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School Blog Topics to Engage and Convert
2020-09-22
the word blog written in a book on desk

A few weeks ago, we talked about the power of storytelling to make your school blog interesting and engaging. To further encourage you to begin your own school blog, we’re going to share some topics that will inspire your own ideas. 

But first, let’s talk about the process to make maintaining a blog possible given your already busy day. Here are some getting started tips:

Gather ideas

In a previous blog, we talked about how to get started with a blog, so review that for the full picture. But as you gather your courage to commit to a school blog, you’ll want to select topics that you want to write about.

woman surrounded by light bulbs representing ideas

One way to begin is to create a spreadsheet that acts as your idea repository. It should include columns that will inspire your new ideas. 

Column #1 could be ideas inspired by your school’s strengths in programs, services, or successes. Be sure to include reasons parents choose schools other than yours (so you can address those objections in blog topics and show how you can solve their problems or meet their student’s needs).

Column #2 can be the popular topics of interest you’ve gathered as you have reviewed blogs by other school administrators. So, basically, check out the competition—especially if you have schools nearby that are attracting students you’d love to get or keep.

Column #3 could be topics that your staff recommends. Ask them, especially those who answer phones, work with enrollment or registration, or are the first line of contact with parents, what the most common questions are and what concerns prospective parents ask. These are topics worth their weight in gold.

stack of blocks with the words trends latest hot popular

Sample Topics

Okay, while you go about gathering content for your future blog posts, let me give you a few topics to get you started. Tweak these to fit your needs:

  1. Write what parents should look for when considering the right school for their child.
  2. Tell what types of social-emotional support is available for students at your school (include a personalized story about a student as an example of a good outcome).
  3. Explain how your school applies gifted student programs to help those students excel.
  4. Write about what technology is available to students, how it is integrated into the classroom, and how it assists them in learning.
  5. Provide a list of reading recommendations for each grade level, and share your personal experiences of how reading has inspired you (or other successful individuals).
  6. Write an article about the professional development training that teachers receive during the year and how it benefits the students.
  7. Blog about how to keep children safe while on the internet.
  8. Write about your gifted program and how it engages students.
  9. Start a series of articles about alumni, staff members, or students (for achievements, progress, or personal stories) that will encourage or inspire others.
  10. Review your school calendar, pick a few of the events that are unique to your school, and write about the benefits, the history, and the value to students.
  11. Post a survey to find out what topics your parents (and prospective parents) would like to hear about or learn more about, and cover those topics in detail.
  12. Pick a topic that is a current issue (sometimes controversial), and discuss how it affects students and how parents can talk to their students about world-wide or cultural issues. You don’t even have to take a stand; just let parents know that the topic is of interest in your school.
  13. Write about why parents should send their child to your school. What are your strengths? Use a story to provide an example of a child who has excelled because your school programs and culture matched their needs.
  14. Share 10 questions parents should ask in choosing the right school for their child.
  15. If you have competition nearby, write about the differences between a private and a public education (or whatever the differences are between you and them) and the pros and cons of each.
  16. Write a series of blog posts about how to prepare students for the upcoming school year:
      * how to prepare for the first day of school
      * fun and healthy after-school snacks
      * planning ahead for school holidays
      * how to manage the hectic back-to-school rush
      * how to help your child deal with bullying
      * how to start the school year off right
      * getting your child on a sleep schedule
  17. Share a story that brings your mission statement to life (showing your culture and values in action). Gather these stories from your staff on a regular basis.
  18. Write a series of blogs about the various clubs and activities at your school, interviewing some students who participate in those and sharing what it means to them.
  19. Discuss the various learning styles to help parents identify their child’s style and how they can help them succeed.
  20. Write about the special education program at your school and how different learning accommodations benefit all students.
success tips

A few more blog tips

There are a few more success tips that are worth noting as you manage your own blog ideas and posts.

  • Use Images. Your content is much more credible and enjoyable when you add images to your posts. Photos are even more effective when they are actual photos of the people or topics you are writing about. Stock photos are better than no images, but whenever possible, use the real thing. But, be sure you are using royalty-free photos (and NEVER just grab an image from Google images or the internet since those are typically copyrighted).
  • Be consistent. Pick a schedule to post your blogs and stick with it. You want to get your readers (customers/parents) to get used to seeing your blog or they will forget about it and the important things you want to share.
  • Be personable. Don’t be afraid to express your personality. I know that in K–12 schools, personnel tend to feel they should play it safe and be low-key. But that doesn’t mean you can’t express yourself with humor, confidence, and inspiration. Let your personality shine through, whether you are naturally an extrovert or introvert, love a good joke or tend toward sarcasm, joyful or serious, let your word choice and content reflect your personality.
  • Titles matter. Your blog titles will capture the attention of your readers, so keep that in mind when you are writing your blog article. It should be actionable, interesting, clear about your topic, and contain some of your targeted keywords. Check out some more title tips.

So, you should have lots of ideas floating around in your head by now. Write those topics down and start your own idea repository. The more you gather, the more ideas you’ll discover. Then, just get started. You may soon find that it is a task you look forward to tackling each week (or month—depending on how frequently you decide to blog).

Happy blogging!


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Is Your School Website Hard to Keep Current?
2020-09-08
frustrated cartoon woman with too much to do

Have you ever seen one of those plate-spinning acts? The performer runs around on stage placing plates on top of long sticks and setting them spinning. They often run back and forth doing other things too like flipping cups and spoons, adding more plates, all the while keeping the main plates spinning atop their seemingly unstable perches. (If you've never seen such a performance, check out Erich Brenn on the Ed Sullivan Show YouTube channel to see what I’m talking about). 

Do you ever feel like that’s your life? Metaphorically, to keep a bunch of plates spinning without letting any crash to the floor? In working with schools, one place we see master “plate-spinners” is in administration and front offices. School secretaries, in fact, have so many varied job responsibilities we often wonder how they manage to keep everything going without plates smashing to the ground left and right! 

man juggling spinning plates

Trying to Do It All

To get a better idea of just how busy a day in the life of a school secretary can be, we talked with our friend Tammy who works in the front office of one of our local elementary schools. As a parent with students who also attend the school, Tammy puts her heart into the work she does as a secretary, and she is very good at it. We asked her about the challenges she faces as she keeps up with all her spinning plates. 

In school administration, there are lots of demands on your time. And it is not just a matter of sitting down and completing a task; there are many interruptions that arise throughout the day. Tammy mentioned just a few of the tasks that she handles every day: “For the front office, every day brings a different opportunity. Enrolling new students, helping students, parents, and teachers, general office work, attendance, letters, filing, ordering supplies, scheduling field trips or special events, processing payments, newsletters, and the list goes on—all done with a smile! As far as administration goes, there are student issues, teacher issues, observations, district meetings, and so on. And every year it seems like new software is introduced and more demands are put in place...”

Tammy sings the praises of the staff at their elementary school, saying everyone is “willing to pitch in and help whenever needed.” We imagine your school runs the same way—with employees and staff asked to step in to various roles regardless of their technical job descriptions—that’s how many good organizations run. 

Among core responsibilities is the daunting challenges of effective school communication. This duty is ongoing and will never be considered complete. Communications related to your school in all of its varieties requires ongoing effort and diligence to keep it alive—or at least on life support. 

However, school communications is often one of those “other duties as assigned” that gets doled out to various staff members regardless of experience, expertise, or time available to dedicate to the task. You may have noticed a few of Tammy’s assignments included sending out letters, scheduling special events, and writing the newsletter. These are vital aspects of effective school communications. Along with the rest of her responsibilities, that’s a lot to demand of a school secretary. Tammy admits, “There are so many items to communicate that unfortunately some do fall through the cracks.”

note to self: prioritize

Prioritizing

Tammy listed a lot that goes on in a school’s front office. Considering the diverse demands on school administration and the number of students in your charge, can you see why we chose a spinning-plate act for the visual of this blog? How do you do it all? And there is always something more you could do, but where would you find the time?

Let’s say your school’s front office is equally busy. What duties are essential for the day-to-day success of the school? We asked Tammy, and she said it perfectly:

“[Our essential duty is] to service the children—give them the best possible education they can get and prepare them for life in the future. All kids need to learn how to problem solve, get along with others, and more, as well as learn reading, writing, and math. We are preparing them to be the future generation—some come to us with no skills and need a smile or hug to get them through. The ‘tough’ ones are the ones I love the most—when you find that ‘thing’ that they respond to—it is an amazing feeling.”

Did you notice that school communication is not a priority? And that’s okay! In fact, we hope the response would be similar regardless of who we asked at your school—we imagine any teacher, principal, or school janitor would say that their priority is to serve the children that attend your school. And that’s just the way it should be! 

So why do we make such a fuss about the importance of school communications? 

Because it matters to your ability to serve the children who attend your school. It matters—immensely—but it doesn’t need to be your priority. Let it be ours. Let us help you! 

School Communications Matter

Communication fails at times because it requires more resources than are available in the typical school scenario. Tammy says, “If we are not up-to-date with the calendar/marquee/robo calls, parents do not know what is going on.” And that means more work for Tammy! When parents don’t know what’s going on. She has to spend more time fielding calls and helping parents find the information they need. 

School communications require constancy to be current and effective. Demands on your time, as well as demands on the time of those tasked with helping you, means communications will sometimes fall by the wayside.

Let’s look at updating a school website, for example. Typically, when we see an outdated website, it’s disappointing—like when the performer’s plate falls off the stick it’s spinning on. For a school, habitually outdated school websites can have negative effects on public relations. Outdated school websites are less productive and drain time and energy from your school.

Did you know it takes our professional website updaters an average of 15 minutes per website update request. Keep in mind, that’s our average. And we’re really fast because it’s all we do day in and day out! Some website update requests take longer (like building a new page for your site), some are much quicker (like adding an event to your school calendar). Our clients average between 15 and 46 update requests per month. Add it all together and that’s between 4 and 10 hours per month per site. 

With your school’s various challenges and demands, do you feel like your efforts in regard to your school website and school communications are where you’d like them to be?

We asked Tammy what communications factors she considers essential for her school. She shared that they have so many ways and reasons to share information that they could really use a full-time person just to focus on school communications. In fact, she shared that when she first started, the school did a semi-monthly newsletter, but due to time constraints, they now send it only once a month.

girl student learning to balance spinning plates


Fit In School Communications without Adding More Spinning Plates

So, what’s the best way to fit school communications in without adding more spinning plates to your school administrators and staff to-do lists? 

We asked Tammy what would help make school communication more manageable and what aspects she would consider outsourcing if she could. Tammy mentioned, “One program that does it all! It would be nice to only have to enter things one time and have it update everything, [and reach] more people!” 

We love Tammy’s suggestion. Wouldn’t it be nice to enter information in just one place and have all your communication channels get updated? We think so! That’s why we’ve developed a system where it makes it as easy as possible for you to keep your school websites and social media updated with minimal time from your staff. 

Now, typically, we don’t like to make our blogs into sales pitches. In fact, our main blog goal is to provide relevant, useful information to help school professionals maintain and manage their school communications. Our company goal is to be your school’s communication partner, and we do that by striving to help you balance your spinning plate act. We try to take on the tasks that we know your staff and administrators don’t have time for. What follows is a simple picture of how our service works and saves time for your staff. 

teamwork makes the dream work

How It Works

You’ll still need to gather the news, stories, photos, and event information for your school website (unless you have a PR4 Schools Communication Coordinator to do it for you). Once you have your information, just like Tammy suggested, there is just one place you need to send it: SubmitAnUpdate.com

Submitting a request is as easy as sending an email. If you’d like to see how our update request portal works, feel free to watch our “How to Submit An Update” video.

Once we receive your request, we handle all updates, changes, additions, and improvements to your school's website. That includes checking your website for grammar errors, outdated links, and old content. We even help you keep your site ADA compliant

The best part is that no one on your team needs to learn HTML or waste time watching training videos for a frustrating content management system (CMS). 

If we manage your school’s social media, your social media manager will see the update request and make sure important information reaches your social media community as well. 

We even send out reminders to designated staff members in order to gather the information and write the content that will keep your website up to date. And if you really want to take the pressure off your staff, we can hire someone from your local community to help coordinate your communication efforts

Your IT, teaching, and administrative staff usually have their hands full with core responsibilities, and expecting them to be designers, writers, and managers of the school websites and social media content is unrealistic. Letting School Webmasters help you with your school communications provides you with the skill sets you need without overburdening an already busy staff. 

In reality, who of us can get it all done well without a little help? Here at School Webmasters our aim is to provide an excellent product and keep that product up to date so you can focus on what matters most—your students. 

Check out these School Website articles: 

3 STEPS TO EXPERT SCHOOL WEBSITE MANAGEMENT

WHAT'S REALLY GOING ON BEHIND THE SCENES OF YOUR SCHOOL WEBSITE? 

SCHOOL WEBSITES—THE SWISS ARMY KNIFE OF INFLUENCE AND COMMUNICATIONS

THE TRANSFORMATION OF SCHOOL WEBSITES FROM CONCEPT TO REALITY

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School Blogging and the Art of Storytelling
2020-08-25
Storytelling

You’re a nice guy (or gal). You’re considerate of others’ time, and you care about your staff and students. Heck, you think your school is doing a great job, but you can’t understand when parents don’t trust your motives, and you’re shocked when you lose a student to another school.

What’s a guy (or gal) to do?

Parents are swamped with information. It comes at them from all angles, so in order for your message to be considered, you have to stand out from the crowd, and in a good way. Gone are the days of posting basic information on your school website, updating the calendar, and sending home a newsletter once a month to keep everyone informed. Now you have to break through the noise. You have to be interesting.

The blog difference

As a school administrator, you will want to embrace the difference between a news article and a blog article. Writers of news articles typically remove themselves from the article to show their objectivity. Successful blog authors do the exact opposite, using subjectivity, inserting themselves and their humanity into their articles through story.

As a blog author, unlike a journalist who is typically basing his/her article on reporting, information, and facts, you should feel free to describe things from your personal perspective or from the perspective of the story teller. It is always helpful to validate your opinions when you can with facts and information, but a blog article doesn’t require it and readers today understand that. Go ahead and share a perspective about your school, student needs, and concerns using storytelling to engage, entertain, and influence.

The power of a good story

Our brains love a good story. Heck, we love even a bad story if it fulfills the requisite aspects of a story. Our brains use stories to understand and to learn, to live vicariously with experiences outside of our own while in the safety of our minds. We identify with the protagonist (sometimes the antagonist) and see through their eyes. This is why binge-watching six seasons of that show on Netflix is so compelling and listening to country music makes us cry or laugh.

So, the moral of the story is to write blogs that tell a story. If your reader can identify with the hero, you will be making an immediate connection and they will want to read the whole blog. If they identify with the hero, they will have to find out how it all turned out.

Your blog purpose (sign with red arrow)

Your blog purpose

In the marketing world, this is called the call to action (CTA) or what it is you want the reader (customer) to do after reading what you’ve written. In the case of a school leader blog, it might be to trust in the strategies you and your staff are using to educate their children. It might be that they will pay for that tax increase because they understand how students benefit from the increased budget capacity. Maybe you are just sharing a story about one student’s success because they put in the work and applied what they learned as evidence of proof that your school and your staff rocks. 

Each blog will have a purpose. Identifying it early will help you keep your blog article on topic as well as identify stories that will align with your blog’s purpose.

Your blog audience

Don’t be afraid to show your humanity when you write a blog. This isn’t a thesis or a governing board report; it is a blog written to humans by a human. As a school administrator, you have lots of stories at your disposal, many of which will be easy for your readers to identify with. Your readers will likely be parents who have school-age children. That makes your job much easier, right? 

Keep an image of who you are writing for in your mind as you write (in the marketing world, this is called the “buyer persona.”) If you remember you are writing to that one person, the process will be much easier and more engaging for your readers. Keeping your blog audience in mind is critical to the blog’s success.

Your blog opening

Set the scene with a gripping first line. Sharing the human experience, describe what the reader wants (their problem or challenge) and how they feel when they don’t get it. They will relate and want to read the rest of the blog where you paint the picture of the solution (while giving them practical advice that will solve their problem). The sooner you can get to the story, the more likely your readers are to keep reading.

Those who tell the stories rule society - Plato

How to use stories in your blog posts

There are many ways to effectively use stories in your blog articles. Here are a few:

Tip #1: Include the essentials of a good story

Most writers will tell you there are three elements of a story. They are:

  • a sympathetic character (someone our readers can identify or empathize with); 
  • a conflict (what is the problem they face); and 
  • resolution/transformation (how is the situation improved or the character changed for the better). 

We tend to instinctively include these elements in stories, but if you can learn to recognize them and include them, your stories will be more compelling. 

Tip #2: Use Examples

Use stories from your experiences at school/work and your personal life to make your blog more entertaining. This will enliven your post and help readers see humanity and relate to you, your school, and your article. People identify with one another, so make your story more powerful by adding a story that will help your reader relate to the story experience. Don’t be afraid to use examples from your personal life!

Example stories can introduce a problem from a specific parent or student’s perspective. A common example might be a time a teacher gave encouragement and resources to a student who felt overwhelmed by a challenge and wanted to give up, helping the student overcome the situation and find success. Example stories are great at helping us put ourselves in the shoes of someone who has overcome challenges or faced similar issues. They give us hope and insight and can provide proof of how our school or staff solves problems and creates successes for students (and parents). 

Tip #3: Align with your blog post topic

This might seem an obvious tip, but your story should align with your post’s message. Because each story has a meaning, just make sure that what you want people to glean from the story fits with your blog idea.

Tip #4: Conduct interviews

Interviews are a rich source of story gathering. So are testimonials, which you know you should also be gathering for your website. Use these as stories in your blog because real experiences can reinforce your message, build trust, and provide transparency. Interviews are also an excellent way to collect stories—particularly success stories.

Tip #5: Gather personal anecdotes

You have had many experiences as a student/teacher/parent that impact your leadership/teacher/learning today. A personal, interesting, or humorous story about a real person (you or someone else) carries a lot of weight in our memories and in how we relate to the message or example in the story. Gather anecdotes wherever you find them. These will be brief, about an individual person or incident, and will have a point. Many bloggers and writers even collect and record memorable anecdotes for later use. You’ll be surprised by what a great resource this will be when you need a few stories to invigorate your blog articles.

Blog story types

For some ideas of the types of stories you might want to gather, consider the following:

  • Stories of successful or beloved staff members over the years
  • Stories describing the school’s founding or interesting history
  • Stories that reflect your school’s values in action
  • Stories of students, staff, or alumni who have overcome barriers
  • Success stories about students who gain confidence, develop a love of learning, learn something new, overcome challenges or fears, etc.
  • An opinion piece that shares the story that led you to form your opinion (about a topic of importance to parents or the community now)
  • Personal stories that describe your own experiences (These make strong connections with your readers—especially when you transfer your emotions onto the page.)

For help with story prompts to gather these stories, check out our blog article on Telling Your School’s Stories.

Ask the right questions

Ask yourself the right question

Finally, or maybe before you even begin, ask yourself, “As a result of hearing my story or reading my blog article, what should people think, feel, or do?” 

Effective communication. That really is the purpose of a blog article, a story, a presentation, a social media post, or a school website post, right? 

Whenever we attempt to communicate with someone, we are offering them something in exchange for their time, so we must be clear about what we want them to take away from our efforts. Answering this question will help ensure your blog and the stories within your blog are focused on the audience needs and, in the process, they will vastly improve your communication efforts.

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Practical Public Relations Advice for Reopening Your School Amid COVID-19
2020-08-11

The logistics of reopening your school for the 2020-21 school year are intimidating enough. Nearly 27 million Americans are dependent on schools for childcare to work. So while there are many parents who need their children to return to school, there are many parents still worrying about whether it’s safe to send kids back to school.  

We know your admin team is busy making lots of changes and decisions about the day-to-day logistics of back-to-school. And as good public relations ambassadors, they are also making sure your school is communicating those decisions and providing all the necessary information to your community in places they can easily access. 

The last thing you need is more tasks on your to-do list, but parents need to know your school is invested in the care and safety of their child. The good news is that for every tip we list here, School Webmasters can help you. 

At the risk of oversimplifying strategic school communications, we’ve boiled your back-to-school PR initiatives during this difficult time down to three steps: 

  1. Coordinate
  2. Create content
  3. Communicate 

Coordinate

While it’s nice (important even) to divide up communication responsibilities among those on your staff who have the time and inclination to undertake them, such an approach often leaves your communication efforts fractured. Great school communications takes strategic communication.

The key to strategic communication is coordination. Strategic communication is important when there is good news to share—it’s essential in times of crisis. Coordinating your school’s communication efforts will unify your message and help you connect with your community, enabling improved school public relations. 

While your school prepares for the new school year, it may be worthwhile to designate someone as the “back-to-school” communications coordinator. Not only can a designated communications coordinator make sure your communication channels are updated (more on that later), they can help unify your message. 

Information as it relates to COVID-19 and schools reopening plans change almost on a daily basis—but that doesn’t mean your message should change. At least once a week, your school communications coordinator should touch base with everyone else who manages a school communications channel. This team should develop and use a campaign slogan or hashtag. Ideally, everyone should be working off a communications calendar that has a centralized topic. Aligning your back-to-school efforts under a single message provides clarity. 

Create Content

When your team of communicators coordinates their efforts, one of the first questions they need to ask is: What kind of information are parents looking for? 

Our team brainstormed the following important points your school website must include as you prepare for the return to school: 

  • Prevention protocols. Will your school be implementing any sort of testing or temperature readings? Will students/teachers/staff be required to wear personal protective equipment? Will you require hand washing or the use of hand sanitizer more often? 
  • Safety precautions. What changes will be made (or are currently being considered) when it comes to in-person attendance, remote learning, and class sizes?
  • Transportation. What changes (if any) will there be to transportation? How are children getting to and from school safely? Some schools have implemented such things as staggered arrival times and new school bus rules. 
  • Operational upgrades. This information could include things like hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes in classrooms, plastic partitions, desk spacing, and/or facility cleaning protocols. 

Your school will want to cautiously promote your safety protocols. We say “cautiously” because these are uncertain times and no solution or protocol is going to be perfect. Despite your best efforts, your school may still face an outbreak of COVID-19. Does your school have a crisis communication plan in place if that were to happen? Your communications team can work on that as well. You may not get things right the first time around; that’s why the trust and relationships you establish through your school public relations efforts are so important. Monitor and adjust based on your community’s needs.

As your communication team creates content—whether it’s a blog, podcast, website news post, or newsletter story—one tip to keep in mind is that your school leaders should be visible. Frequent outreach from administrators, as well as teachers, will provide continuity and encouragement to your school families. In addition to “the facts,” your community will also be curious to hear the rationale behind certain decisions, and including statements or interviews from your school authorities will go a long way in building transparency and creating trust within your community. 

One final tip for your back-to-school content: your communications should reflect emotional intelligence. Remember that families are struggling. Some are grieving because of loss—separation, whether temporary or permanent, from family members and friends, job insecurity, or even loss of normality. Some parents have to get back to work and aren’t sure how to balance a new half-in-school/half-at-home schedule for their children. While learning is important, recognizing this and providing emotional support will foster a unified community—a key concept especially while you may be physically distanced. 

Here are a few great examples of quality back-to-school content from our schools: 

  • Liberty Montessori: The Place for Learning provides exceptional care for children six weeks to six years old in Jersey City, New Jersey. Because much of their community is working parents, it was important for the school to communicate the steps they are taking to ensure the care and safety of the children enrolled at their school. School Webmasters helped them create this video for their website and school marketing materials.
  • Vernon Elementary School District serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade.  With school starting virtually this year, the superintendent asked teachers to create introduction videos for their classroom. School Webmasters suggested adding the information to the news page and posting the individual introduction videos on the “Administrator and Staff” page.

Communicate 

The final step in your back-to-school communications strategy should be to get your message out there! Communicate on your website, social media, newsletter, superintendent’s emails, school blog, and any and all of your other communication channels. 

Why would using all your communications channels matter? 

Let’s say, for example, that your district superintendent sends out a weekly email with the latest updates and changes. What if that email gets filtered to a parent’s spam folder? Or (as happens in my house) what if it’s sent to dad who doesn’t pass it on to mom? The fact is sometimes emails get missed. And we can say the same for most forms of communication. That’s why coordination among your channels is so important—get that information out there in multiple ways! 

Keep in mind, not everything needs to be shared on your school’s Twitter feed. However, all information should be available somewhere in some form on your school website.

Here are some schools doing a great job communicating COVID-19 related updates with their school websites. 

Decatur Fowler Queen Creek Saddle Mountain Tolleson Yuma

One major public relations tip as your school works to communicate important updates: don’t lose good posts by only updating your emergency message! We know the emergency pop-up message is the best for grabbing the attention of your community. But as soon as the next update comes along, your last message is lost. We recommend keeping a page dedicated to your return to school plan like those examples above or, at least, updating your news page with information parents and your community will need in the long run. 

We’re Here to Help 

As your school coordinates communications, creates content, and shares that content on your communication channels, your community will be well informed and thankful for your efforts during this difficult time. No solutions will be perfect. But open, honest communication is key to forming a partnership with the parents in your community. You’re in this together; make sure your communication channels are open! 

And we’re here to help. Whether you need a communications coordinator to unify your communications teams, a video created, or a website or webpage developed, School Webmasters is ready and willing to assist you with your school communication efforts. Give us a call or send us an email and let us know how we can help. 

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20 Tips to Create Amazing Customer Service at Your School
2020-07-28
Customer Service with Excellence box checked

We can all agree that customer service is a part of K–12 education these days. In fact, there isn’t any sector in which customer service isn’t an expectation if the company or organization expects to remain relevant (or in business).

Admittedly, the type of customer service we must deliver in education is different from retail or other service organizations, but essential nonetheless. It is actually a bit more complex because our relationships are more so. Our services go beyond briefly serving our customers. Our interactions affect students’ lives, helping them to become responsible, contributing members of society (while partnering, encouraging, and engaging their parents at the same time).

Today, unlike in the not too distant past, public schools were the only game in town, so parents and students were forced to accept the status quo. When bureaucracy and rudeness reared its ugly head, a bit of whining and complaining was the only recourse. Not so today—and maybe that is a good thing.

The goal is to create customer-focused institutions that rival that of any business. We mustn’t let inefficiency, mistrust, and bureaucracy get in the way of our real jobs—educating future generations.

So, what follows are some tips for improving the level of customer service we provide to our customers (who include students, their parents, our communities, and even our co-workers).

  1. Think convenience. We all expect self-serve options today. We also expect to be able to get what we need without ever leaving our digital device. That means our schools are held to that same standard. If we expect people  to complete student forms or forms for enrollment or or staff member requirements, those forms must be available online. We should be sure our online information is available at their fingertips and easy to find (or at least in a logical place so their searching isn’t in vain). Being considerate of our customers’ time and effort is just one example of expected customer service in our digital age.

    Secret Shopper
  2. Secret shoppers. Begin by testing the customer experience for yourself. Don’t assume that you already know what that is like, but look at your touchpoints from a completely objective viewpoint. Have someone sit down at a computer and ask them to find specific information from your website. Is it intuitive, logical, and current? Or is it frustrating or impossible? Now have your “secret shopper” use the phone tree and see how simple it is to get through to leave a message. See if anyone gets back to them and how friendly and helpful the conversation is when they do speak to someone.
  3. Roll out the welcome mat. Okay, this isn’t just the welcome mat or even just the front office, but it can begin in the parking lot. Is it hard to find? Is there disability access? Are the hours of availability posted both online and on the building and are both correct? Are your grounds clean and neat and the signage welcoming or cluttered and forbidding? What about your office entry? Is it institutional or does it reflect your school spirit with student art, a video slideshow, and a welcoming front office with staff that makes eye contact and welcomes visitors with a sincere smile? Are the words and tone used with customers and one another what it should be?
  4. Be better than “Good Enough.” I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “it’s good enough for government work,” but today’s standards for the education sector is no different from what feels good enough for any industry. Like it or not, the bar has been raised. Strive for being a Nordstrom and avoid being the DMV. That means being timely and considerate. Doing it right the first time is far better than a belated apology after missing the mark.
  5. Eliminate waiting. Take a look at the ways you make your customers wait. Can they get through on the phone when they call, or are they stuck forever in phone tree hell? Encourage your office staff to grab that phone by the third ring and say hello with a smile to see what a difference it makes on those initial customer service contacts. When someone (student or parent) comes to the front office, how quickly does someone in the office make eye contact and acknowledge them? How quickly do you expect staff to return parent calls? Is there a standard you strive for? If not, make sure there is. 
  6. Own the handoff. Set a standard that when a handoff is needed, whoever is the initial contact recognizes that they own it. This can happen when someone promises something to a customer like “We’ll have his teacher call you,” or “We’ll let the principal know,” or maybe the initial contact doesn’t have the answer and needs to direct the customer to someone else. Whether or not you have the answer or expertise, assuring that the ball didn’t get dropped on the handoff builds trust and provides the kind of customer service you would want to receive if it were you. 

    Yield sign entitled My Bad
  7. Admit mistakes. There will be mistakes. They are a fact of life, and your school and staff are not exempt. Sometimes staff will need to apologize for something that wasn’t within their control or was something they had nothing to do with. But an apology, especially one that shows empathy for the customer’s situation, will go a long way toward building bridges of trust (and forgiveness). Having staff comfortable with saying, “I’m so sorry this has happened. Let’s see what we can do to fix this (make it right, solve this, etc.)” is training that will translate into a lot of goodwill.
  8. Get to yes. The goal, in a customer-focused driven school culture, is to find ways to get to yes with your customers. Other than the obvious privacy, safety, and security issues, more times than not, there is a way to get there. Far too often, especially in organizations, the default answer is, “if you call back tomorrow…” or “that isn’t the way it is done here,” or “that isn’t my department.” Your default can easily switch to yes with a bit of encouraged ownership for problem-solving. The “yes” answers to these three examples should be obvious and with a bit of role-modeling, the new norm.
  9. Model, train, hire. Many institutions tend to inadvertently grow, or allow, what the author of High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service, Micah Solomon, calls “situational tyrants.” These are the folks who have the power to say “no” in their circle of influence and who use that power frequently. Keep these people from undermining your customer service culture efforts by getting them on board with a customer mindset as quickly as possible. This will mean looking for any evidence of their showing that spirit of getting to yes and rewarding that behavior to encourage more of it. Have them help you root out processes that are no longer necessary or are just there “because it has always been done that way.” These folks are often good at implementing improvements when empowered.
  1. Share information that your customer wants. Far too many school websites are filled with content that is about the school and its needs instead of content about what the parents need. Consider regular articles that address topics or contain stories that are about your customers’ needs or wants. It might be a monthly article on a topic that helps parents be parents on a myriad of topics like “quick, nutritious lunches your kids’ friends will envy,” “tips to get your student to share their day’s happenings,” or “preparing your preschooler for a great kindergarten experience.”
  2. Surprise them with good news. This tip mostly applies to teachers, but counselors and coaches could do this as well. Surprise parents with a note, text, or phone call about something their child is doing well—no reason other than you just wanted to share something you noticed that they might enjoy hearing. Ideally, every first contact with parents by teachers should be a positive one, and this is a great customer service standard to make that a reality.
  3. Share examples. Gather and share (regularly) examples of when staff has received (or witnessed) excellent customer service from their co-workers. Create an easy-to-submit process for sharing these examples, and find ways to highlight them at staff meetings, in conversations with staff, on the staff intranet, or in written exchanges. You could begin by asking every staff member to share one great experience of outstanding customer service so you have a pool of examples to draw upon.
  4. Create a contest. As in the above tip, gather great customer service examples from your customers as well. You can turn it into a contest and begin with students. It could be examples they see from staff members or their peers. Share the results on social media. This shows that you value customer service as well as helps others notice such examples (and emulate them).

    Ask for feedback
  5. Ask for feedback. While this might sound a bit scary, you can’t fix what you are unaware of, so create ways to get feedback from your customers. This is fairly easy to accomplish with surveys (online, hard copies, through the PTA/PTO, or as part of events like teacher conferences or meet-the-teacher night). Put a feedback form on your website and invite students, staff, and community to contribute. Find out what areas are in need of improvement as well as where you are doing a great job. Share the good news with staff, and work on strengthening the areas of weakness.
  6. Share feedback reactions. Once you’ve received feedback and made improvements, let folks know what you’ve done to incorporate that feedback into your culture or processes. This will not only let people know they are heard but will show evidence that you are reactive and transparent. You’ll build trust and earn future goodwill.
  7. Puttin’ on the Ritz. At the Ritz Carlton, known for their amazing customer service, they have three rules that are easy enough to implement at your school. 1) Start with a warm and sincere greeting, 2) Use their name. Don’t be afraid to ask it if you don’t know, and then use it in the conversation, 3) Leave them with a warm goodbye. These three simple standards are a good place to start if you have nothing in place yet. 
  8. Small acts have a big impact. In K–12 education, everyone involved shares a common purpose (why we are here). But sometimes our individual role in that common purpose can get lost in our day-to-day tasks. When staff understand how their particular role fits into this common purpose, going out of their way to meet and exceed customer expectations no longer feels like an imposition, but an honor. Recognize, model, and encourage small acts of service so everyone will recognize their big impact on your school’s success. (Being friendly, smiling a greeting, starting conversations, asking questions, listening actively, providing assistance, and other simple acts can become the norm.) Let the staff know it is okay to be off-task sometimes when they are serving the common purpose.
  9. First impressions. Take a look at each touchpoint of first impressions, and do some quick clean-up there. How does your school look on the first visit? Is it clean? Inviting? Is the signage clearly marked and friendly? How does your website serve first-time visitors? Do they know what your school does well? Is it inviting and intuitive? How quickly are phone calls answered and guidance provided? Negative first impressions are difficult to reverse, so make them count.
  10. Accepted as a valuable asset. Every member of your staff and even the on-site volunteers should know that school customer service is a valued asset (even an economic asset) rather than an expense or inconvenience. The school leaders must continually demonstrate that this return on investment (of their staff’s time) justifies those short-term costs and will influence attitudes and learning for generations. Each touchpoint matters and is valued.

    Recognize your stars
  11. Recognize your stars. Go out of your way to notice and acknowledge the individuals (staff or student) who exemplify good customer service. Share those stories with others to show that you value that behavior. Reward those behaviors, and you’ll begin to see more of the same.

Just get started. Effective school customer service always begins with a customer-focused mindset. School staff must see their individual roles as vital to the school’s success as well as see the benefits it can provide to them personally. Customer service attitudes are the outward expression of your school’s culture. Its impact on student learning, and their willingness to learn, is obvious. The support your school enjoys from the community as a whole is also, in large part, affected by how you value customer service measures. 

So, is it worth the investment of time and training? You bet it is!

Start anywhere, but start today.

How Successful Schools Market Themselves eBook
560221
Video Conferencing: Connecting Remotely
2020-07-14
Teacher using video conferencing

In the blink of an eye, Covid-19 has significantly changed how we interact. Although the pandemic has halted classes around the country, the work of educational leadership is increasing exponentially. In the era of social distancing, you’ll need new tools, new approaches, and new processes to overcome the challenges schools face in internal communications, stakeholder engagement, and alternative learning delivery. Video conferencing has emerged as a key element of all three.

Video conferencing gives you the opportunity to see and communicate with your team as well as opens possibilities for teachers to connect with their classes. But which platform should you use? What is the best approach? How can you mitigate security and legal issues? We’ll tackle these questions and more in this installment of the School Communications Scoop.

Video conferencing has been seen as a boon to collaboration. But as many are learning in recent weeks, video conferencing isn’t all rainbows and sunshine. First, there’s the technical aspect to overcome. We’ve all had awkward situations of participants being muted, video not displaying, freeze-ups, and other glitches. Some of these are systems-based, but many are due to user error.

Adjusting to the subtle differences in the flow of conversation in video conferencing takes some time as well. Back-and-forth exchanges can be a bit trickier to navigate, causing the speaker feed to look like a tennis match of alternating faces. Many are adjusting with bored kids playing in the background and dogs hungry for some attention. Trying to set up a good space in your home can be a challenge. For some, the huge amounts of data being chewed up is also a serious issue. And the list goes on.

Despite the obstacles, video conferencing is here to stay. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the video conferencing segment was increasing in quality and usage. The relatively low barrier to entry also drove a swarm of newcomers to the space. While that results in more options for you, it also means more possibilities to consider.

To help you implement or augment your school or district video conferencing plans, we’ll offer an analysis of a few of the main options. We’ll discuss Zoom, it’s main competitors, and then some other options you already have at your fingertips.

Please remember that you will need to consider legal impacts for any usage that involves students. Talk to your district leadership and legal team to ensure that you are in accordance with policy and law. You will likely need a specific approval of some kind, but—at the very least—you should consider a basic family notification.

Zoom video conferencing

Zoom

The hands-down leader in the space right now is Zoom. The company has reported that its number of average daily users in December was 10 million. Just one quarter later, that number has skyrocketed to 200 million. Despite some questions around security, Zoom’s widespread use is a testament to the ease and efficiency of the platform and strong feature options.

Zoom’s free-mium model usually leaves most wanting to upgrade to a paid subscription. The free level will allow up to 100 participants on a call and unlimited one-on-one meetings, but group meetings are limited to 40 minutes. However, the company has recently created a temporary waiver of the 40-minute rule for education accounts, so check that out. This makes it the clear best choice for schools.

All basic features are unlocked for as little as $14.99/month, so once this crisis is over, it will generally be affordable and worth it to upgrade. However, if you plan to conduct board meetings or all-school/all-district calls though Zoom, you’ll need to dive deeper into pricing and compare against competitors on options such as large meetings, storage, video webinars, and more. You don’t want to find out mid-meeting that your plan isn’t robust enough to handle your needs.

You also want to ensure that your Zoom meeting is safe. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the options, which include per-meeting IDs and enabling the Waiting Room to screen participants at the door. It’s important to keep your Zoom version up-to-date and encourage your team to as well.

Competitors: GoToMeeting, WebEx, Microsoft Teams

These are Zoom’s main competitors. My feeling is that Zoom is the way schools should go at this point, but here are some differentiators that may make you take a second look at others.

GoToMeeting offers similar functionality to Zoom, but without the free option. Their base package allows up to 150 participants, and they offer free cloud storage for recordings. That could make them a strong option if you’re looking for a board meeting platform. 

WebEx allows 100 participants on its free plan, which also features a 40-minute limit that has been temporarily lifted for COVID-19. It requires participants to set up accounts, which may become a friction point. The payoff is some added host-control features to enhance the sometimes free-flowing feeling of Zoom meetings.

MS Teams is perfect if you are already in the Office 365 universe. If not, you can get a free version. Security is stronger for MS Teams, but it also requires accounts.

Google hangouts

With so many districts taking advantage of Google Classroom and the tech giant’s educational packages, Google Hangouts is a logical option to consider. The application was created to offer text, phone, and video chat—all from one central place.

A Google Hangout text group can accommodate up to 150 people, but only 25 can participate in a video call. In its version of screen share, the user has the option of sharing the full screen or selecting a particular window to display. That’s a nice feature for those who feel naked revealing their crowded desktop to a group of colleagues. During a Hangout, the 10 most active participants of the moment are displayed at the bottom of the screen. Another nice feature is that Hangouts can also be recorded and shared for others to view later.

So, Hangouts might be a good option for your virtual team meetings, or teacher-based connections with students.

FaceTime

FaceTime

Apple users have the option of using FaceTime for virtual team meetings. Most use it for the one-on-one experience, but there is so much more capacity.  In fact, FaceTime will actually allow up to 32 users in one video chat. See the “Add Person” button? Click away.

The functionality works for not only iPhone but also iPads and Macs as well. Phones need to be running iOS 12.1.4 or newer, and Macs needs to be on iOS 10.14.3 or newer. But even those on older devices should be able to jump in on the audio portion of a Group FaceTime. Depending on the nature of your meeting, you can tap on the Effects button to use Animoji or Memoji and add funny effects, such as turning yourself into an animated character. 

Facebook Live

Facebook Live is a great tool to use in certain situations—namely, external communications. It’s a perfect option for school-based and morale-boosting messaging. While FB Live is one-way communication, viewers using the comments can engage and interact, so be sure to ask for comments, and be responsive to them during the recording.

If you want to allow teachers to use FB Live to communicate with your school audience, you will need to designate them as an admin on the school page. To prevent the headaches that can accompany that, you could opt to have your school page set up a Facebook Watch Party for a FB Live production by an individual teacher.

As always, be sure to follow all district policies regarding social media communication. Remember, if you create a new social media page right now, families have to engage it to be connected. Please make sure you aren’t leaving students out. Stay in touch with your leadership to keep up with changes in social media rules in light of the pandemic.

lady on phone conference

The phone

With the fascination over video conferencing, I know I might sound like a luddite here, but is there anything wrong with using your phone like… a phone? It’s great that we can have these video options, but we can also just push 10 digits (or the saved contact) and be talking to someone. Don’t forget to use that simple functionality any time you can. Not every conversation needs to be a video of you from the waist up while you’re in your pajama bottoms. After all, pajama tops are pretty great too.

Posted by Greg Dorazio, School Communications Strategist

Greg Dorazio is a communications strategist with 15 years of experience as a reporter, editor-in-chief, and a school PR pro for both a rural and urban district. Now a communications consultant, he improves strategic storytelling through web, social media, design, and more for his clients in associations, public health, education, and small business.

581871
Optimizing Your School's Emergency Notification System
2020-06-23
girl student holding chalkboard that says

More Than It Seems

Emergency notification systems have become indispensable tools for school communication. When used effectively, they do more than simply keep families informed and alert about emergencies—they help foster a sense of community and set the stage for increased engagement.

That is, with proper setup, usage, and maintenance, the system can be an asset. Without it, your system can become a constant thorn in your side. So, it’s important to invest some time into considering issues around your system and how to get it working more smoothly for your school district.

The Big Picture

Generally, a mass notification system pulls contact data from your student information system into a platform that gives you options to communicate with families via phone, text, email, social media, or your school website or app. This is accomplished by a regularly-scheduled (usually nightly) automated data export/import process. As a result, your emergency notification system should have the most up-to-date contact information at all times (at least, as up-to-date as families have provided).

So, what can go wrong? From my actual experience, quite a bit can go wrong. You might have seen one of the following instances:

  • Families not receiving messages
  • People who don’t have a child at your school receiving messages
  • Massive influx of calls after you send a call
  • Messages playing in the wrong language
  • Messages going to the wrong student

We won’t be solving all of those issues in this post, but we will help you better implement a system that will lead to fewer of these issues.

One note—many systems now accommodate classroom-to-home communication. This has many wonderful benefits and should be considered as a possible practice for your school engagement plans. However, in this post we’re going to focus on the best practices for usage by school and district leadership.

Young mother receiving emergency notice on her smart phone

Message Types

In a general sense, there are three types of messages from these systems: Automated, Engagement, and Emergency.

Automated Messages include things like:

  • Attendance calls
  • Low lunch balance alert texts
  • Overdue library book emails reminders

You set these messages once, and the system sends messaging on a regular basis without any action on your part. When a student meets certain criteria, such as being absent from school or having a low lunch balance, that student’s information will be picked up in an automated report, and the contact will receive the automated message.

Engagement Messages include things like:

  • Reminders about an upcoming performance or game
  • Weekly principal’s message about the school calendar
  • Information about when to send back that fundraiser

These are messages created by the district or school administration, possibly in collaboration with staff members or partners such as the PTA. They can usually be pre-set to send at an optimal time, and they are intended to keep families informed about what’s happening in the school community.

Emergency Messages include things like:

  • School closure calls
  • Security update texts
  • Imminent issues such as late buses

These messages are always created by district or school leadership and sent immediately. Because of their emergency nature, they are often sent to a wider range of the contacts on file for each student.

Go with the flow

Know How to Go With the Flow

The most important first step in actually using an emergency system is understanding how it is setup. Most people focus on learning the interface that allows you to send the messages. Beyond that, you also need to understand how the data flows so you can avoid issues and align your messaging tactics. Connect with your registration and IT teams to ensure that everyone is on the same page about what data fields in your student information system track to which places in your notification system.

Make sure there is a process for getting student contact data into the student information system—and for making changes to it. It’s great that a student’s mom has updated her number on the clinic card, but unless we get that information into the student information system, it won’t be in the notification system—which means she won’t be called in a schoolwide emergency situation.

Tracking this data flow is important to communication strategy as well. Did your setup bring Emergency Contacts into the system? If so, be leery about calling ALL, even in an emergency. Grandma two states over doesn’t need a call at 5:30 a.m. to say school is closed.

Get Permissions Straight

Between your district-level team and school-based leadership at each location, there could be quite a few people who need access to the system. Or it could be just a handful. To the extent that you can keep the circle small, you can also better train and prepare the people who will pick up the phone or type out the emails. Proper setup can help prevent their potential mistakes. For example, your high school principal only needs to have access to communicate with the high school contacts. Don’t allow them access to everyone in the district. Of course, they can opt for messaging to only go to the high school in each message, but if they forget once and send to all, it can be a very confusing situation, and one that never needed to happen.

Another key point is to review annually. Every year, there are shake-ups in administration. Principals, assistant principals, and others move in, move up, move over, or move out. The permissions for your system need to be updated to reflect those changes every year.

Message Precision

The absolute best thing that you can do to allow your team to message precisely is to differentiate the audience. There are many specific groups you may need to communicate with on a regular basis. For example: 

  • Bus 25 had a mechanical issue and is now running an hour late.
  • Permission slips for the fourth grade’s museum field trip are due tomorrow.
  • Chorus practice is canceled due to teacher illness.

In these instances, you really want to have groups set up for your busses, your grades, and your activities. If you don’t, your options are to either not communicate the information or to over-communicate it to a bunch of people completely unaffected. When you message everyone with information that isn’t relevant to them, you’re training them that these calls or notifications from your school are not important. Over time, you’ll teach your families to not answer your calls and not read your emails. 

These individual groups should be set up ahead of time so that you can make calls specifically to them. To make this most effective, whenever you can, you should use the option of setting up parameters rather than uploading a list. Parameters will allow the system to search and collect the proper contacts before each message (for example, all students in 4th grade) rather than you having to constantly update a list with changing membership (uploading the list of 4th graders every time someone enrolls or withdraws). Generally, if the group is based on something that already exists in your student information system (grade level, bus number, etc), you can (and should) set it up as a parameter. Smaller groups that probably won’t be tracked in your student information system are typically activity-based.

Remember, don’t call the whole school because one bus is late or because chorus practice is canceled. Have yourself set up to communicate directly to those groups to keep your system at top effectiveness.

young woman's reaction to various phone calls

Wrong Numbers

“I don’t have a kid at your school. Stop calling me!” is one of the most frustrating situations all around. Sometimes, these folks are pretty angry—after all, they’ve been woken up, disturbed in the evening, and whatever else due to ongoing calling or messaging. They aren’t part of your school family, so it’s easy to dismiss them. But that’s the exact wrong thing to do. Resolving the problem quickly and effectively is very important for community relations. You do not want the only thing this person knows about your school to be that you can’t seem to control your calling system.

How does this situation occur? It’s often a data entry error. But there are also many instances where a family’s phone number changed and didn’t update you. When the number was reassigned, the number was already set to receive your messaging.

The best way to think of this situation is that the caller is helping you find incorrect data. To best resolve this, you need to have a process. When you find out that the contact information is wrong, you’ll usually need to use the notification system to track down the student, and then make the change in the student information system that feeds it. Otherwise, as we mentioned earlier, the data might overwrite what you put in the notification system.

Languages

Make sure your system can auto-translate into different languages to accommodate all of your families. The translations may not be perfect, but they are certainly better than nothing. Follow your vendor’s guidelines for setting up those alternate languages.

With regard to translations, consider which of the student information system’s language fields should trigger your notification system’s translation. For example, I’ve seen districts basically set up to translate for students in the English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program. However, in many cases, that’s not the outcome you want...

  • A child could be adopted to English-speaking parents.
  • The parent of an ESOL student may speak fluent English.
  • A student may have exited the ESOL program (thanks to your awesome teachers), but the parents may still need communication support.

It is best to have a separate field in your student information system that lists the language of the parent/guardian to ensure that you are engaging all families to the best of your abilities.

Conclusion

There are many elements to a notification system, and we’ve just touched on a few today. Hopefully, this will get you thinking about how to use the system to help you enhance your overall school communications efforts and build engagement. Take the time to make sure it’s right so that it doesn’t become a constant source of aggravation for you and your families.

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Using COVID-19 school downtime to ramp up your school communication strategies
2020-06-09
Ramp up

Now’s your chance. While schools across the country are shut down for various lengths of time and staff and students work remotely to ensure students continue to learn, administrative staff can focus on improving communications. Without the minute-by-minute distractions of typical responsibilities, you can focus on the strategies that will help improve school communication when things are back to normal. And yes, they will get back to normal—or at least to a new normal!

Where to begin

Website first

Take a look at your website. If it is outdated and not responsive (mobile-friendly), use this time for a redesign. You can gather input from your remote staff who might have a bit more time to focus their thoughts and share their ideas. Include your office staff so the most frequently asked questions from parents are included and can be easily found.

Some tips to consider when doing a website redesign are covered in detail in these articles:

website design wire frame on whiteboard
While you are at it, be sure to include accessibility in your website redesign. It is far easier to do it right the first time than to try to mitigate the situation when the Office of Civil Rights attorney comes knocking at your door. This includes making sure the documents you link to as PDF attachments are also remediated so they are accessible to screen readers. The following articles will provide more detail for those of you who need a bit of guidance.

Social media strategy

While it is tempting to become discouraged over the negatives of social media, you can’t let fear of engaging stop you from participating. These platforms are where your customers (both parents and students) are getting their information, and if you aren’t out there, someone else is providing information that you have no control over. So, be a proactive participant. 

Be a positive and trusted resource for information. And, as many schools found out during the COVID-19 outbreak, having an effective social media presence in place prior to a crisis is critical.  

In conjunction with your website, create both a communications’ plan for the events you know about in advance, gather information from your staff to keep the stories flowing, and share impromptu posts that arise along the way. You’ve got such good news happening every day, so get those stories out there. Your parents and prospective parents want to learn about your school, your student and staff successes, the engagement, the excitement, and the enthusiasm—so share it. We all like to be a part of something good, so let parents know that their children are a part of something great.

Here are some helpful articles that will help you get started or learn more about what works well for other schools:

computer keyboard with green key labeled customer service
Remote customer service

Customer service is more than just a pleasant smile in the front office; it is the experience provided by your website, phone calls, parent messaging, teacher to parent conversations, staff interaction, and social media. Outstanding customer service becomes the culture and sets the expectations. So, use this time to improve and smooth all of those customer interactions.

Is your website intuitive and is it easy to find information? Do phone calls and messages get answered when someone calls in? Are forms and parent requirements available online? Can parents contact your staff or, in an effort to avoid spam, is it impossible to contact anyone at your school? It is important that you view these experiences through your customers’ eyes (and your customers include your staff). 

Not convinced that this is a critical issue? Find out what poor customer service is costing your school. Look at some ways to improve your online customer service through emails and written communications with Customer Service Netiquette. Take your school customer service from good to great!

two young female students walking toward school
Preparation for back-in-session

In preparation for going back to school, take the time now to plan a communications strategy that covers the most important concerns parents will have (and those they have now about when school resumes). 

  • Are there make-up days or weeks? 
  • Is there information to share about graduating seniors? 
  • Are the start or end dates for the school year changing? 
  • Are there learning opportunities for students to make up specific classes? 
  • What social distancing procedures will students and staff be required to use upon returning? 

Create online resources with all the necessary information on your school website and use your social media to let parents know where this resource is located. Put in the time and effort to make these website resources valuable to your parents and the community.

Speaking of being back in session, be sure to gather stories from your staff and students about what positives they experienced during the downtime. What did they learn that they might not have considered before? What interests or talents did they discover or develop? What did they learn about themselves that will help them in the future? Who made a positive impact on them during the crisis and in what way? Use these stories in your social media as a regular series or a series of articles on your website that you link to from your social media posts. 

During a crisis, there is much to struggle through. But, more often, we gain strengths and learn life-altering lessons that make us into better people. By sharing the positive, everyone is encouraged and strengthened to see what our fellow men and women are capable of, and these stories inspire us to be stronger and optimistic as well.

We're here for you!

Of course, for many of the areas we’ve discussed above, School Webmasters is here to help you succeed. Unlike our competitors, we actually do the work and become your behind-the-scenes staff to do the grunt work efficiently and affordably so your own staff can focus on education. Whether it is website design, accessibility or remediation, social media management, or public relations support, let us focus on what we know so you can focus on what you do best (and save money and time in the process). It’s a win-win for your staff and your students and their parents. Get a quote or give us a call at 888.750.4556 and tell us what your biggest challenges are. If we can’t help, we can make recommendations for who can.

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Be Prepared for Emergency Communications
2020-05-26
emergency contact information button on keyboard

The moment you are in an emergency situation is not the time to prepare for an emergency situation. Since you work in education, you know that a crisis can occur at any moment—and that the stakes are very, very high when it does. It’s not a matter of “if” but of “when.” That means that the time is now to prepare for emergency situations. 

So, let’s help you thrive in your next emergency situation. The bottom line is that you need to have the tools ready, the personnel prepped, and the relationships built. That way, when the chips are down, you’ll be able to focus on the task at hand and add value every way possible. Think about it—if you need to take an action in 30 minutes or less, do you want to spend 10 minutes putting together generic language you could have already prepared? Or do you want to reflect on the specific impacts of the situation at hand and bake in more thought and strategy to your response? These tips will help you better utilize your precious time when it matters most.   

be prepared road sign

Prepare Messaging

The bulk of your emergency or crisis situations will be of a few different types. Unexpected school closure. Cautionary lockdown. Appalling staff member behavior. Disappointing student behavior. Don’t wait for your next emergency to pull the file from the last time it happened. Make time, find time, and commit time to pre-writing a few statements to cover these most-likely situations. 

Legal matters will always require a delicate hand and specific communications strategy that typically can’t be pre-set. Always consult with your division’s legal team to ensure that matters related to students, employees, and other sensitive topics are handled appropriately. 

There’s no way to have a perfectly pre-written statement. The goal here is just to help reduce the need for some timely labor in some instances. So, choose three to five situations, and edit a previously-used letter into a template. Ensure that you’ve checked it for adherence to the emergency plan your school or district has in place.  

Then get the template statement pre-approved from higher-ups. Consider placing the agreed-upon language on letterhead or into whatever nearly-done stage is right for your process. You can even highlight in red any places where you’ll need to add in facts later. 

When you reflect on this messaging, make sure to focus on the core elements: Facts, Actions Taken, Next Steps. Primarily, your communication home needs to give information. Of course, values are important. We all know that “student safety is of paramount importance.” You do need to establish and convey your values in many of your statements. But the key information to convey is what has happened, your immediate response actions, and your plan moving forward. 

For example, let’s say you need to dismiss early due to a water main break. Your statement needs to include: 

  • The most general information about the situation 
              “Due to a water main break,” is probably enough
  • Student status, location, and security measures in response 
               “Teaching and learning is continuing in classrooms at this time.” 
  • Details on pickup time, logistics, and process
              “We will dismiss all students at 1:00 p.m. today,” adding in any needed specifics. 
  • In this example, remember that you communicate on behalf of the schools—not the public utility department. Your messaging should not specify any details about the water main break itself. Let the municipal PR team communicate about the cause, restoration time, or other issues. Your focus is solely on the impact to the students and the school day.

    take action, set goals

    Pre-Educate Families About Emergency Communications

    It is important to clearly inform families how communication will happen—and then to stick to it. Let parents know the specific methods of communication you’ll use to notify them of school closures, security issues, etc. 

    An area of your school website should be dedicated to listing this information. This should be a fairly exhaustive listing of timelines for decisions, local/regional broadcast partners for sharing information, mass notification tools, website and social media assets you use, and more. 

    Also include links for families to update their contact information. And invite them to follow you on social media where they can regularly receive up-to-date information. Occasionally promoting where site visitors can find the information with an eye-catching image on your school website home page is a great way to keep it out there. You could also recreate the key elements in a flyer to send home, and you could use your mass notification system at some appropriate time to direct families to the web page as well. 

    Ideally, this information will be consistent across all schools in your district. It should be posted on the school division website, and each individual school website should link directly to it. Consistency is critical.

    Once you have that plan set out, you need to follow it. Adhering to the plan breeds confidence. From a more practical perspective, sending messages also builds behaviors and habits that result in higher connection rates.

    Optimize Your Mass Notification System

    Your well-crafted message needs to get through to your families. The setup of the notification system your school uses is the key to making that happen. 

    Most school districts have a notification system with a proprietary system. It’s important that you or someone on your team is an expert in how to use it effectively—or as close as you can get. There is more to it than just picking up a phone, selecting “Call Everybody,” and sending out messages. 

    We will get into more details about these system tips in a future post, but here are the key things to remember:

    • Work with your IT and registration teams to ensure the data is correctly entered into the student information system and that it flows correctly into the notification system.
    • Create groups (grade levels, activity participants, buses, etc.) to help the message meet your precise needs.
    • Make sure district-based and school-based users have the right permissions to communicate with the correct families.

    Why are these important? When a crisis comes along, you will be able to confidently get your message out to families and be sure the right people receive it. You’ll also be empowered to properly sequence your communications to stakeholder groups. For example, you may want to update your staff members at a particular location before communicating broadly to the community. If your principal has the right permissions and everyone is coordinating together, that’s an easy job, which demonstrates some sophistication on the PR side of your communications.  

    know your role

    Know Your Team and Roles

    In difficult moments, you won’t want to have in-fighting, confusion, or duplicated efforts. Make sure you have a clear point-person for each key responsibility. For example, if you have building issues, your facilities lead can’t make decisions, take action, and handle stakeholder communication. Be sure your point person can clearly evaluate and report the key information. That person may also be responsible for evaluating the statements to be released, or another person may have that responsibility, and another should have the task of the actual communications.

    It’s also important to make sure that school-based staff members know what their communications roles are in an emergency. For example, the decision to delay the opening of school by two hours may affect when (or if) that bus is taking the fourth-graders to the museum for the field trip in the afternoon. Once the division-wide decision has been made and communicated, it is appropriate for the school-based leadership to push out a responsive operations update to its families. As always, to prevent over-communication, aim for precise messaging. In that example, a best practice would be for the school-based administrator to send that field trip update message only to the fourth-grade families.  

    build relationships - man building a bridge with blocks

    Build Relationships with External Partners

    You already know who you’ll be working with in an emergency. Local law enforcement. Fire and rescue. City Hall. A small-town mayor. Utility companies. Highway department. And others. Be intentional about connecting with them. 

    Are you in a region that sees snow disruptions? Host a luncheon for some of the involved agencies in the late fall/early winter. Does your community have a new director of public works? Give the department some tickets to a high school game and spend some time with them in the stands—or better yet, on the sidelines. That rapport will make it much easier to work through the crises you’ll share. 

    This isn’t for nothing. When emergencies sneak up and multiple agencies must work together, it means a bunch of people need to align with each other and work together. By definition, it’s already a tense situation, and there are a range of different priorities. You don’t need minor issues like a curt comment or bad first impression to create more separation and head-butting. Getting to know others ahead of time will help you avoid those issues and give you a head start on being in synch when it matters most. 

    While you can never be fully prepared for an emergency communications situation, you can put time and energy into preparing your tools, preparing your people, and building relationships. Having this jump start can give you just a bit more breathing room in a crisis, which results in better outcomes for students, staff, families, and your community.

    Need some help?

    Need help with school communications? Check out our PR4 Schools services and get the help you need and can afford!
    Need help with school social media? Get affordable staff to manage it for you with our Social4Schools services.

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    Providing Outstanding Virtual Customer Service During a Crisis
    2020-05-12
    customer service personnel managing multiple tasks

    K–12 schools have never before had a situation like they are now experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most are closed. Some have gone to virtual education while others are simply hunkering down and waiting for things to return to normal. But it is during a crisis that your school’s true colors come out, and your efforts now will influence future outcomes for years to come. What you do now matters.

    We support hundreds of U.S. schools, and we’ve seen a variety of leadership responses to the COVID-19 crisis. The best schools, and best administrators and teachers, are communicative and proactive. They reach out to parents and provide support and guidance, knowing that parents are likewise in a state of crisis and alarm. They understand that some parents are being laid off. Some are sick. Some are just not sure how to react to such unusual conditions. 

    Unfortunately, some schools are doing nothing and have gone radio silent. A few schools have actually requested that we pause all of their social media communications while their school is shuttered. Huge mistake! Terrible customer service and worse public relations.

    Be amazing

    Take this opportunity to be amazing

    When it comes to serving our customers—in our case, that is our students and their parents—it is about taking care of them. Your success now depends on your customer service—that is, your virtual customer service. So, whether it is the teacher to student learning that is taking place or the office staff or administrators responding to questions or concerns, here are some tips to assure that your customer service excels virtually:

    Make a personal connection: know the child’s name, interests, and other personal info about the parents when possible so your comments are specific to their interests.

    Over-communicate: If necessary, set up an auto-response so that your customer/parent knows their email or other request was received. Although automated, it is a good start and a great way of saying, “thank you for reaching out to me/us.”

    Respect their time: Create some standards for responses to requests. This can be school-wide or individual, but live up to your promises. If you commit to responding to a parent email request within 24 hours, tell them they can expect to hear from you within 24 hours and then make sure you keep that promise. The longer you take to respond to your customers’ needs, the more likely they are to become disenchanted and begin to mistrust your concern for their needs.

    man in suit giving thumbs up and holding a clock

    Set expectations: Let parents know what to expect. If you can’t respond virtually until in the afternoon, let them know. If you will be unavailable for a few days, your out-of-office email message should indicate that (and don’t forget to turn it off when you return). If you need to schedule on-call coverage for the phones, especially during a school closure during something like this COVID-19 crisis or even in the summer, be sure you have full coverage. Whatever hours are not covered should be spelled out in your messaging.

    Get feedback: Consider sending out a feedback email or short survey after email or phone interactions. This will help you modify your customer service responses, and it also lets parents know they have been heard and have a chance to express themselves. It tells them you care what they think. Then be sure to thank them for that feedback, tell them you appreciate their insight, and let them know what you will do with the knowledge they provide.

    Earn their trust. Be consistent. Do what you say you are going to do so they can trust you. Don’t blame others, but be accountable. If you are confronted with a problem, you own it. 

    Tone and word choice matters. If you are virtual, you might not think your tone matters, but your word choice and how you respond to questions is an indication of your tone when you are virtual. Admittedly, it is harder to avoid being misunderstood without the benefit of visual or audible presence. However, you can still project a positive and customer-friendly tone in all of your school communications. Start with smart word choices like these:

    • Please and thank you
    • My pleasure (instead of “no problem")
    • You’re welcome
    • What I can do is…
    • I understand how _____ (frustrating, disappointing, etc.) that must be…
    • I’m so sorry that happened. Let me see what I can do to make it right.
    • I’m happy to help!
    • Is there anything else I can do to assist? (Use this phrase if you were indeed able to help them with whatever they called or emailed about.)

    Provide self-service. This can simply mean that you provide an area on your school website where parents can get answers to current concerns. During a specific emergency or crisis, make sure a link to your easy-access answers are front and center by moving this link or button to the home page so it isn’t buried on your website. This can be as simple as a page with links to other resources.

    customer self-service

    All of your staff are customer service representatives

    During the COVID-19 pandemic and your school’s closure, not all of your staff will have virtual contact with your customers. But once our schools have resumed, all of your staff have contact with customers in one way or another. Those customers might be fellow staff members, but if they work at or volunteer at your school, they are customer service representatives. 

    How are they representing your school? If the answer is poorly, then you have a training issue, and it must be addressed. Good leaders know that and take steps to provide just such training and recognize the successes. Be sure you understand what poor customer service is costing your school and take steps to improve.

    empower your staff

    When your customers need customer support help, you can be sure of one thing: they aren’t coming to you to hear about how busy you are or how difficult the jobs are or “that isn’t our policy.” They are coming to you for a solution. So, be sure that all of your staff members understand the importance of their role as customer service representatives and let them feel free to find solutions without undue amounts of red tape. I like the motto used by Nordstroms, “Rule #1: Use best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.” Empower your staff to feel likewise and find ways to meet your customers’ needs, especially during the tough times.

    How Successful Schools Market Themselves eBook
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