In the previous blog, we talked about taking risks to bring about significant change at your schools. We looked at some famous academic risk-takers and discovered they could all garner the buy-in of their key audiences. In order to succeed with risk, you need to be able to gain the support of your key audiences. That is why school public relations is such a big deal in this day and age.
Here are six tips for building strong school public relations. We’re going to help you get out of your comfort zone and look at some school communication risks that can vastly improve your school’s public relations.
Sometimes we maintain the status quo to our own detriment:
- Let go of the old way of doing things. It’s a fact that people have a hard time letting go of the way they’ve always done things. Believe me, I know—up until recently I was using my 5th generation iPod classic from 2005. Technology has changed a lot since 2005, yet here I was clinging to the past because I was comfortable with it. I’m not usually a laggard when it comes to technology, but I was wary to learn a new music storing system.
What changed my mind? The benefits finally outweighed the risks. I wanted to access my music from wherever I was—my computer at work, my tablet, my smartphone. So I finally made the switch to Google Play. Having my music stored in the cloud is making things so much easier for me; I am kicking myself for not doing it sooner. Was there a learning curve? Yes. Did it take some time investment to make the switch? Yes. Was it worth it? Unequivocally, YES!
Sometimes we maintain the status quo to our own detriment. Let me share an example from one of our schools. The school brought in an interim principal who was unfamiliar with the School Webmasters’ system of updating websites. Instead of learning how simple it is to send updates and let us place news and events on the school website, she created a satellite website to post-school news and events.
Despite her excellent intentions to keep parents informed about school events, in reality, she made things more difficult for parents who have to learn where to access information about the school. While her satellite site stays up to date, the school website is neglected. The calendar is blank; the news page is empty. A visitor to that site, for example a parent thinking of enrolling their student, would think nothing goes on there. And what happens when she leaves? A new principal comes in with a new way of doing things, and parents have to relearn where to find information. It’s not fair to parents, and it’s not fair to the rest of the school staff.
In my masters’ program, we studied a lot of mass communication and behavioral theories. One of my favorites is the Diffusion of Innovations theory. One piece of this theory is the rate at which new innovations (methods, ideas, products, technologies, etc.) are adopted. As you can see in the chart below, it starts slowly with the innovator group—these people are fearless in their ability and motivation to try something new. Then we have the early adopters followed by the early majority. Once an innovation is “tried and true,” we have the late majority. And finally the laggards—those highly averse to change who end up being late to the party (like me finally storing my music in the cloud).
Our schools are often lagging behind the curve to new and better innovations. Great leaders are up there with the early adopters and early majority. And that comes by being able to let go of the old way of doing things. Especially when it comes to school communications, you must be willing to adjust to new and better tools.
We said it before—times have changed. You must be the discoverer of new paths. Remember what we said about risk aversion? If the imagined risks outweigh the perceived benefits, we won’t take action. In cases like this, remind yourself that the benefit outweighs the risk, and be willing to look at new systems.
- Conduct parent surveys. Speaking of new systems, one big mistake schools make is assuming their current communication channels are working. Simon Hepburn, a school marketing consultant, wrote an article titled, “The end of email? Parents are moving on, and schools need to follow…,” in which he asserts that parents no longer want email communications from schools. He suggests asking parents for their preferred method of communication. The easiest way to do this is through surveys and forums, but you can also just talk to parents as they drop off and pick up their students.
Where are parents getting their news? Where do they want to see and hear about things going on at school? What can you do to help simplify their lives and encourage their participation in activities? Don’t just communicate more—communicate smarter!
- Adopt a policy of transparency. When it comes to school communications, sometimes we think if we don’t mention it, people won’t notice it. Trust us; they will. And if you haven’t communicated, they’ll think you’re trying to hide something. Open, transparent communication is the best policy.
Some administrators try to avoid sharing too much, especially in communities where every little thing tends to create a firestorm amongst community members—if that’s your community, the key is to learn what to share. Does it concern the school community? Will you lose the community’s trust if you don’t communicate? If the answer is “yes,” you must communicate.
Consider the potential impact of staying quiet. The media gravitates to the negative—and a villain makes for a good story. Make sure you’re getting your side out there. And, if your district makes a habit of sharing good, positive stories with the media, then you have a foundation of trust and goodwill.
Transparency doesn’t mean there won’t be firestorms. In fact, as part of a transparent policy, you must learn to deal with firestorms in positive, productive ways. It’s okay to say that you don’t have all the information at the time. It’s okay to say that information may change in the future. Provide facts and communicate with empathy and concern for your school community.
Transparency can be scary; it can be uncomfortable. The point is to keep communication open.
- Tell Your Personal Stories! Not everyone wants to be personal. And some people will say that it’s better to talk about school policies than share stories. For example, one school district has an incredible special services team. The reason one of these leaders is so passionate about special education is due to personal experience with his own family. When he talks about his sister, you can tell that his heart and soul is in the work he does. Hearing his story helps you care more about the work he does. Unfortunately, rather than talk about personal experience, their team focuses on the mission and vision of the work. While that’s all well and good, without a story to make it meaningful to the public, the mission and vision of the work get lost in a lot of impersonal jargon.
It’s not easy to get out of your comfort zone and start sharing real stories. You’ll most likely have some questions or reservations. For instance, maybe you’re concerned about privacy issues. But while you do need to be considerate about privacy issues, with the right permissions, sharing personal stories isn’t that much of a risk. Here’s an example from a boarding school in Australia that doesn’t shy away from sharing personal stories. While the school could communicate about how their school is a great place to board your student, Jack’s story is much more personal, memorable, and convincing.
- Branch out. Based on your parent surveys and audience research, offer a variety of school communication channels. In addition to parent surveys, another way to determine what channels work best is to measure the way your school community reaches your content. Some tools, like Google or Facebook Analytics, are helpful with this type of tracking. Put your time and effort into channels that are engaging the most number of people.
- Try it out! Once you’ve identified new communication channels, set up a pilot scheme and test it out to see if it works before replacing your existing tool with a new one. This is a step that causes some risk-taking aversion, especially if parents are asking you to use a communication tool you’re not familiar with. One of the biggest popular school communication tools right now is Instagram. If you and the rest of your staff are not Instagram-savvy, getting started might be uncomfortable.
All in all, we aren’t suggesting taking huge risks—just simple, out-of-the-norm ways you can improve your communications and school public relations. But if what we’ve suggested makes you uncomfortable, then we highly suggest you get some professional help. No, not therapy. We mean you don’t need to be the one who does it all yourself! There are people out there willing and ready to help you. At School Webmasters, we aim to be your communication partner. We started with school websites and realized there are many more communication channels schools need help managing. That’s why we offer social media management and school public relations and marketing services. We can help you implement everything we’ve suggested in this blog.
Is It Worth It?
One major risk-taking hold-up is the delicate task administrators have of balancing the needs of many stakeholders. Parents, in particular, are a concerned audience.
Remember, if the imagined risks don’t outweigh the perceived benefits, then we’re not willing to make changes. So, do risk-taking administrators appeal to parents?
I would say, yes. Here’s why.
Parents appreciate school administrators who are willing to do something new.
As a parent, I appreciate it when I see the key players in my child’s education trying new things or taking a new adjusted approach—in other words, taking risks. It’s refreshing.
Here’s one example. One Monday morning I was heading into the office at my child’s school when I caught the latter end of the morning announcements. The school had made changes to its vision statement, and a sixth-grade student was reciting the new version over the loudspeaker. Subsequently, the principal briefly explained a few details about the collaborative effort to make the changes. This is the same principal who has a reputation for subjecting himself to various forms of “humiliation” throughout the year, such as going into the dunk tank every spring for students who worked hard reading at home throughout the school year. As a parent, I not only noticed the change in wording, I felt excited! The changes were small, specific adjustments, yet to me, these represented extra time and effort on the part of the school to adapt to an ever-changing world with a constant aim at helping students at their school strive for success.
The administration took a risk to make adjustments. Students at the school recite the vision statement each day and know it by heart. Through the years of hearing my children recite it at home on quite random whims (Memorization works, I guess!), even I recognized the changes. The vision statement now includes specific and adjusted wording in which the school community will continue to seek for the success of each student, and as a parent, I tell you, I love it.
Parents appreciate school administrators who willingly share and gather information.
School communication is made up of gathered and shared information. It will look different from school to school. Successful means of communicating with your school community is at the heart of your school marketing and public relations.
With this in mind, consider how you share information with your school community. You greet visitors in the front office, schedule meetings, spend time one on one, make phone calls, send voicemails, craft newsletters, write emails, etc. How is your personal approach towards others within your school community? Are you doing things the way you’ve always done, regardless of the changing times and improvements in technology? Do you know if your approach as an administrator to communication is what your community prefers?
Parents appreciate school administrators who adapt their means of communication.
It’s not easy to try something new, especially if the way you’ve been doing something is the way “it’s always been done.” It’s a risk to campaign for change. But when it comes to your school communications, you need to be willing to adapt to the times and technology. According to school marketing consultant, Simon Hepburn, it’s important to consider adapting the way schools reach out to students and their families.
Why would we avoid simple steps to improve our school’s public relations with parents? It’s risky to learn that your school communication is not as effective as it could be. And, of course, you’ll be obligated to make a change—and we already know change isn’t easy. But the benefits here outweigh those risks. Improving how your parents receive your communications according to their preferences will only make them happier. Happy parents translate into better engagement and more school support. So, make an evaluation and get started as soon as possible. If you need help, please we’re here for you.
Katie Brooks, Public Relations Manager