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Money matters: Communicating about school budget challenges

You’ve probably heard it said in education that we deal with a parent’s two most treasured assets: their children and their tax dollars. That’s why communicating information about your school budget is a critical task for school administrators.

So much of how a money message will be perceived depends on the amount of trust that already exists. There’s no perfect process–-especially if you’re delivering bad financial news–but the same theories and good practices used in handling tough PR issues apply when facing financial challenges.

Accountability and transparency are the hallmarks of good school and community relations. If you haven’t had a pattern of communicating or being transparent about financial woes, then even the most heartfelt and honest messaging may fall on deaf ears.

Year-round, systemic two-way communication is critical when it comes time to sharing difficult or bad news.

No matter whether the financial challenge was caused by a mistake—or worse, no school leader looks forward to sharing bad news with constituents. It is our responsibility as school leaders to be honest about our financial challenges and to provide solutions to address those challenges. It may be one of the hardest messages you have to deliver, but there are ways to soften the blow and come out stronger in the end.

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Use this tested four-step process to effectively communicate money matters in your district:

Research. Study the district’s financial situation thoroughly. Meet with the finance staff to ask questions; study where the district spends its money and how it receives revenues. Look at tax trends, election support, and previous examples of budget communications, if they exist.

Be sure to listen and learn from the financial experts in your business office. Use best practices and concentrate on retelling the story in a way a taxpayer in your district can understand. Promote an atmosphere of engagement with finance experts and with members of your public.

Plan. Mapping out target messages and key audiences is a crucial second step. Ask yourself what did I learn and who needs to know this information?

  • Review findings from your research
  • Create key message points (keep it simple)
  • Identify key audiences (internal/external)

Consider all target audiences and focus on your internal groups first, especially employees. They will appreciate knowing the facts before the general public and can serve as ambassadors in helping to tell your story in the community.

Keep your message simple and help your audience relate to the information. Charts and graphs can help give a visual representation of the facts, especially with a millennial audience who prefers smaller bits of information in easy-to-understand formats.

Implement. As you communicate your key message points to target audiences be sure to use the most effective communication tools available. Ask yourself who should we tell and how should we tell them?

  • Engage and involve key stakeholders
  • Utilize appropriate tools to share your message
  • Carefully consider costs and deadlines

Social media can play a key role in sharing budget facts and message points throughout the year. Don’t wait until you have a budget problem to start talking about money. Be consistent and transparent throughout the year in sharing financial news with internal and external audiences. Consider focus groups, town hall meetings, online surveys, and visual presentations as a means to relay information, but always be watching for ways to ensure two-way communication.

Evaluate. This fourth step is often overlooked, but is vital to building public trust for the next budget presentation. Ask yourself: Did they understand what we told them?

  • Consider feedback—both written and verbal
  • Conduct evaluation/survey of attitudes/understanding
  • Adjust messaging and delivery as necessary

School PR professionals are being called upon more and more to help deliver financial news. If you are ever asked to develop a written plan to establish a public engagement process for budget input or reductions, consider that people want to be heard and need to be a part of finding financial solutions.

Throughout the process, you can gain credibility and learn a lot about what people think of the way you spend their money. No matter what bad financial news you have to share and no matter who or what the cause, recovering effectively will take proper research, planning, implementation, and evaluation. And while this may not be a fail-proof recipe for success, it certainly has proven to be a time-tested and effective public relations strategy for districts with difficult or bad news to share.

This story is adapted from a chapter in the 2014 book Making Communications Work for You and Your Schools published by the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA).

About the Author

Julie Thannum
Julie Thannum, APR, is assistant superintendent for board and community relations at Carroll ISD in Texas and past president of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA).

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