Everybody wins when parents stay very connected to their child’s school experience, and today’s digital communication channels are certainly helping.
Getting the most, however, out of engaging websites, targeted emails, voice, SMS text messages, social media and mobile apps can be challenging. What’s more, if good, solid parent communication isn’t tough enough, some tightening federal regulations aren’t making it any easier. You need to make sure your school communications must comply with FCC regulations.
The FCC and your school notifications
Last summer, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) updated regulations initially instituted in the the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). These regulations have an impact on how you are legally allowed to deliver certain kinds of critical school info.
TCPA makes it illegal for any organization – including schools or third-party providers to schools – to use automated dialing systems to deliver certain kinds of messages via phone unless permission has been given by the owner of the phone number. This permission is typically granted using an opt-in consent form that, in the case of schools, would be completed by the student’s parents or guardian.
Born out of the need to prevent pesky telemarketers from interrupting our dinner time, the TCPA has updated its guidelines to keep up with the mobile phone community. No vacation time-share or window replacement sales messages should be getting through to your cell phone – unless you gave them permission.
One of the unintended consequences of this ‘consumer protection’ is that now, schools that use emergency notification systems or have mobile apps – which push info to your parents’ phones, of course – must be sure to take the necessary step to get consent from any parent who wants to notified via smartphone.
The TCPA and its recent changes are presenting yet another obstacle to parent communications: one that can be overcome, but an obstacle nevertheless.
The cost of FCC non-compliance
Non-compliance with new TCPA guidelines has costly risks associated with it. For K-12 public schools, it could mean big-dollar fines and alienated parents. And on the enrollment marketing front, It also could cost “butts in seats” as my one colleague puts it. The schools that use mobile messaging to drive enrollment: colleges, private schools, charter schools and public schools fighting for new students on the frontline of open enrollment battlefield, all need to mind their legal Ps and Qs when it comes to using the phone to lure new students.
For my K-12 communicators, first of all, if you’re pounding your parents with notifications around the clock, your messages will be watered down – if not ignored over time. It takes an understanding of the level of criticalness and a practiced execution of the right message, at the right time, for the right people to make this aspect of your school communications work well.
In addition, the result of not practicing safe notifying via phones is not only annoying to the recipient (you don’t want to bombard parents with non-critical news), but can be costly to your school, as each offense is subject to up to fine of up to $11,000 fine per incident.
Types of school notifications
It’s important that school communications directors not only have a working grasp of the FCC regulations, but know and understand the different types and distinctions between the kinds of notifications that fall within and outside the rules.
There are four levels of notifications that your school would typically use ranging from emergency messages that might signal a school lockdown to general, non-critical stuff like a reminder about the upcoming school play. If your message falls into one of the top three (3) categories, you do not need to have consent to send the message without legal repercussion.
These would be for the most-important, time-critical kinds of events like student medical emergencies and school lockdowns.
School closing/dismissal announcements
Your typical weather-related and other reasons for any unplanned change to the school schedule.
Many schools are using automated attendance notifications that help increase attendance while saving time for teachers and staff.
These messages would run the gamut of any school news, information or reminders you care to share with your audiences. MAKE SURE anyone receiving these general messages via phone have OPTED IN, or your school will be violating the TCPA.
Grades are a good example of very important information, but technically not falling into the top three categories. Remember, the first three of the above types of notifications technically do NOT require an opt-in from your users.
Don’t forget emails in this equation. They’re still the best way to reach and engage many parents for grade reports and all your non-emergency school information. Emails can be tied into your communications system to take into account the ‘general messages’ that some parents choose not to be sent to their phones.
Besides opting-in, most providers allow all users to set up in their user preference the specific kinds of content they wish to receive. This way, the parent of a high school student isn’t getting info about from the primary school principal on the other side of the district. Think of your notifications – and all of your content deliver for that matter – in terms of district-level, school-level, building-level, grade- and class-level.
Protect your school, inform your parents
The new twist to the TCPA is just another in the growing list of school communications compliance regulations that school communicators need to follow. No one – not even the federal government – wants to stand in the way of parent communication, but it’s still important that you play by these new rules and avoid the costs associated with non-compliance.
Be sure to CYA (that’s cover your assets, by the way) and get permission, and make it easy on your parents to provide it. A notifications contact form can be integrated into your school student database, and you can also make it available on your website. That way, they can choose the destination phone numbers and delivery format of the information.
Put yourself in your parents’ shoes: Do you really want to receive an alert about “Guys and Dolls” tickets going on sale, or would you rather get an email about it, or track that info down yourself, on your own time on the school website, or Facebook page?
Save the emergency alerts for when you need them, but be sure to save yourself and your school the headaches and costs of not complying with the law.
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.