Donovan Group Insights

Remember: You Set the Tone for Communication

Your district is always telling a story. The words you choose shape people’s perceptions of your district and what occurs within it. Words hold the power to make people feel calm, reassured and safe—that is, if those words set the right tone.

Tone is a critical component of all communications, although it’s especially important while addressing a school incident. Setting the right tone helps you control the district’s narrative and ease any apprehension stakeholders might feel about the situation.

Below, we explore several strategies for perfecting the tone of your district’s communications.

Choose words that evoke the right tone

Setting the right tone comes down to word choice. Every time a district leader communicates, they have to decide what type of reaction they want from stakeholders, then choose the words that will evoke that reaction. This is true for all forms of communication, from light-hearted social media posts promoting school events to website copy that’s designed to boost student enrollment. However, word choice is especially important when your district responds to a negative school incident. Words have the power to make people feel calm and reassured, even during tough times.

To nail the right tone in your message, start by identifying how stakeholders might feel in the aftermath of a particular incident. They might feel angry, afraid, worried or all of these at once. In your communications, strive for a tone that puts stakeholder concerns to rest and helps them feel more confident about your district. Use words that show your district is full of hope and optimism about the future. If your district stays optimistic, then so will your stakeholders.

Communicate through an effective channel

When you communicate, you have to consider factors beyond the message itself. You also have to consider where you’re going to share that message. Media channels impact the tone of your message in one way or another. For example, a 280-character Twitter post might not be the best way to address a school incident! Select channels that prompt stakeholders to take your message seriously and that give you plenty of room to speak.

News releases are a great way to engage the public because it shows that what you have to say is worth listening to. You can also post an official statement on your district’s website, ideally somewhere that receives a high volume of traffic, such as the home page, news page or even a clickable banner that runs along the top of the screen. Print mediums like take-home letters can be effective, too, especially if your message is meant for a select group of students and their families.

Be intentional when selecting the speaker

The speaker contributes to the message’s tone as well. The message should come from someone within your district who the public views as a trustworthy source of information. This is usually someone who holds a leadership role, such as the superintendent or the school board president. Whoever relays the message, it should be someone who embodies your district’s mission and core values. That way, when this person speaks, the public will know their words are a direct reflection of your district.

Selecting an individual to represent your district is often more effective than relaying a message as the district itself. Messages resonate more with stakeholders when they come from people, not entities. We all crave those human-to-human interactions, and the people in your school community are no different. An individual speaker will make the message sound more personable, which is crucial for building stakeholder relationships. By putting a name and a face to the message, stakeholders will be more likely to listen and take the message to heart.

Engage stakeholders in a timely manner

The timing of your communications plays a big role in setting the tone. In the days and weeks following a school incident, some district leaders avoid addressing the public for as long as possible, either because they’re not sure what to say or they simply hope the incident will blow over. Remember: silence sends a message, too. Silence also creates room for speculation, which is rarely a good thing! The sooner you communicate with stakeholders, the easier it will be for your district to recover and move on.

Your district should move swiftly to address negative events. Timely communication shows stakeholders you’re not afraid to talk about what happened (and have nothing to hide). Confronting incidents head-on helps instill a sense of confidence in your district, and it says your district has a clear plan on how to move forward. Of course, you should get the wording right before communicating. While it’s important to act quickly, you should only communicate once you’re ready.

Connect with local reporters right away

Your district isn’t the only entity communicating with the public. Others are crafting narratives about your district—namely, the local media. When a reporter writes a news story about one of your schools, they reach out to multiple sources for information. These sources are usually less reliable, spreading misinformation or, at the very least, an incomplete picture of what really happened. Following a school incident, your district should be the first source reporters turn to for accurate information.

However, district leaders shouldn’t wait for reporters to contact them. Instead, they should be proactive and contact the reporters first. Promptly connecting with the media gives reporters less time to seek out unreliable sources of information. This gives your district more control over its own narrative. Plus, your district’s willingness to collaborate on a story can help win the media’s respect. Respect builds healthy relationships that increase your chances of getting a positive news story.

Seek guidance from the experts

As a district leader, many look to you for timely, effective communication. There can be a lot of pressure to craft the perfect message, and more often than not, district leaders feel like they have to do it on their own. However, communication takes a whole team. Even the best leaders need support! If you’re looking to connect more with stakeholders, one of the best things you can do is partner with district communication specialists.

Communication specialists can help you nail the right tone in your messages. They can look over a message and suggest ways to improve it. In many cases, these specialists can even craft messages for you, giving you peace of mind that the language will resonate well with stakeholders. Communication specialists not only write well, but provide helpful advice on when and where to share your message. They can also offer strategies for building positive relationships with the media, including how to pitch a story idea to reporters and establish your district as the go-to source of information.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. A solid support system filled with knowledgeable specialists is necessary for effectively communicating with stakeholders.

Take control of your district’s narrative

Words hold power in your community. With the right tone, you can lay stakeholders’ concerns to rest. You can make them confident in your district’s ability to overcome anything. The right tone cools anger and rallies stakeholder support. When you address the public, the words you choose are incredibly important. Decide what story you want to tell with those words!

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