In an age when people expect instant information, keeping students, staff, parents and community members apprised of school news and issues can be a major challenge—particularly for small- to medium-sized districts that lack a full communications staff.
“These days, effective communication goes beyond print and digital to true engagement efforts,” says Mellissa Braham, associate director for the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA).
A district communications professional—often the superintendent or other administrator in small districts—typically manages a district website, publications (e.g., handbooks, curriculum guides and newsletters) and social media platforms.
School communications professionals also serve as strategic advisors to administrators on building relationships with school and community members, Braham says. This may involve training administrators on how to handle media calls and on how to make educational terms understandable for parents.
In smaller districts in particular, “if they don’t prioritize it all, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and burn out, and for communication to be ineffective,” Braham says.
Planning for everyday and emergency communications
District leaders must be proactive and apply the standards of strategic planning for education to communication efforts, says David R. Voss, president of school communications consulting firm Voss & Associates.
Technology tools have made it easier to communicate effectively, Voss says. Software and apps can send text, email and call notifications to students, parents and staff to keep them informed.
A strategic communication plan requires considering how stakeholders want to hear from the district, the challenges schools face, and what messages are important to administrators, Braham says. Surveys, focus groups and informal feedback during committee meetings are important.
“The expectation is that information will be at everyone’s fingertips immediately, and often that isn’t possible,” says Erica Chandler, director of communications at Affton School District in St. Louis County, Missouri, a district of 2,900 students. “If there’s an emergency situation, we want to make sure we get out information, but we also need to pause and make sure we have accurate information.”
For example, Affton schools now put out a message on social media that the district is aware of and investigating a situation, and will have more information as soon as possible.
Staff training is key to successful communication efforts, Voss says. “District leaders who cannot hire staff must make sure their people are effective communicators,” he adds. “Professional development can help them with navigating social media, crisis communication and public speaking.”
Connecting with the community
The majority of any community’s voters do not have children in school—a major challenge for districts trying to connect with the wider population on important matters such as funding requests. To reach that audience, NSPRA’s Braham recommends conducting a survey or running a focus group to determine the best form of communication.
Some district communications officers send newsletters to every home in the community, and others work with local media to publicize information outside of the school community, Braham says. A communications officer can create a presentation with highlights about the district, achievements, and priorities for the year, and provide it to administrators and board members to share with their networks.
“Actively trying to tell your story to build trust for when you need it is hugely important,” Voss says. “If you look at communication as just a pretty brochure or improved website, you’re missing the boat. Effective communication means recruiting quality teachers, gaining more parent involvement, passing bond referendums, and getting public support for positive reform. Those issues go directly to student achievement, and they cannot become a reality without good communication.”