Before creating a communication plan, we often recommend that schools and districts conduct a communication audit. In many ways, an audit sets the stage for more meaningful communication planning.
Through a communication audit, you can gain a better understanding of stakeholders’ perceptions of your school or district, get a sense of what stakeholders think about your current communication efforts and determine which types of information are of particular interest to your stakeholders. It also allows you to find out how your stakeholders prefer to be informed.
While school district communication audits can take many forms, there are a couple key components common to most of them:
1) Inventory of current practices
As an initial step, an audit features a review of all of a school district’s current communication practices, including the methods used to reach stakeholders. For example, does the district currently use social media, direct mail or e-newsletters?
Through this process, you can determine, in broad strokes, what is working well and any potential areas of improvement.
2) Community and staff surveys
A great method of gathering valuable feedback from stakeholders is to conduct a survey focused on the district’s current communication efforts. This typically centers on a survey of community members and staff. A survey allows you to capture baseline data related to how people come to think about the district, where they get their information and the challenges they experience in obtaining news and information about the district.
In general, it is best practice to leave surveys open for 20-30 days. Specific efforts should be taken during this time to ensure a solid response rate. This may include sending a postcard to all residential addresses in the district, emailing parents and staff, posting the survey to social media and distributing a news release.
In addition to a communication inventory and survey, communication audits may include focus groups. This is often a good option if there are issues or data points uncovered in the survey that need to be more closely examined.
Once you have completed a communication audit, you will have the data and information you need to engage in comprehensive communication planning. It marks the first step in your efforts to better communicate and engage with your stakeholders, which over time leads to greater overall trust between a district and its community.
If you’re a superintendent or school board director in Pennsylvania, you’ve got plans.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) requires all school districts to complete a Comprehensive Planning Process every three years. The PDE describes it as “a continuous process used to ensure that all students are achieving at high levels.”
High-performing Pennsylvania school districts share nine common characteristics. Chief among these are high levels of collaboration and communication, as well as robust community and parent involvement.
While the Comprehensive Plan is often distinct from a district’s strategic plan, revising either plan provides an opportunity to build a strategic communications that advance your core objectives. Communications planning allows a district to create alignment among these various plans and their embedded tactics, deploy communication resources efficiently, share successes with all key stakeholders and build trust throughout the community.
But how can you build this communications strategy? Fortunately, if Pennsylvania school district superintendent or board director, “you’ve got a friend in Pennsylvania.” The Donovan Group offers a full range of school communications services, including audits, surveys and communications planning.
You can also gain access to ongoing support—including content writing, graphic design, app development and video production—as you implement your communications plan,
If yours is a Phase 2 school district (submitting a 2020-2023 Comprehensive Plan by the November 30, 2019 deadline), now is an excellent time to think about your communications needs with regard to that three-year plan.
If yours is a Phase 1 or Phase 3 district looking to the future or seeking to energize your existing plan, you have a little more time to think strategically about incorporating communications into the next iteration.
Regardless, please don’t hesitate to reach out if you need any help thinking through how you can best approach your planning processes.
Liam Goldrick is an associate with the Donovan Group. Based in the firm’s Philadelphia office, he assists school and district leaders throughout Pennsylvania and Delaware.
The weeks leading up to a new school year tend to be incredibly busy for school leaders. There’s a never-ending list of items to check off to ensure the start of classes is as seamless and successful as possible for your students, staff and families.
It’s also a time when, as a school leader, you must think about communication and how you will continue to reach your key stakeholder groups and tell your school or district’s story. We’ve put together this school communications checklist to help you out:
Identify your stakeholders
Before you begin communicating, you must determine with whom you need to communicate. Brainstorm a list of the people you want to reach on a regular basis. This is likely to start with parents, staff and students, but may also include alumni, local business leaders, community organizations and the general public.
Create your key messages
Once you’ve identified your stakeholders, develop a list of messages you want them to know and understand about your school or district. Think about it this way: if you could sit down for a cup of coffee with every single stakeholder, with what information would you want each person to come away from the conversation? This usually works best when you have three overarching messages that guide your communication efforts throughout the year.
Develop a communications calendar
Because school leaders are so busy, communications can quickly fall by the wayside when other, more pressing issues arise. To help you stay on track, create an editorial calendar with the articles, news releases, social media posts and any other content or materials you need to create and distribute each month. Make a habit of revisiting the editorial calendar every few days to make sure you and your team continue to make progress on your communications plan.
Organize a ‘key communicators’ group
As a school leader, you can expand your reach by deputizing members of your staff to serve as what we refer to as “key communicators.” These are folks you can trust to speak with PTOs, staff and community groups and share your school or district’s messages. Conduct a training session at the start of the year and follow up each quarter to ensure these staff members know how to best communicate with your stakeholders.
Reach out to local media
It’s important to have strong relationships with the news media, even though you may disagree with how they cover certain stories. Take some time to get to know the reporters who cover your school or district. Invite them out for coffee or to take a tour of one of your schools. Just remember that anything you share should be considered “on the record” and fair game for the reporter to use.
Speak with staff about communication
In addition to working with your key communicators, make efforts to ensure all school or district staff understand the importance of good communication. Teachers should be encouraged to communicate actively with parents and principals should be willing to share the good things happening in their schools with their communities. Work to build a culture of communication throughout your organization.
Throughout the year, but especially during the first few days or weeks of school, plan on being extra visible to the community. You might greet students and parents at the school door, speak at a back to school event or send out a “welcome back” letter or email to families. These are great ways to set a positive tone throughout your school or district from the start of the school year.
Keep this school communications checklist handy at the start of the school year and as you continue to ramp up your efforts throughout the year. Through sound communications planning and implementation, you can maintain consistency as you speak to all the great things happening in your schools.
Among the reminders we continually provide to school communications professionals, superintendents and principals is the need to ensure alignment in their communications efforts. While being proactive is certainly important, ensuring that everyone is communicating the same set of messages is almost as important to school district communications planning.
However, alignment is about more than just message discipline—it also means alignment to communications goals. Allow me to explain.
In the Midwest especially, we are seeing more school boards creating communications positions in their districts. This is a fantastic trend. As school districts hire communications pros, we are seeing outstanding people take the communications reins in those districts. For many, the first few months of their new positions are exciting, and the job is incredibly satisfying. But we soon find that the honeymoon period seems to end for some after a few months, when the work that is being done does not match the expectations of board members who championed the position.
The reason for this is that there is a lack of alignment in expectations for what the communications professional should be accomplishing. Some board members and district leaders may envision the role of the communications professional to be high-level and strategic. This role would be out of alignment with a communications person who is focused only on the delivery of content. For other board members or district leaders, the role they see for the communications hire in in pushing out content.
Therefore, the new communications person, along with the superintendent or other supervisor, should be clear about the goals of the position. To push a bit further, there must be alignment on these goals between the communications pro, the supervisor and board members. This is so critical for effective school district communications planning.
One way to do this is for the communications pro to begin his or her work in the district with some communications planning. The first step in this process is to hold a group meeting with the district administrative leaders, the school board president and perhaps another communications champion on the board and ask this simple question: “If we are successful in our communications this year, what specific evidence of success will we be able to point to as evidence of that success?”
This is a difficult question to answer, but it is the question. Finding agreement on specific evidence of success will allow the communications pro to develop key performance indicators about progress toward meeting those goals, the subject of a future post and, ultimately, alignment.
If you are a communications pro in your district or a superintendent, do not assume that everyone is on the same page as it relates to what makes for sound school district communications planning and messaging. Work to ensure alignment—it may be the best investment of time and energy you spend all year.