September/October 2019

Practical PR: The Value of Analog Connections in a Digital Age

By Ryan McPherrin

The proliferation of social media and electronic communications has become extraordinarily important, with relatively inexpensive (or free) tools that help school districts share key messages with their communities and give stakeholders a peek inside their schools. However, it is crucial to remember additional methods to reach stakeholders, especially those who may not be as plugged in. Frankly, some of these individuals will not follow your social media presence no matter how compelling the content.

Analog communications remain important to Bloomingdale-based CCSD93’s communications efforts. CCSD93 is an elementary school district that serves a diverse community of approximately 3,600 students in preschool through eighth grade from Carol Stream, Bloomingdale, and Hanover Park. The district has an Early Childhood Center, six elementary schools, and two middle schools. CCSD93’s mission is to strive to maximize the academic, social, and emotional potential of each student.

Three analog communications methods that have remained pillars of  CCSD93’s communications and community outreach strategies are
  • Creating opportunities to connect students with community members for real-world teaching and learning experiences
  • Working with newspapers to cover school and district news and events
  • Sending  community newsletters through postal mail
Mailed community newsletters may seem outdated, and with more expense for printing and postage than social media or email newsletter platforms, they’re easy line-items for districts to cut to save money. Similarly, with the increased need for school districts to do more with less, making connections within the community and working with local newspapers may seem like an afterthought. The problem with these lines of thinking, however, is that data bears out that these methods of communication are our most effective, and in some cases only, way to reach many stakeholders.

CCSD93 contracts with a telephonic polling company every three years to survey its community on a variety of issues. This enables the district to gain information (typically accurate within +/- 5%) on perspectives of its most prevalent, but hardest to gauge, stakeholder group: the nearly 80% of residents who do not have children in its schools. The survey asks, “How do you get most of your information about District 93?” The first time this question was asked in 2012, the top three results were surprising. In subsequent surveys, the percentages have varied slightly, but the order has consistently remained:
  • Through a direct experience with CCSD93 and/or by talking with parents or staff members associated with CCSD93 (most recently 29%)
  • By reading the newspaper (25%)
  • By reading CCSD93’s mailed newsletter (16%)
By contrast, only 5% of those without children in CCSD93’s schools indicated their primary resource for information on CCSD93 was through electronic newsletter or social media, despite CCSD93 following best practices for each and maintaining subscription and follow numbers per pupil above industry average. Of course, these numbers will vary by district and community, but CCSD93’s survey results strongly suggest that placing all communications eggs into the digital basket will leave many, and likely the majority, of any school district’s community members in the dark about the great teaching and learning occurring there. 
These results have caused CCSD93 to focus more on these three communications methods than it otherwise would have. 

To give more stakeholders-without-students direct experiences with the school and district, we have worked to consider creative ways to connect them with students to witness, experience, and contribute to a modern education for students in CCSD93. With a primary strategic plan goal calling on CCSD93 to provide a relevant education for all students, making these connections has been a natural fit. A few examples that have proven successful and could easily translate to any number of school districts have been:
  • Working with the chambers of commerce and nearby manufacturers to have local industry leaders teach the latest design thinking strategies to eighth-grade students involved in a “Shark Tank” style competition, inviting those local leaders to serve as judges of the competition, and having students take field trips to these manufacturing facilities.
  • Inviting leaders from a variety of fields and local universities to share their experiences and interact with students by participating in career and college/post-secondary days.
  • Collaborating with a local retirement community to send volunteer elementary and middle school students to help retirees with their technology needs every two weeks throughout the school year. 
Each of these opportunities helps our students, and in some cases our stakeholders, to learn and grow. Each provides an experience reflective of CCSD93’s mission, vision, values, and strategic plan to a respected member of our community. This person walks away with a positive experience with the district, and they are likely to share that with others, which has been statistically proven to be invaluable to CCSD93. 

Despite print media maintaining a steady decline, CCSD93’s community survey data bears out that our residents, particularly those older than 65 (37%), still do seek information about the district from newspapers. A few methods to consider to maintain coverage despite newsrooms continuously covered by skeleton crews are:
  • ​Inviting newly assigned reporters to sit down with a communications official and/or the superintendent to share key background about the district and create an open working relationship.
  • Sending news releases, media advisories, or personal emails and calls to local reporters and editors about not only major announcements and events, but also innovative lessons or student achievements. 
  • Working with media contacts to print a “message from the superintendent.” Offering your highest-profile contact exclusivity on the piece and writing it as an easily digestible listicle  that avoids difficult-to-follow education jargon.

While printed newsletters are certainly the most costly of the methods considered here, they also enable the greatest opportunity for you to reach a mass audience with a consistent message. If your community is like CCSD93’s, more than 75 percent of your residents pay taxes to help you educate students, but don’t currently have students in your classrooms. These individuals deserve to hear from you about the terrific teaching and learning opportunities happening in your classrooms.

In 2018, CCSD93 residents were asked how often they would like to receive mailed communications from the school district, and 87% responded with one of these responses: once (30%), twice (23%), three times (20%), or more than three times per year (14%). Only 9% did not wish to receive a mailed newsletter. Again, these numbers will vary from community to community, but our data indicate that community newsletters are the method of communication that stakeholders desire. If your district has never sent direct mailers, or hasn’t done so in a while, be sure to work with your local printer or post office to secure the best mailing rates by sending the piece via postal carrier route and not direct recipient addresses.

Of course, since their advent, electronic communications and social media platforms have been and will continue to be extremely important tools for school districts to share messages and further brand images within their communities. But as this progress occurs, it’s crucial that we still use data to help us reach our stakeholders in ways they’re most likely to be reached. 

Ryan McPherrin is the Director of Communications for Community Consolidated School District 93 and served as the President of the Illinois Chapter of the National School Public Relations Association (INSPRA) in 2017-18.