I was looking at a list of popular back-to-school supplies, and wondered if school communicators could put together their list for back-to-school communications, just what would be on it.
Retailers begin pummeling us all with promotions on everything from backpacks and pencils to cell phones and ipads – some supplies more critical than others. But what is critical for schools and school districts is to use this time of year to take stock of their communications ‘supplies’ and start equipping themselves to meet the communications challenges and opportunities the 2017-18 school year will bring.
I visited the topic last year about this time in the article, 6 Tips for Back-to-School Communications, but as communications is moving at the speed of technology, I thought it’d be helpful to update ways to make the most of your communications planning for this coming school year.
1. Celebrate the new school year
Welcome back messaging
Kicking off with key messaging is critical to a fresh and positive start to the new year. Use your superintendent/principal point of view to reflect the leadership your school community wants and deserves. If you have a theme for the school year, the welcome back letter is a great time to establish it. Tailor one for parents and one for your students.
Any key talking points for the new year should be previewed here. Personalize your welcome back message (and others, for that matter). Let some of your principal’s or superintendent’s personality shine through. Don’t make it read like a business report filled with educational jargon.
Review what’s new. Be sure to introduce the new faculty and staff members, upcoming and recent retires, any big news that happened over the summer, new buildings, renovations and changes. Even a refinished basketball court deserves to be touted.
Use all the channels at your disposal to kick off the new school year. Email, superintendent blog post, social media posts.
Back-to-school communications to staff
The ‘back-to-school’ welcome letter is not just for teachers – and it’s not just a letter for that matter.
Everyone working in and around your school should be welcomed back. Counselors, food service, maintenance, transportation. Remind them all of the important role they play in their daily contact with the students, parents and school community at large.
You no doubt already have your staff members’ email addresses, but have you collected their social media account handles? Create social media lists of your staffers and reach out to them with messages at the beginning and throughout the school year. By using social media, you can strengthen your messaging and have your staff carry the message using the power and viral beauty of social networks.
Reach out to the community
While you’re at it, extend your welcome back to local media and key local business and civic organizations. This is especially important if you have big news, events, campaigns, etc. that could use the exposure and support. The key for ‘welcome back’ or back-to-school communications is to be sure to cover all your audiences – internal and external – and use all the communications tools at your disposal to reach them.
2. Promote how you'll be communicating
Consider the old adage: “First tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them.” It certainly applies here.
Inform your audiences where to find information and what to expect for school communication. From standard calendar and event postings, to important announcements, to critical, time-sensitive alerts, tell them how often you plan on communicating and how info will be delivered.
Effective communications for schools these days requires utilizing the full matrix of tools at your disposal, and knowing when, where and how to use them.
If you have a notification system in place, demonstrate the power and precision that tool affords. Same goes with your website, social media accounts or maybe you have a new mobile app: promote the fact that you'll be using these channels and depend on them, and there’ll be much better engagement.
When parents, staff and students know what to expect – and what tools to use – communications effectiveness improves.
3. Cover your communications legal bases
Two big legal issues are percolating when it comes to keeping pace with the speed of technology. Both your school website and notifications system are being scrutinized more than ever before when it comes to accessibility and permissions required to engage your school community. Start preparing now to insure that important digital communications are legally clear.
Make your website ADA compliant
As previously detailed in this blog, web accessibility and ADA compliance are front-burner issues for schools and school districts. A recent survey by the Campus Suite Academy showed that a staggeringly high number of schools sampled have websites that are not ADA compliant.
If you’re not sure your school website is fully accessible to those with disabilities, it probably isn’t. If it does not comply with federal guidelines for web accessibility, you are leaving your school open to complaints from individuals, advocacy groups and the Office for Civil Rights. These complaints may lead to unfavorable PR and fines if you don’t at least begin to take the steps to bring your website in line with current school website accessibility guidelines.
The key is to be proactive by putting a plan in place to acknowledge you're on a course to correct accessibility shortcomings. Post your plans and policy on your website. You can even create a form right on your website where visitors and users can submit web accessibility issues.
Update notifications ‘opt-in’ forms
The start of the school year is the perfect time to get your parents on board to receive notifications. But before you just go blasting out alerts, be aware that you must first get permission from all your users – parents, staff, students, anyone you plan to notify– to be assured of no legal backlash.
Notifications are not just for emergency alerts and school closings; they’re an increasingly important part of the ‘engagement mix’ of how to reach parents efficiently and effectively. Notifications can be district-wide, school-wide, for a class, student group, or pinpointed to individuals.
Notification systems are an important piece of any web communications platform, and should be part of yours. Make sure, however, to get people's consent to push notifications to their mobile devices. This article on how to create a school notifications opt-in form for instant approval is a an efficient way to make your school notification system more effective – and legal.
4. Social media and ‘other’ networking
Networking – social or otherwise – is a powerful and often overlooked strategy in school's communications, and it's one you need to better utilize. Networks can help you spread and reinforce messages using the power of shared experiences and word-of-mouth: both in person and via social networks.
Social network planning
The weeks before the first day of school are the perfect time to think about your social media content and put together a plan of action. Map out an ‘editorial calendar' for the year of the topics you want to cover in your superintendent’s or principal’s blog. (TIP: Use my rule of thirds when finding and creating content: 1/3 school news and events info; 1/3 facts and figures; 1/3 human interest.)
Like many schools, one key area of focus for your school may be to boost your social media following. Or maybe you need to line up some content contributors. Look around your school to find champions or ‘ambassadors’ for social media who will help create and share content.
Start a speakers bureau
Likewise, a speakers bureau for your school district is an excellent tool to plug into your communications planning for the new school year. For community outreach, parent engagement, student and staff motivation and education, a speakers bureau an work on many levels in your school: for getting the word out and for getting the word in.
A speakers bureau is a forum that can personalize your school for the community and bring it to life. Here's some tips on how to create a school speakers bureau, but you can get started by just brainstorming who in and around your school community would be great representatives for your school.
Other ways to get ready
My list is by no means exhaustive, but nonetheless contains some key areas of focus for today’s school communicators. Consider some of these tips/resources as you gear up for the new school year.
- NSPRA and AASA combined a few years back to create a back-to-school toolkit.
- Scholastic assembled tips for parents helping helping kids form good habits from the start of the school year.
- For the parents of teen students, Kids Health has put together a list of tips you may want to share with your parents and teachers. Find out ways to help teenagers improve their school performance here.
- The Learning First Alliance, which focuses on helping public schools meet the many challenges they share, has a handy little back-to-school toolkit worth checking out.
Do you have any back-to-school communications tips you’d like to share?
Related articles and info:
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 or follow him @jay4schools.