The Virginia Association of School Superintendents has partnered with the Donovan Group to offer around-the-clock urgent and crisis communication services to public schools and districts throughout Virginia.
Through the service, district and school leaders gain access to school communication experts to help them quickly respond to difficult situations that may affect their schools, students, staff and families throughout the year.
“A crisis situation can arise at any moment in a school or district, requiring the need for quick and effective communication with parents, staff, students, community members and other stakeholders,” said Ben Kiser, Executive Director of VASS. “This is more true than ever as we continue to deal with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. By working with the Donovan Group to deliver this service, we are giving school district leaders a much-needed resource to help them communicate when time is of the essence.”
The Donovan Group is a communication, public relations and marketing firm that focuses exclusively on public K-12 education. Its team consists of education communication experts who have worked on thousands of crisis situations large and small, including those that impact a small group of people and those affecting entire school district communities.
The urgent and crisis communication service includes live counsel over the phone, with the Donovan Group team helping school leaders gather the facts, determine who they need to reach first and identify the best communication channels. The firm also provides custom talking points, parent letters, news releases, social media posts and other written content, working with school leaders to revise or fine-tune this content as needed.
“We are incredibly excited to partner with VASS to provide these urgent and crisis communication services available to public schools and districts in Virginia,” said Joe Donovan, Founding Partner of the Donovan Group. “In doing so, we are building on our experience delivering these services in several other states. We look forward to providing this resource to Virginia’s superintendents and educational leaders as we move forward.”
For more information on the service, visit https://www.vassonline.org.
Among all that is great about public schools is that they are governed by boards made up of community members who live alongside the families of the schools they serve.
In many communities, the school board is the governing body closest to their constituents. While it may be very rare for most people to come into direct contact with their U.S. senator, they have much more access to their local school board members.
At the same time, we know from history that some of the most contentious issues of the day can play out in school board rooms. Public schools can be a microcosm of the larger society, including the political divisions our country is currently experiencing.
Taking this together, we should not be surprised when school board meetings get messy. The question we have received from school and district leaders over the last month is: What should we do if we have protests at our school board meetings?
In addition to creating a one-pager that outlines some actions your board and school leadership team can take to ensure community members have opportunities to voice their concerns and meaningfully address the board, we would like to share some thoughts.
1) Free speech is critical and must be defended
As we all know, free speech and the ability of community members to address their elected board members is critical to the success of any democratic government. It is especially important for schools. Board members, please remember that education is always emotional because your work is about children. Who doesn’t want great things for their kids?
Moreover, we must recognize that people communicate differently. While board members should never feel they are being threatened, it is helpful to recognize that some people will raise their voice to make a point. It’s important not to match emotion with emotion.
Finally, board members should recognize that when a large group of people turn up at a board meeting, they do so because there is trust in the system. Consider this: If constituents did not believe in the system of school board governance, would they show up at meetings?
Reasonable people can disagree, and so long as constituents are following board rules, the meeting is safe and it can proceed, having a large number of attendees exercising their right to speak to the board is a very good thing.
2) Safety is always the priority
While we want constituents to be free to voice their opinions in accordance with board rules, board members must recognize they have an obligation to keep those in attendance—including fellow board members, staff and others—safe. The best way to do this is to ensure that meeting rules are followed, that order is maintained and that clarity is provided to all participants about how the meeting will proceed.
We have provided some additional information about what can be done before and during the meeting in our one-pager.
3) The meeting must go on
In so many ways, the word “protest” can have a negative connotation. We must recognize that protest is simply a way for constituents to share their thoughts and communicate. Protests that are peaceful and that occur within the rules set by the board are perfectly appropriate. However, where protests can turn negative is when safety is threatened, when meeting rules are broken and when the meeting cannot continue.
Board members have a responsibility to ensure the work of the board is done in an open and transparent manner. A board meeting should never be taken over by a protest group.
4) Focus on students, mission and vision
For those board members and administrators who face ongoing protests, there can be a situation in which a disproportionate amount of attention is paid to the protest. Board members and administrators alike should seek to continually remind themselves why they are engaged in this work. Their work should always center on students, their needs and the mission and vision of the school district.
In this way, it is sometimes helpful for board members and administrators to speak to the why behind certain decisions. The fact is that people will disagree about the methods by which goals are met, but the mission and vision of the district—what the district seeks to do for the children it serves—is generally not something most will disagree with.
At the end of the day, we must all remember that what makes school district governance so difficult is that we are working to meet the needs of children. The success of our children is something on which we can all agree.
5) Keep the conversation going
Despite how difficult protests can be for board members and administrators alike, such efforts can be seen as an opening to more fully engage community members in the future. In this way, district leaders should continue looking for ways to bring community members together around their shared values for our children. Continue sharpening your communication plan, consider a communications audit or a community survey and look for opportunities to further the conversation.
Again, we have created a one-pager that outlines some things your board can do to ensure that community members can voice their concerns and meaningfully address the board, while also keeping things safe and ensuring a productive meeting. You can download the document here.
As always, we would love to hear from you. Feel free to leave comments or reach out to us by phone or email.
In the 15 or so years of the Donovan Group, there is only one regret that I have: naming it after myself. I have always focussed on the “group” part of the name because it is the collective group of people who comprise our firm—dedicating their considerable knowledge, skills and their goodness as people—who are responsible for the success of our clients and our firm.
As we approach our 16th year in business, I am grateful to share some updates.
Earlier this year, we opened offices in Florida, Minnesota and, after launching a partnership with the California School Boards Association, California. At the same time, we continue to grow our national services. We now serve districts in every corner of the United States and many school districts in between.
Meet Holly Henderson
We also made some really great hires. Holly Henderson joined us earlier this year as a Communication Strategist. She has been deeply involved in education as the marketing and communication specialist for the School District of Baraboo. Holly received the 2019 Wisconsin School Public Relations Association Lighthouse Award, along with 10 Awards of Excellence and four Awards of Merit from WSPRA.
Meet Dr. Lori Mueller
On July 1, we were thrilled to welcome Dr. Lori Mueller to our firm as a Senior Associate. Lori is a greatly respected educational leader and superintendent who has been nationally recognized for her work in school communication.
While superintendent in the School District of Baraboo in central Wisconsin, Lori led significant continuous school improvement through district strategic planning processes. She also led efforts to engage community members in successfully passing the two largest capital referendums in her district’s history. Lori will serve districts nationally while leading the Donovan Group’s efforts in Florida.
Meet Perry Hibner
We are pleased to also welcome Perry Hibner to our firm as the leader of Donovan Group Intelligence, which is described below. Until very recently, Perry served as the director of communications for the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District. There, he oversaw communication for both the district and its foundation, taking the lead on fundraising strategies, events, planned giving, newsletters, website management, communication planning and crisis communications.
Introducing Donovan Group Intelligence
Also on July 1, we formally announced the opening of Donovan Group Intelligence, a survey research firm. Since the beginning, Donovan Group has done a ton of survey research. As our footprint has grown, so too has the number of requests for us to provide additional (non-communications focused) research services to district clients, including online surveys for culture and climate issues, COVID-19, referendum efforts and quick, “dip-stick” style surveys. We also provide polling, focus groups and analysis.
While DG Intelligence is positioned as something of a spinoff, it falls squarely under the Donovan Group umbrella and includes services that we have been providing for years. These services are made better by new methodologies and best-in-the-field tech.
In addition to providing top-notch survey research services to schools, districts and educational organizations across the country, the outstanding professionals who comprise our team will be made better by benefitting from the new data that will be generated through this service.
Before I sign off, I would like to return to the “group” part of our name. Just as our growth over years could not be made possible without the outstanding people who I get to work with every day, it could not have been possible without the amazing support we have received from the various friends we have worked with over the years, people with whom we have aligned over our mutual interests in advancing public education and ensuring that when it comes to meeting the needs of all students in our schools, we truly mean all.
Thank you for your support.
Joe Donovan is founding partner of the Donovan Group.
The Donovan Group, a national leader in education-focused communications and community engagement, is expanding its survey, polling, focus group and data analysis services through the launch of Donovan Group Intelligence.
By integrating proven research methods and emerging best practices, technology and experience, Donovan Group Intelligence empowers schools and districts to collect, store, examine and manage data from students, staff, parents, non-parent community members and others.
As part of this effort, the firm has added Perry Hibner, an experienced school communications professional and former journalist, to serve as lead survey strategist in Illinois and Wisconsin. In this role, Hibner will help expand Donovan Group Intelligence.
“While we have provided surveys, focus groups and data analysis to our clients for many years, we are now thrilled to welcome Perry Hibner to our team as we expand this work through Donovan Group Intelligence,” said Joe Donovan, president of the Donovan Group. “Now more than ever, it is critical for schools and districts to leverage data to engage stakeholders in more meaningful ways. We are excited to move forward with these efforts in both Illinois and Wisconsin.”
Prior to joining the Donovan Group, Hibner served as the director of communications for a decade for the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District. He also served for six years as the executive director of the MCPASD Education Foundation. In those roles, he oversaw communication for both the district and its foundation, taking the lead on fundraising strategies, events, planned giving, newsletters, website management, communication planning and crisis communications.
Hibner has also served as a high school social studies teacher and substitute teacher. He worked for the Wisconsin State Journal for nearly 25 years, including the last 15 as assistant sports editor. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a history minor and teaching certification from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Donovan Group Intelligence offers online surveys on a variety of topics, including virtual learning, climate and culture and referendum and bond efforts, along with quick, dipstick-style surveys. The firm’s research methodologies stress engaging the entire school district community and using unique methods for disaggregating data to separate the signal from the noise.
The firm also provides polling, focus groups and analysis, with methodologically appropriate data disaggregation, reports and presentations and password-protected data dashboards that make data come alive and become actionable.
Founded in 2004, the Donovan Group delivers a variety of communications and marketing services to public schools and districts nationwide. Over the years, its work has involved some of the most critical and urgent issues facing schools, districts and educational organizations. The firm’s clients range from large urban schools and districts to small, one-school rural districts.
To learn more about Donovan Group Intelligence, visit https://www.dgintelligence.com.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has radically changed so much of the work of school and district leaders, there are some traditions that carry on. This includes a changing of the guard, as new superintendents replace veterans who are soon to enjoy well-deserved retirements.
We have always said that the first 100 days of a new superintendent’s term is a critical time. That’s even more true during this era of COVID-19. With that in mind, below are some communication-related tips to help you make the most of your time as you gain your bearings in your new school district.
First, we suggest reviewing this time-tested checklist of to-do items when looking ahead to the next school year.
Find your key messages
Before jumping in and creating the various items listed below, the first thing you should do is reflect for a moment. Consider exactly what you want to communicate. What do you want the district community to know about you, your leadership and your personal vision? What are the three or four critically important messages you would like to communicate with every staff member, parent and community member in the district?
Consider some key questions, such as:
- Who am I as a professional?
- Why did I choose to work in this district?
- Why did I choose to work in education and what motivates me to this day?
- Why am I so grateful to be your superintendent?
Keep it light and do not be afraid to show your heart as you write these messages.
See also: Advanced Messaging in School PR
Develop a stump speech
We believe it’s important for every superintendent to have a “stump speech.” By this, we mean they should have, at the ready, a three- to five-minute speech that can be presented at a moment’s notice. This speech can be built around the message points detailed above.
We wrote about this in a popular post: Why Every Superintendent and Principal Should Have a Stump Speech. The key when you are new in a district is to not be afraid of sharing what makes you tick. Again, why did you choose to be a superintendent? Why did you choose to come to this specific district?
The best leaders show their hearts. Again, don’t be afraid to share yours.
See also: Why I am in Education: On Callings and Reflections of 15 years in an Education-focused Business
Update the website
Most districts have space on their website for a message from the superintendent, along with a photo. Be sure to use this space! In the earliest days, many people, staff, students and parents will want to learn about you. Use this space to introduce yourself and make this language consistent with your stump speech.
Remember, this information is for parents, students and staff. It’s not for a graduate school seminar. Do not provide overly technical information and avoid the use of acronyms.
See Also: Race to the Top, NCLB and Why My Mom (Still) Doesn’t Care
Distribute a news release
After you take over as superintendent, you should distribute a news release. This will be rather formal and include quotes from you and from your board president. We also suggest including a quote that describes how grateful you are to work in the district.
See also: Writing News Releases
Write a letter to the community
Within the first couple weeks of your arrival in the district, we suggest you have a letter published in the local newspapers. The letter should be simple and hit the points noted in your messages, described above. The letter should be published with your photo.
See also: Tips for Newly Hired Superintendents and Principals
Send a staff email
During your first week as superintendent, send an email to all staff introducing yourself. This can be simple and build on the messages outlined earlier. If it is easy for you to do so, consider creating a video message.
Whether you choose to do a video or a letter, do not make it overly formal. Be professional, but again, allow people to get to know you as a person.
See also: How to Record Quality Video Footage with a Smartphone
See also: Are Your Unintentional Messages the Loudest?
Give a board speech
Your first board meeting is a good opportunity to hit some of the messages that you will return to over the course of the year. This could be a modified version of your stump speech. Make the most of that first meeting!
See also: The Rule of Three
Write a series of articles
In many districts, leaders can reach a large portion of the community by submitting articles of 400 to 500 words on a semi-monthly basis to the local newspaper. Toward that end, we suggest we create an editorial schedule detailing what topics these articles will address throughout the year. Use this opportunity to your advantage to share your story. Again, the district community will be eager to hear what you have to say!
See also: The ‘Gas Station Principle’
Make a presentation to staff
Next, as you introduce yourself over the summer, plan to use your first-day-of-school presentation as an opportunity to engage staff around some critical messages. We find it is easiest to draft this presentation over time, and then refine and revise it based on your understanding of the district, the community and the local culture.
See also: Start with Staff
Meet with service clubs
Next, we suggest you make a point of going to the various service clubs in your community. These may include Rotary, Kiwanis and the local Chamber of Commerce meetings. While at the first meeting, consider making a quick introduction and perhaps give your stump speech. Then, look for an opportunity to return at a later date to give a more comprehensive presentation.
See also: Don’t Be Bashful About Sharing Your Messages
Develop an interim plan
Finally, after you have introduced yourself to the district community, update your communications plan. Often, we find that even if an incoming superintendent is replacing a veteran with great communication skills, the plan needs a refresh. Consider starting this process with a robust communications audit to determine what is working, what doesn’t work and where opportunities exist to ramp up your communications efforts.
See also: Communications articles
Are you a new superintendent? If so, we would love to support you. Feel free to reach out to say hello!