Tools We Love: The Donovan Group Tech Stack

Tools We Love: The Donovan Group Tech Stack

It is almost cliché to say it: education and communication are changing so fast that it is difficult to keep up. Central to this change are the tools that are used to engage in communication, to collaborate and generally to get work done. We are often asked for recommendations regarding the different types of communications tools we use—our tech stack–so, here is a non-exhaustive list as of the tech tools we use as of January 2018. Please note that we do not have a relationship with any vendor unless stated specifically.

Project Management

We have been using Basecamp for years. It’s a terrific tool for managing complex projects that involve a lot of different people. While we love the first version, we did not love the second version. We fell back in love with Basecamp with their third and current version, Basecamp 3. We also like Asana and Trello. If you are not using a project management tool to run your projects, you should.

Project Mapping

While we like Basecamp and the other tools noted to manage projects, we do much of our project mapping using Gantt Charts. For years we did this by using Excel spreadsheets, but have recently taken to using Team Gantt. We recommend it.

Team Communication

Staying on the same page with your team is more important than ever before and, like everyone else, we used email for team communication and with great frustration for many years. Last year we began using Slack for internal communication and found it to be very effective. While we continue to use Slack, we are increasingly using the new version of Basecamp for the same purpose.

Website Tools

Your school and district likely have an existing vendor for your website, or you may do web development in-house. But sometimes is helpful to have a separate website for issues such as a referendum or a special project. For simple, inexpensive websites, we prefer Wix, but we also like SquareSpace. If you use WordPress, which we also like a lot for robust websites, consider an inexpensive theme from Themeforest.

Social Media Tools

There are many, many different social media tools out there. We still like HootSuite, but we’ve come to like Sprout Social increasingly as well.

Online Forms and Surveys

We have long used and highly recommended FormSite for creating simple web-based forms and surveys.

Direct Mail

We have used a lot of vendors for direct mail, and we really like the folks at ModernPostcard and recommend them for small projects. Also, for our own marketing, we have been using a Lob for on-demand direct mail.

Copywriting, Editing, and Translation

Need help with writing and editing? ProPRcopy, which is a sister company to the Donovan Group, can help with your writing, and Scribendi, with which we do not have a relationship, is a terrific vendor for quick and excellent copyediting. One Hour Translation is a good source for translation service that, as its name would suggest, is very fast.

Customer Relationship Management Software

As school district communications move more into the realm of marketing, consider using a customer relationship management tool. For years we used big and expensive tools, but these are increasingly becoming unnecessary as inexpensive and easy to use CRM tools enter the marketplace. Consider our favorite, Contactually or CapsuleCRM. When the project calls for a database, we like Knack.

Advanced Marketing Communication

For many years we used Infusionsoft for auto-marketing. But it is a bear to set up and is expensive. While Infusionsoft is easier and less expensive than the very well-regarded Salesforce, we are now recommending two even easier and less expensive tools, SharpSpring and AgileCRM. For the money, Agile is hard to beat. For testing website landing pages, we like Unbounce and Instapage. For a handy tool that helps us find email addresses, we like Hunter.io. Finally, we are all about bringing it all together by connecting APIs through Zappier.

Bonus material

To stay ahead of the communications curve, we are spending a lot of our own professional development time learning basic coding. We love Michael Hartl’s programs along with Codecademy. For simple web applications and prototyping, we are digging Bubble.is, a visual programming tool.

That’s it for now. What have we missed? Do you have some favorites to add? Let us know! Also posted on Medium.

Media Relations for School and District Leaders: Handling Media Calls Like A Pro–The Initial Call

Media Relations for School and District Leaders: Handling Media Calls Like A Pro–The Initial Call

Note: This is a continuation in a series on media relations. To start from the beginning, go here


As I said before, it is important to respond to calls right away, or at least to have someone call for you.  The bottom line is to get back to reporters as quickly as you can.  But do so on your terms…

Many people call reporters back only to put themselves on the spot.  The reporter asks questions, acting as if they are in a big hurry with deadlines to meet and makes you feel like you need to answer all of their questions right away.

Don’t.

When you first talk with a reporter about a story (or if you are busy and your assistant makes the call for you) the first conversation should be one where you ask the questions. Then respond to the reporter’s “on the record” questions after you have had a chance to think through your responses.

This simple tip alone can make all of your media relations efforts work far more smoothly.

To return to our narrative, imagine you have a voice mail message from Steve.  He says he needs to talk with you right away about a story he is writing.

Here are some tips for making that call a breeze…

Begin with small talk

For most people, getting calls from the media is a lot like going to the dentist.  But, working with reporters doesn’t have to be painful.

Take a minute at the beginning of the conversation to take control of the call by asking how their day is going, what is making news today, and generally breaking the ice.  It takes the edge off and makes for a much better conversation.

Get background information

Get as much information as you can.  Try to find out exactly what the reporter wants.  Try to get a sense of where the story idea came from.  Ask what you can help them with and when their deadline is.

Are you being quoted?

Ask what they need.  Do they just want background information or do they need a quote?  If they need a quote, tell them you need a few minutes to organize your thoughts and schedule a time to call back.

Any good reporter should have no problem with this.  There are some inexperienced reporters who will want you to answer every question in the world right when they call, but any reporter with experience will understand that their story will be much better if they give you some time to prepare.  Don’t be bullied.

Shape the story

As I briefly mentioned earlier, If you learn from the reporter that the question or the angle of the story is not the one you think is best, offer some suggestions.  Typically, experienced reporters will appreciate this more than inexperienced ones.

I do this often.  If, after learning the angle of the story, I feel that there is a better way for the reporter to address the subject matter, I might say, “You know, getting back to your question, there is another way you might consider looking at this issue,” or, “Here is a way of looking at your questions that might be of even more interest to your readers.”

It is always useful to be an advocate for “the readers.”

When you take responsibility for good news getting out there, you have to think like a reporter.  No reporter has your level of experience in education, so they are sure to find your insight a great gift.

I have had amazing success with this in the past in relation to IDEA and NCLB.  Not only did I end up shaping the stories in the newspaper, but I became a trusted source for very interesting subject matter.

Now that you know exactly what the reporter wants, how do you respond?

Tune in tomorrow for the next post in this series.

Media Relations for School and District Leaders: Handling Media Calls Like A Pro–The Initial Call

Media Relations for School and District Leaders: The Five Golden Rules

Media Relations for School and District Leaders: The Five Golden Rules

Note: This is a continuation in a series on media relations. To start from the beginning, go here


The five guiding principles of working with the media:

  1. Always return calls as soon as possible
  2. Never, ever lie.  Not even a little.
  3. More information is better than less information.
  4. When providing information, always provide context.
  5. There is no “off the record”

Always return media calls as soon as possible

Most often, reporters are working with a same-day deadline of 5 p.m.  Even if you have to have your assistant send a message, do your best to acknowledge media calls.  I find that it is best to respond as soon as possible because it allows you the opportunity to shape the story.  I describe this in more detail later.

Never, ever lie. Not even a little.

Nothing kills trust more than lying to a reporter.  Never, ever lie.  Not even a little.

More information is better than less information.

Providing more information to reporters–as long as it is appropriate to do so–is almost always better than not providing enough.  Reporters often don’t know what they need and ask for the wrong information.  In addition to providing the right information, always add whatever you feel is important.

I recommend this in situations where I feel the reporter is asking the wrong questions.  Try to answer the questions as they are presented to you but politely suggest an alternative question and answer it.  Again, I’ll cover this in detail later.

When providing information, always provide context.

Leave nothing to chance when you are working with a reporter. If they want specific information, send it, but send a cover letter as well, or use “Post It” notes to make the case that some information is more important than the rest.  Sending information blind often leads to it being used out of context.

There is no “off the record”

Very often you will want to provide information to a reporter, but want it to be “off the record.”  Hollywood makes speaking “off the record” glamorous, but in reality, there is no “off the record.”  Consider everything you say to a reporter fair game.  Although there are rules to keep in mind, basically, never say anything to a reporter that you wouldn’t want to see in print.

Tune in tomorrow for the next post in this series.

Media Relations for School and District Leaders: The Five Golden Rules

PR Tips for Newly Hired Superintendents and Principals

PR Tips for Newly Hired Superintendents and Principals

Across the U.S., July 1 is the traditional date when thousands of principals and superintendents take the helms of schools and school districts. The time between the beginning of July and the year-end holidays can be especially challenging, especially as it relates to communications. So, in this article, we outline a series of tips to help you meet all your communications goals and help ease your transition.

Make a list of important groups. The very first thing we encourage all new superintendents and principals to do is to assess the stakeholders in their community and make a prioritized list of all stakeholder groups in the school or district that they need to engage. Keep in mind that some groups will be internal groups, including staff, fellow administrators, and board members, and others will be external, including parents and community members.

Principals should remember to include parents who lead the PTO, PTA, and various clubs, including booster clubs, and community members whose properties border the school. Superintendents should also include community leaders, including the mayor, the police chief or sheriff, and local business leaders, including the president of the chamber of commerce, as well as the reporter from the local newspaper who covers the school district.

Create a list of these stakeholders and then categorize them by group.

Now would be a good time to use a simple and inexpensive, or free, contact-management system. We like Contactually.com for this purpose.

Be active. Next, spend time every day of your first few weeks reaching out to people on your list. Email and telephone calls are nice, but meeting in person, even just for a cup of coffee, is better.

Hand out your business card, and handwrite your cell phone number on the card. Invite those you connect with to contact you if they have anything they’d like to discuss with you. Whenever you connect with someone, ask if there’s anyone else to whom you should reach out. Push yourself to meet as many people as you can, and remember to add names to your contact-management system.

Introduce yourself. Remember, active communication is not a one-time activity but an ongoing effort. Therefore, in addition to reaching out personally, if at all possible, send an introductory letter by email to parents and staff, and say in it that you’ll send these on some sort of regular basis. Include your contact information, and don’t be afraid to share how excited you are to be in the school or district.

Consider congratulating parents and staff for creating a great learning environment for students, and if you’re comfortable doing so, share a bit of background information about yourself.

Be present in the community. In addition to attending sporting events, meet and greet parents during drop-off and pick-up times. This is especially important for both principals and superintendents. Finally, consider new ways to connect with parents and community members away from the school. Join the local Rotary or Kiwanis club, hold “office hours” in the community, or volunteer at local events.

Rinse and repeat. Remember, you’re about to get even busier (How’s that for an understatement?). Don’t let your communications efforts get sidetracked. Make communications-related goals, and remember that these efforts will pay off in the long term. Keep at it.

However difficult it may be, push yourself to get out of your office and meet people. Your staff and community members want to see you and hear from you. Get out there and make it happen.

PR Tips for Newly Hired Superintendents and Principals

Advanced Messaging in School PR: Some Examples

Advanced Messaging in School PR: Some Examples

We speak a lot about messages in school communications, and for good reason. Messages are the small “bite-sized” pieces of information we want our stakeholders to understand or experience.

Good messages are simple but profound and are best addressed to specific stakeholders with the intention of capturing their imagination.

Most importantly, good messages are aligned with your strategic plan and your district goals.

Here are some examples to get you started.

For example, if your school or district is high-achieving and has a strong tradition of success, your first message might be, “The Anytown School District is a great school district that ensures graduates have the knowledge and skills for success.”

This message then opens the door to providing specific details regarding the evidence of success, including test scores, stories of successful graduates, or other things that demonstrate success.

It may be important for you to also note that your district is working to improve, and is going from good to great, or from great to greater. If this is true, your second message might be, “While the Anytown School District has a great tradition of success, we are working together to raise the bar for the success of our students.”

This message ties in the “we”, which gives you the opportunity to highlight areas where students, staff, parents, and board members are working together. This shows the district is not resting on its laurels.

Then you may want to describe a vision for the district. This is a very important message, as it not only ties into the previous messages, but more importantly, outlines broad goals for the district. Such a message might be, “Building on our track record of success, the Anytown School District is working to ensure that every single graduate in the district has proficiency in a world language, has taken a computer coding class, and has successfully completed a core curriculum to ensure success at the higher education level.”

This message is a bit longer than we might normally suggest, but it packs a punch and lays out a clear vision for the district, one that you can repeat again and again.

The idea with this last message is to be aspirational and to tie it into the previous messages to create a narrative.