School communication isn’t what it used to be. And that’s a good thing.
Since flying back from the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) meeting in San Antonio—well, really since leaving my first session in San Antonio—my head has been spinning with ideas about how communication and public relations professionals can help lead a revolution in public education.
School PR and communication professionals, and the districts they serve, face major changes on two fronts. Education now involves more choice, inclusion, and personalization than ever, while the wave of social media, digital, and mobile communication has transformed how people engage with one another and their schools.
Despite all the misleading press about the state of public school education in this country, the reality is that our school districts are stacked with some of the most innovative, passionate, inspired, and knowledgeable educators and communicators anywhere in the world. Here are some of my key takeaways from learning alongside them:
1. Show your faces
We’re learning that, when parents choose a school and district for their children, relationships and customer service often trump program offerings and test scores. It’s more important than ever to put a face on your district. Use communications to show who your employees and students are.
Create photo sharing experiences for the first day of school, snow days, or spring break. Record regular videos featuring students and employees who are wowing you—anyone with an iPhone can get you started. Establish a series of district and school hashtags, and use them to build a social media narrative for your district. While you work, remember Parkway Schools’ Derek Duncan’s four elements of great storytelling: Every piece of content you create should be simple, emotional, relatable, and authentic.
2. Research and data matter
Whether you’re trying to gain traction with a new idea or stop adoption of the newest thing simply because it’s new, research is your best friend. As Guilford County Schools’ Chief of Staff Nora Carr said: “New ideas are easy. Executing them well at the right time with the right people in the right fashion is the hard part.”
Conduct a survey to learn how your parents want to engage with you. Convene focus groups to find out whether your students actually want to see your district on the latest social media platform. Review Google analytics to determine which parts of your website the public uses most. Talk to your school leaders about how they communicate with families. Data can help you build a strategic communication plan that makes efficient and effective use of even the smallest of budgets.
3. Embrace disruption
The time for anticipating change is over; change is here. We’re in the ocean, so we’d better start swimming. That means embracing the new way people engage with content and information. It’s not enough to post a story on your school or district website and expect people will read it. People want to feel like they are a part of that story, whether by interacting with you via online chats and social media or connecting emotionally through a video or as part of an in-person event.
In his NSPRA session, Steve King from the Capital Region BOCES noted: “We can’t make the audience fit into the molds and rules we want.” The key is to create content with your audience in mind. Try a new approach to make your message memorable. Differentiate your delivery for different platforms, he said. And meet people where they are, not where you want them to be.
4. Know your people
If I took one overarching point away from my time at NSPRA this year, it’s this: You have to know your audience. For public school districts that translates to: You have to know your community. You can’t tell the story of the people in your district, you can’t research the best communication practices, and you can’t create the content your community wants, if you don’t know exactly who those people are.
These days, everyone is tuned in and online, but do you know if your community is more hardwired or strictly mobile? It’s a tough question. You have parents in your high schools who identify as baby boomers, while parents in your kindergarten classrooms fall solidly into the millennial category. How these groups choose to communicate differs. You likely have more languages and cultures represented in your district today than you did a generation ago. Reaching those populations requires more than simple translation.
Moving on all of these points at once can seem like a challenge. But, if the educators and thought leaders I met in San Antonio last week are any indication, it’s a challenge our schools are ready to answer.
Want more tips on school communication in the digital age? Download The School Leader’s Definitive Guide to School Communication.