacher may be interested in starting a classroom Twitter account but later learns that very few of his parents have or are interested in creating accounts themselves.

Implementing strategies and tactics

Successful communications strategies and tactics will leave the stakeholder with a reinforced notion of the district’s mission or vision and a clear, positive association with the district’s brand.

Meet your audiences where they are. Through your audit, you will quickly discover where your audiences already exist, and you can align the district’s strategy to meet stakeholders in these spaces. Remember that one size does not fit all, so one platform will not fit all audiences. Staff members may prefer email, while parents may prefer social media. Retirees in your community may prefer something mailed to their home.

It may seem daunting to reach your audiences in these varied locations, but your single message can be repurposed for each channel or platform. While a letter will certainly be longer and more detailed than a tweet, your key message will remain the same — no need to reinvent messages for each communication vehicle. Similarly, IASB, ISBE, and other organizations often issue communications resources on important topics expressly for the purpose of making communications efforts easier for districts. Be sure to use these existing resources.

Utilize your built-in ambassadors. Board members and administrators network regularly with other community leaders, neighbors, and friends, formally and informally. The impromptu conversation in the frozen foods section of the grocery store is just as important as a scheduled community forum. Be prepared to share the latest news from your district in these conversations.

Likewise, make sure your staff members are well informed of district goals and accomplishments. Staff members are trusted, respected members of the community. They have a direct connection to your families, likely live in or near your district, and have important networks of their own. When well informed, they can be the best ambassadors to correct misinformation and will take great pride knowing they are kept informed by the district.

Don’t operate in a silo. While a dedicated communications professional can focus on strategic and day-to-day initiatives, communication is the responsibility of everyone within the organization. A scheduling change may impact food service and transportation; a curricular change may impact hiring decisions. Every decision requires some communication, almost always beginning with an internal audience and moving outward as necessary. Sharing information across departments and between board members and the superintendent ensures all parties can communicate effectively.

Tackle quick, meaningful projects first while planning long-term. Through the communications audit, it’s likely that long-term goals will be identified. While gathering the necessary information and resources to accomplish those goals, take note of simple, smart strategies and tactics that can quickly be implemented and added to your communications toolkit. For example, be visible and accessible at existing school events while planning a community town hall series. Establish and utilize free social media account(s) while developing more robust electronic communications tools.

These foundational strategies will support your district’s development of a transparent relationship with stakeholders while nurturing a positive association between key constituencies and the school district.