Donovan Group Insights

Transparency as the Foundation of Communication

Every communication scenario has one thing in common: transparency. Whether the communication is transparent or not is entirely up to you. No matter who you’re communicating with, staying transparent is in everybody’s best interest. Stakeholders deserve to know what’s happening in their district, and by staying transparent with them, you can gain their trust and form positive, long-lasting relationships.

Being transparent isn’t always easy. Sometimes, transparency involves sharing the details you’d rather keep locked away. Stakeholders will be grateful for your honesty, and in time, the benefits of transparency will make themselves known.

Time your communications appropriately

Timing plays a huge role in transparency. When you choose to communicate (and how often) speaks volumes about whether you’re keeping stakeholders in the loop. When an important decision is coming up, educate the school community about it well in advance. This gives community members a chance to voice which decision they believe is best for the district. Transparency also means sending out regular updates so stakeholders know what’s happening every step of the way.

One common scenario is making changes to the school curriculum. Rather than simply changing it, let stakeholders know that curriculum is expected to become a frequent topic at school board meetings. As soon as possible after every meeting, post the video recording or meeting minutes to the district’s website. You might also consider releasing an official statement that outlines how your district would change the curriculum and the positive impact it would have on students’ education. All these steps would make great strides toward staying transparent with the community.

Make information highly accessible

It’s not enough to simply share information. That information has to be accessible, too. If information is hard to find, stakeholders might get the feeling that your district is trying to hide it. Where you communicate matters, so post content where stakeholders are most likely to see it. This usually involves posting it to several channels, since different stakeholder groups get their information in different places. The information should also be accessible to people with disabilities and community members who don’t have wi-fi access at home.

Imagine your district just made important updates to its COVID-19 safety regulations. This announcement should be front and center on your district’s website. The marketing team could link to it on the home page or create a notification that appears at the top of every page. You could also post the link on social media or discuss the recent updates in a newsletter. There are many print options as well, such as pamphlets made available at main offices or infographics posted around the schools.

Explain complex topics in simple terms

Transparency isn’t just about when and where you share information. It’s also about how you share that information. When you communicate with stakeholders, your messages should be easy to understand. Remember, the vast majority of your audience is teachers, staff, parents and other community members. They may only have very basic knowledge about district policymaking, so try to avoid using complicated jargon that can muddle your messages. Explain things in simple terms so they can understand the message as well as you.

For example, let’s say you’re preparing to speak at an upcoming city hall meeting. You’ve been asked to give a presentation informing the public about proposed policy changes that would impact the district. The words you use should reflect your audience’s knowledge level about the subject matter. Simplifying complex topics increases access to information and allows stakeholders to follow along more easily. By putting concepts in simple terms, stakeholders are more likely to trust that you’re giving them the full details.

Give the “why” behind district decisions

When your district makes a decision, always explain the “why” to stakeholders. They want to know not just what the decision is, but why your district made that decision in the first place. Describe the issues you seek to resolve with this decision, and cite the reports, studies and surveys that help support the school board’s decision. Explaining the “why” behind a decision will help you stay transparent with stakeholders. When they understand the “why,” stakeholders are more likely to support that decision.

Explaining the “why” is crucial when you introduce a referendum. Let’s say the board has proposed adjustments to school budget allocations for next year. Stakeholders will want to know why you’re proposing these adjustments. Be transparent about how the district plans to allocate the funds, and explain the benefits of funding certain programs, departments or renovations. Whatever you’re proposing, stakeholders need to believe there’s a good reason behind it.

Make it easy to get involved

You can improve transparency by inviting stakeholders to join the conversation. School leaders shouldn’t be the only people who know what’s happening in the district. Keep stakeholders up to date about school board discussions, and create opportunities for stakeholders to share their thoughts and opinions. Rather than feeling left in the dark, community members get to become active participants in changing public education for the better. In return, you can earn their trust and build a stronger relationship with the community.

There are tons of ways to help stakeholders get involved. You could create surveys, focus groups and polls on social media that gather stakeholder feedback about relevant topics. Give stakeholders a chance to ask questions through Q&A sessions, whether that involves going live on social media or saving time for questions at the end of board meetings. Social media is also a great way to pose your own questions and see how people respond. The easier it is to participate, the more transparent you’ll be with stakeholders.

Provide the whole story to the media

Transparency is incredibly important when speaking with the media. More often than not, reporters reach out because they want information about something negative that happened at one of your schools. During media interviews, school leaders are tempted to withhold the less savory details in the interest of preserving their district’s reputation. However, transparency requires you to tell the whole story, even if it’s not the best look for your district. While your district might look bad, you’ll gain the public’s respect for being transparent.

Aside from gaining the public’s respect, telling the whole story is simply the right thing to do. The school community deserves to get a clear picture of what really happened. Don’t shy away from interview questions that could potentially reveal embarrassing details about the incident. At the same time, don’t let reporters pressure you into only talking about the negative stuff. Have the courage to bring up information that would give the public a more well-rounded perspective on the situation. Telling the whole story takes priority over everything else.

Every time you communicate, ask yourself this question: “Am I being fully transparent?” Think about when, where and how you’re sharing information with stakeholders. Determine whether it’s accessible to everyone in the school community, and make sure you say everything the public needs to hear, even if it means putting their best interests above those of your district. While being transparent is scary at times, taking the moral high road can earn you trust, respect and positive stakeholder relationships.

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