Navigating Communications as a Board Member: What to Say and Do (and More Importantly What Not to Say or Do)
By Brett Clark
One of the most confusing and difficult-to-manage aspects of being a school board member is communications. As elected officials, board members are expected to be in the know. However, when you get stopped in the produce aisle with a question about the negative budget article that just appeared in the newspaper, how should you respond? What should you do when you are scrolling through Facebook and someone attacks the school district or you as a board member? How do you navigate it when you are sitting in the stands at a soccer game and a group of angry parents brings up criticisms of a specific teacher?
These are not easy questions, but here is some guidance. I bring a unique perspective to these questions and situations, having served as a school district communications director for nearly 20 years, as well as having been elected to the school board by my community.
Make sure the district is communicating regularly with all stakeholders.
School districts should prioritize communicating with stakeholders on a regular basis. The school district needs to ensure a plan is in place to share key information with the community. While some districts have invested in hiring an individual dedicated to communications, or have assistance from an outside communications firm, most districts in Illinois have not. That doesn’t mean communication is any less important there; it means someone else needs to carry the communications baton. That is typically the superintendent, in addition to all of their other responsibilities.
When a district is informing and engaging its stakeholders with key messages on a regular basis, there is less need for a board member to answer questions at the grocery store. It also makes board members’ work easier, because they can share that key information related to questions they receive, and then follow up with details about how more information can be found on the district website, on social media channels, in the community newsletter, or through other communication avenues.
Without a dedication to communication, a district is putting board members in a difficult position. The board’s duties are to hire and evaluate the superintendent, to ensure fiscal responsibility, and to approve policy and procedures. In order for a board member to function at the 10,000-foot level recommended by the Illinois Association of School Boards (and not fall into the trap of being involved in the day-to-day operations), districts need to do their part in the area of communications. That includes ensuring effective communication channels for the community to gain the information they are looking for.
Establish standard operating procedures that govern board interactions and protocols.
It is important that school boards have written procedures that are reviewed annually to ensure all board members are on the same page on managing communications. During the review process, adjustments can be made if necessary. But having this in place is vitally important before a communications crisis arises, which can literally happen at any time.
One of the most important decisions is who speaks on behalf of the board of education in the event that becomes necessary. Typically that is the board president, but that is not always the case. This should be decided by the board in advance and followed by all board members no matter the situation. A few guidelines to be considered:
Board members should direct concerns raised about a school or the district to the most appropriate person (teacher, principal, superintendent) in order to resolve the concern. The superintendent should always be copied when information is forwarded along to the appropriate staff member.
Individual board members do not have the authority to act or speak on behalf of the board without the consent of the board.
Board members have the right to disagree with the decision of the board. However, that should be done in a respectful and honorable fashion. In addition, board members should support the board in its decisions by recognizing, and abiding by, the will of the majority of the board.
By establishing this in advance, operations of the board will be much smoother because all board members will know how to address communication questions.
Maintain the confidentiality and trust of closed session discussions and documents at all times.
As an elected member of the board, you are provided with information that must remain confidential. Being privy to sensitive information means you are being trusted by the community that elected you and the school district to keep that information private. It shouldn’t be shared with anyone — a best friend, a significant other, or anyone else.
When asked by a community member about discussions of the board that are confidential, the best-practice response is something to the effect of: “I understand that you are interested in knowing more about that decision but I am bound by an oath of office which outlines that some information is not to be shared outside of the confidence of the board’s closed session meetings. I thank you for understanding that I can’t share the answer to your question but know that any decision we made as a board was discussed in depth and the decision was made in the best interests of the school district and its students.”
Refer media inquiries to the board president as the board’s spokesperson or the superintendent.
Media calls or emails in most cases should be passed along to the appropriate person in the district to handle; in other cases referred to the board president. When media members indicate they want an individual board member to answer the question, board members should inform the questioner that the board has a procedure that governs media requests. Ultimately, media members will appreciate getting answers, even if it is not from the person they originally contacted.
In the event you are being asked to speak as a board member on an issue, best practice and common courtesy is to share that request with the board president and superintendent, as well as to outline how you plan to respond. Superintendents and board presidents don’t like surprises. Be sure to alert them. They may also have information that might be important to know before you speak to a reporter. If you do speak to a reporter, be sure to clarify that you are only one board member and cannot speak for the entire board. You are speaking as an individual board member. Ask the reporter to include that in the story or broadcast.
Stay away from social media as much as possible.
As a board member it can be easy to get drawn into public discussions on social media platforms. Realize social media posts are not typically a true representation of the opinions of your community. Those opinions usually represent a fraction of the stakeholders you represent. With that in mind, my simple advice is to stay off social media as a board member as much as possible. If you see social media posts, giving in to the temptation to respond and react can lead to major issues for you as an individual board member, challenges for your board, and problems for the school district.
If you can’t stay away from social media, the secondary advice is when you see something that is inaccurate about the school district, make sure the superintendent is aware so they can address it through the district’s social media or other communications channels. If something inflammatory is said about you or the board in general, alert the superintendent and board president so that a proper response can be created and shared through the right communications channel.
The advice above is easy to read but difficult to follow. It becomes hard to ignore it when someone is attacking your school district or you personally.
However, remember that your superintendent can help you with this challenge and as a team (superintendent, board president, communications director/advisor, and legal counsel) there is a greater chance an appropriate response is crafted than if you as a single board member react in real time. Much like on the football field, the referees don’t usually flag the instigator of a confrontation. They issue a penalty to the player that reacts to the instigator. Same goes when board members react on social media. Wise advice to remember is that in a mudslinging fight, everyone gets dirty.
Being a board member is not easy at any time, especially now. Following the advice above will help you navigate communications challenges throughout your board tenure. If you have specific communications questions, please feel free to contact me at email@example.com (and be sure to copy your superintendent and/or board president on the email). <