Communication is at the heart of your school’s success in the community. Your board needs students’ families, as well as the larger taxpaying community, to know about your educational initiatives; to be excited about the great things going on in your schools; and to understand the challenges public school districts face. In an era of increasing controversy about the role of public schools and their effectiveness, a good public relations program is a must.
In the not-very-old days, a monthly newsletter, backpack notices and good relationships with local newspapers did the trick. More recently, school websites have filled the community’s need to know about matters from curriculum to policies to sports schedules.
As communications evolve, however, even a robust website is not enough. Parents don’t want to check a website; they want information to be “pushed” to them through emails and texts. Local media outlets have lean staffs, making it a challenge to place stories about your district. And social media, online sites and cell phone texts can spread rumors far and wide before administrators even hear a whisper of them.
While a proactive communications policy is essential, it’s not as easy as it sounds to create one. Stretched-thin administrators must manage many priorities that compete for time, personnel and budget; as a result, communications often falls through the cracks. Moreover, many districts have the mistaken impression that they are not allowed to expend resources on communications.
With all that, supporting a sound public relations program can be one of your most enjoyable and meaningful tasks as a board member. To promote good communication, your district should take these basic steps:
- Develop an overall policy. The policy will require sufficient funding, measurable goals and an ongoing outreach to stakeholders. (See sidebar, “Create a Policy with Impact.” )
- Designate a spokesperson. In general, the superintendent is the spokesperson for matters relating to district operations. For issues related specifically to the board of education, such as board policy, the board president typically acts as spokesperson. Some districts appoint a district communications officer to deal with the media as well as public inquiries. Whatever the case, a spokesperson should always be available and responsive to take calls, even after regular working hours as events require.
- Develop an e-mail blast list. A district could have several lists: one for families who need to know details of school events and news like weather-related school closing, and another that encompasses the community in general and gives overall district news and information. Ways to create this broader list include having signup sheets at local organizations such as senior citizen groups, and making a general signup list available through the district website
- Diversify communication. Remember that one communication technique is rarely a silver bullet for reaching most parents. Some will prefer email, others social media, while others prefer the backpack method or delivery through churches or community and social centers.
- Make two-way communication a priority. A community relations program isn’t just about putting information out there; it’s about receiving it as well. Online surveys are a great way to keep in touch with what your community is thinking; some districts use them on back-to-school night, when developing budgets, to evaluate staff professional development and more. Other districts meet regularly with Parent Advisory Councils (PACs), comprised of administrators and parent reps from every grade level. Parents know they can funnel their suggestions and concerns through PAC representatives.
- Meet with key communicators. These are the “go-to” people, the connectors in your community. They should represent a cross section of the community, including: parents, teachers/staff, business leaders, senior citizens, clergy, alumni, youth organizations, sports leagues, preschool/day care centers, civic associations, local business leaders and service providers and local government. Administrators can invite members of the key communicators group to informal meetings over coffee, or to formal presentations in which their counsel and input are sought on budget development and other matters. The administration should also make sure this group has timely and correct information about important or controversial district issues.
- Arm board members with positive talking points. Board members tend to hear complaints or concerns about the district from the public – that’s just part of the territory, and listening is an important aspect of a board member’s role. However, try to make it a practice to impart good news as well. “Isn’t it great that our eighth- graders did so well on the language arts tests?” “Did you hear about the wonderful community service project our student government recently ran?” “Did you know our school club recently won the state solar car competition?”
Board members’ words carry weight. Spread the word about good news in the district and watch it travel along the grapevine.