I’m not talking about you; I’m talking about the other guys, right?
Technology is the driver in today’s rapidly changing school communications landscape, and it’s tougher than ever for some schools to keep up with it all.
Over the years, we’ve talked with thousands of school communicators, and felt the pain points that can have debilitating effects on a school district’s communications plans.
Here's some of the recurring signs that your school communications are not as strong as they should be:
1. You are understaffed
I call this the one-man band syndrome. As a former school public relations director myself, I know the drill. Trying to do too much yourself or with limited personnel can put a strain not only on your effectiveness, but your health.
The rapidly changing communications landscape requires commensurate changing skill sets, so get creative and look for ways to extend your reach. The bad news is that school budgets are tighter than ever. Many school boards, however, are realizing the necessity of a well-rounded communications strategy to meet district goals. Some boards are approving resources for communications that weren't there years ago.
Staff sizes and capabilities vary from district to district, as does the urgency of the communications mandate. I hope your school board is invested in the importance of school communications. Read how Delaina McCormack bolsters her PR staff at Arlington Public Schools. If you come up with innovative ways to stretch your own communications budget, you just might get the approval you need to bolster your resources.
2. You’re just not friendly enough
I’m not talking about the lack of a smile, I’m referring to the commonly used online communications tactics you’re using or should be using to reach your mobile users.
For example, more folks are viewing their emails on mobile devices these days. Still the workhorse of school communications, emails are too valuable to your district to be underutilizing or screwing up. Are the content and format of your emails meeting the needs of your growing audience of mobile email users?
While we’re on the topic of mobile users, just how friendly is your website to your phone and tablet users? Is your website a real pain when dialing it up on your phone? Does your school or district website feature responsive design (where content automatically adjusts to the device it’s being viewed on)? What about a mobile app for your school district so parents and staff can easily be notified of emergency and time-sensitive alerts? Push notifications are just another way to be a little friendlier to your stakeholders.
Fewer and fewer people use a desktop computer to connect to your school, so do all you can to make everyone happy and get your communications tuned into the people on the go.
3. You are underutilizing technology
This one goes hand in hand with being ‘friendlier’ to your parents, staff and students. Besides accommodating your on-the-go users with a website featuring responsive design and a mobile app, are you making the most of your school website? What about ADA compliance? Sure you have ramps and your doorways are wide enough but is your school website ADA compliant? First, make sure you avoid the common mistakes that plague many school websites. Good planning can prevent many of the design flaws and navigation shortcomings typical of many school websites.
Social media, a hot button for school communicators these days, is a key area where many schools are underperforming. Are you making the most of your Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts? Do you even have them? Well, your parents, your students, the media and many community members do. What about your school leadership? Is your superintendent on board with a blog of his or her own? Get social, and you can extend your communications reach in a hurry.
4. You’re not targeting your audiences
One of the common mistakes many schools are making these days is blanketing everyone with every piece of information. That is, your communication messages are not segmented, and it creates a lot of clutter that many people choose not to hack their way through.
Parents, for example, may receive unrelated information that doesn’t really register with them. After awhile, people get conditioned to ignoring generic news.
Sure there are many times when district-wide or school-wide news or information applies to everyone, but don’t be sending middle school news to your primary school parents, and pre-school announcements to your high school students. Make sure you segment your communications whenever possible.
5. You school brand is not apparent
School branding is more important than ever. Competition for enrollment, levies, fundraising, teacher recruitment, community involvement – the list goes on. But if your brand is murky, then you’re not connecting with your stakeholders like you should.
Your brand is more than than a mark and the right color scheme. It’s the total experience your customers (students, parents, community) have with your school buildings, staff, website, Facebook page, etc. It’s how you’re perceived. While a good school logo design is important to your brand, it’s not your brand – it’s just part of it. Your brand is made up of the reputation, images and stories that surround your district. You may even need some professional marketing counsel on articulating your brand, but it starts by creating and sharing the countless stories of the people and achievements in and around district.
Most districts look to their high school websites as the bellwether in terms of the school brand. Often though, the feeder schools are less-than disciplined and 'all over the board' when it comes to integrating with the high school or district brand. A fragmented brand is a weak one. Every school in your district plays a key part in forming and maintaining your overall brand. Standards and guidelines should be spelled out in a style guide as part of your communications plan.
6. You’re not empowering individuals to contribute
In any school, district, or organization for that matter, there are often bottlenecks to communications. These bottlenecks, while well intended for sake of approvals, accuracy and privacy issues, can be a real obstacle to getting people involved in the process. And this relates back to my original point about staffing.
I contend that the greatest school stories never see the light of day. Students, teachers, other staff, parents, volunteers – these are all potential foot soldiers in your communications army; soldiers who should be viewed as individual school communicators equipped to contribute that next blog article to your school blog, snap that next great Instagram photo, or Tweet the final score of the debate team’s decisive win.
One of the roles of the school PIO or communications manager should be one of facilitating whenever possible others to get involved. This is where technology and access to online tools can help. Workflows and approval processes can be streamlined with the right tools in place at your school.
7. You suffer from a lack of integration across your systems
My final reason that your school communications might not be as great as it can be relates to really all the points above – a lack of coordination between all your systems.
If you have disparate communications technology systems in place in your district, chances are they’re not well coordinated. CMS (content management system for you website), LMS (learning management), SIS (student information), mobile apps, notifications – if these all operating independently, it makes it difficult to coordinate your communications strategy.
What’s more, the technical support for each system is compounded when they’re not integrated. This translates into additional costs, redundancies and waste.
Look for more comprehensive solutions that eliminate the need for multiple systems and multiple vendors. You’ll not only reduce the multiple headaches that will accompany trying to coordinate a handful of systems, but you’ll have a communications infrastructure in place that will help you manage your messaging and engagement more professionally.
Start strengthening your school communications plan
The visibility and vulnerability of schools have never been more apparent. Competition for enrollment at both public and private schools, declines in parent engagement, social media, budget, tax levy and school safety issues – the list goes on. Strong school communications has never been more important. If your school communications plan is weak in any of these seven areas, there's great opportunity to make noticeable improvement.
It’s incumbent on you as school administrators to do all you can to elevate the importance of an integrated strategic communications program. One that’s equipped with the right tools and staffed with the right (and enough) people who are empowered to keep your communications moving as fast as the parents and school community itself are moving.
Examine your own program and plans, and ask yourself if you’re doing all you can to avoid some of the common shortcomings outlined above.
How many of these do you see in your, uh, I mean, the other guy’s district?
Marketing director and content strategist for Campus Suite, Jay’s a former school public relations specialist who’s helped businesses, schools and colleges use the power of web communications to improve their image, generate support, and optimize relationships. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.