September/October 2022

Engaging with the Community: A Time to Reflect and Reconnect

By Patrick Mogge

The past several years have brought a new level of engagement by the public with Boards of Education and other public institutions and governing bodies. From tense discourse and resignations by elected officials to a new level of attention and advocacy by passionate parents and others focused on what they believe is suitable for the students, the landscape continues to shift for elected officials and the public institutions they oversee, and the public taxpayers they represent.
Defining Roles
When viewing community engagement through the lens of school public relations, there are different levels of potential ownership regarding who communicates what information, when, and to whom. Teachers and building-level administrators and staff; superintendents and district-level administrators and staff; individual board members, and the board of education itself all send and receive communications to various audiences. Each group holds a specific role in who does the communicating and connecting and what the message is to ensure their particular stakeholder group is felt, heard, and connected with the organization. Traditional school communications and community engagement programs may include websites, newsletters, social media channels, and media relations to convey messages to various audiences. Parents may engage through the traditional means of advisory committees and parent organizations that support the aims of the school, district, or extracurricular program.
Many school districts have communications or family and community engagement staff members assigned to produce a district communication and community engagement program. But how do boards facilitate their engagement with the community as well as their communications as individuals and as an entity?
social media usageA Broader Reach and Context
Social media and other online platforms have enabled new constituencies to form and translate into direct advocacy and action. No longer are the individuals that impact locally elected boards only from the community, but potentially the state and nation. Single-issue groups can form instantly and begin to influence the dialogue and work of a public body. The exponential growth across all social media platforms will continue as new technologies emerge, which can create opportunities.
According to the “Social Media Use in 2021” report by the Pew Research Center, approximately seven in ten Americans use at least one social media site. YouTube and Facebook lead with 81% and 69%, respectively but use by age and other demographics varies. For example, the majority of those age 18 to 29 use Instagram and Snapchat, while approximately half use Tik Tok. Half of those 65 and older use Facebook and YouTube. Beyond the traditional communication and community engagement tactics, governing bodies can consider what messages are generally received depending on the platform. For example, in addition to providing remote access to watch their proceedings, live-streamed meetings can create viral moments, and online communities can thrive by creating their niche media to share thoughts and ideas with like-minded individuals.
This presents an opportunity to reflect on what has been occurring in the broader community and examine the roles of individual board members and the board as an entity. It can review current community engagement activities and analyze what they might be able to do differently to facilitate two-way communication in this new, ever-changing environment.
Individuals and organizations can use various tools to analyze the environment in which they operate. For example, a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities, Threats) is traditionally utilized to analyze an organization’s internal operations to understand better how it can improve. Likewise, a PESTLE analysis (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal, Environmental) tool can be used by an organization to analyze the external factors impacting and influencing its operations and decision-making. The findings of these types of tools can help individuals, boards, and the organization as a whole review what works and what doesn’t, as well as begin to anticipate what might be over the horizon as local, state, and national community dynamics continue to change and evolve.
Constituencies, Communities, and Categories of Connecting
As part of the analysis, it is useful to identify the potential constituencies of the communications and community engagement program to design the goals to improve two-way communication and overall engagement. Using common definitions of audiences, stakeholders, and the various publics the organizations are attempting to engage can provide clarity. For example, parents, students, staff, and community members are typically the initial audiences and stakeholders that school districts consider engaging.
By defining and reviewing each of the categories of a board’s community engagement program, it could potentially develop new or refreshed strategies to engage not only with parents, students, and staff but community members and those with a vested interest in a specific topic or issue of mutual concern. Upon review and reflection, the board could then prioritize its tactics into several categories, including, but not limited to, board meetings and workshops; traditional and social media presence and engagement; visits with students, staff, and classrooms; engagement at school and district events; advisory committees and councils established to inform and solicit feedback; engagement with the broader community such as serving in local civic organizations or meeting with other elected officials; and the overall communications program. Integrating these strategies and tactics with the district- and school-level communications and community engagement program provides a fuller picture of how the board, district, and schools are connecting with the various community members and the potential outcomes of the engagement.
Board members volunteer time and talent to serve the community, and the past several years have brought unforeseen challenges and opportunities. When individual board members and the board as a whole engage the community, it benefits the district and supports its overall goals. One of the six foundational principles of effective board governance in Illinois, as outlined by the Illinois Association of School Boards, is that the board “connects with the community.” What that connection looks like will continue to evolve as new technologies and issues enable renewed dialogue among the governing body. Reviewing the board’s engagement goals and the current environment it is operating in allows it to develop a plan to move forward in proactive ways to serve the community and create new opportunities for open communication about what is best for the students, staff, parents, and the public they serve.
Patrick Mogge is a communications and community engagement professional who holds a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Chicago and master’s degree in school business management from Northern Illinois University. He is licensed to teach and as a CSBO in Illinois.