I'm not surprised when folks tell me they don’t have the time to build a communications plan. I’ve been there. When I first started, the plans I built were hefty - literally. They averaged 20-30 pages and lived in well-organized binders on the shelves behind my desk. I consulted them a couple times a year to ensure my team was on track or for an annual meeting. It eventually occurred to me that I wasn't getting the value from my plans that justified the time and energy.
Unfortunately, unless your organization has unlimited resources, the only way to ensure your efforts are spent on the most impactful activities is to go through the public relations five step process and create a plan. The good news? It doesn’t have to be a long, narrative old-school approach. It does have to be data-driven, identify key audiences and include a way to evaluate success.
Step 1: Collect your research
How do you know you need a marketing communications plan? What data, quantitative or qualitative, has led you to believe you have an issue or challenge to overcome? What do you know about your stakeholders and how they receive their information? Research doesn’t have to complicated or overly formal. Turn your frontline staff into scientists and your reception desk into a lab. Keep track of the number of calls, emails or visits you receive on your plan topic. You’ll quickly get a good picture of the nature and scope of the challenge.
Step 2: Identify your key audiences
The more audiences you include, the longer and more complicated your plan will be. Focus on the most important groups. First, think about those who are most likely to be affected by the issue. Then identify groups that are likely to be influencers in the area of your plan topic. For example, while parents are the ones who enroll students, many times students are making the school choice decision based on conversations with their peers.
Step 3: Measure
If audiences are the heart of your plan, measurable objectives are the brain. Your objectives define what is going to get done. There are four elements of an effective objective - what are you going to change, by how much, with which audience and by when. Measurable objectives help us get focused about what we want to accomplish and guide our decisions about where to spend our time, energy and resources. When someone suggests putting together a video, review it against your plan objectives. Does it fit? If not, you shouldn't spend your valuable resources on it.
Step 4: Communicate
Speaking of videos and all the other shiny tools that most people picture when they think about communications, the next section of your plan is about your tactics. Going back to your research on your audience, your tactics should be tailored to their communication preferences. If they get a lot of their information from social media, that should be a tactic. If you don’t know their preferences, then you have more research to do. One simple way is to add a couple questions to one of the myriad school surveys throughout the year. Knowing the most effective ways to reach your audience means you spend your time and energy in the right places.
Step 5: Evaluate
If your objective was to increase enrollment by 10% at Kennedy Middle School by the start of the following year, evaluation is pretty straight forward. In other cases, changing perception and behavior can be more difficult to measure. Website and social media analytics, tracking event and program attendance and annual surveys can help. Keep in mind that even if you put a fantastic plan together based on the best research and guided by effective objectives, you may not be successful. The point of evaluation isn’t just to document your success but also to identify where efforts fall short. Armed with that information, our communication planning is more focused and impactful.
Don’t let the process overwhelm you. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Any step in the direction of being thoughtful in your approach is going to yield positive results. If all you're able to do this year is find out about perceptions and communication preferences, start there.
Remember you're not alone. A number of organizations can help with skill sessions, webinars, networking and publications. There are statewide and regional groups devoted to school public relations around the country. Even after more than 20 years in the industry, I make time to attend the National School Public Relations Association seminar each July. This year it will be in beautiful San Antonio, another good reason to attend. If you're there, please say hi. I'd love to grab coffee and talk about your district's efforts.
An avid ambassador for public schools and self-proclaimed data geek, Trinette Marquis is passionate about using data-driven evidence to improve school-community relationships. A part-time professor at California State University, Sacramento, she regularly presents to audiences on public relations and communication best practices and recently published her first book, Engaging Data: Smart Strategies for School Communication. Reach her @trinettemarquis.