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How to Become a Rock Star Principal in Just One Year

Apply simple changes and see your school soar to new heights with strategic school marketing and communications

school principal taking first solo flight

Implementing change is like flying solo for the first time. It scares the crap out of you when you look down at the runway, but once you land, you can’t wait to get back up into the sky. And it is change that will be required if you want to take your school from marginal to majestic in one year. It can be done. And, like flying, it just requires taking certain preparatory steps, one at a time, in the correct order.

If you’d like to soar above the rest of the pack as a school principal, the secret to your success will be smart school marketing. That will NOT include advertising and making sales pitches. But it will include getting your staff on board and implementing good school customer service. It also means coming up with a marketing plan that supports your school’s mission and goals for the year. That plan will include using your school websites and social media as your school communications media hub. All of your educational experience leading up to this has gotten you this far (let’s call this your ground training). Now, let’s make sure your next few years are the best ever!

So, let’s begin our solo flight into creating the best school ever with enthused and dedicated staff, engaged and supportive parents, and students who look forward to every school day.

Preflighting

As a principal, whether you are brand new to the job or have been an assistant principal or a principal of many years, in order to make your school a school of choice, there are some steps you’ll want to take. In flying, this is called preflighting the aircraft (inspecting your airplane prior to each flight). In our case, this is a needs analysis for your school. It’s the best place to begin and looks like this:

  • Cabin inspection: What is your front office like? Is it customer friendly? Are your processes efficient and clear? How is the phone answered? Are calls forced into phone tree hell, or does a real person pick up most of the time? Are visitors greeted with a smiling welcome? Conduct a secret shopper office visit for an objective view. Do the same with a caller’s phone experiences. Based on the information you collect, decide on areas that need improvement as well as those where your front office does a great job. Meet with your office staff to review the results and plan for future training if necessary. Let them know how much you value a customer service-friendly front office (and that includes all visitors, yes, hormonal students too).
  • Exterior inspection (the walkaround): Take an objective look around the grounds. What do visitors see when they arrive or drive by? Look at the parking lot. Is it visitor friendly with marked visitor parking? Look at the signage both on the marquee and other posted signs. Is the wording friendly or shouting “thou shalt nots” at your visitors? Are the grounds clean and clutter free? How is the curb appeal at your school? Make a list of areas that need improvement, meet with your grounds personnel, and come up with a plan to fix anything that is amiss as well as congratulate them on the strengths. Let them know how much you value this aspect of your school’s reputation and representation and their role in making this successful.
  • Flight plan: Before takeoff, you’d file a flight plan. Well, it is no different here because we want to have a plan of action so that our takeoff is a smooth one and we reach our desired destination. This is typically called your school marketing strategy. What does that look like? Here are a few basic steps—we’ll even include a free download to a simplified school marketing plan.
    • Determine your goals for the year. What are the most critical aspects you need to address for improvement (is it engaging your parents, creating better customer service, improving your internal or external communications, etc.)? How will you measure your progress and what will success look like? Of course, all of this should support your overall school mission as well.
    • Identify your audience. Who are the customers (stakeholders) you need to serve to accomplish the goals you have set? How does your goal benefit them? What channel of communication do these stakeholders prefer?
    • Define your key messages. Identify three to five key points you want your target audience to know. What matters most to them? How do you want these stakeholders to feel, think, or act as a result of your communications? Is your message memorable?
    • Set your tasks. What can you do to reach, teach, train, influence, engage, or convert your targeted audience? Write out these goals (tasks), decide who is responsible for assisting you, and include a due date for completion.
    • Celebrate your successes. Don’t forget this stage in your plan. It is important to acknowledge the progress and show your appreciation for those who are assisting you in meeting these goals.
    • School Marketing Roadmap to Success Template. Download this simplified template to make it easy to get started on the planning process. Just click on the link and get started.

The takeoff

Before you can enjoy those beautiful views from the heights of respect and the reputation of a great school, let’s look at the takeoff process to get your school marketing strategies in place. 

  • Getting clearance from the tower. Basically, this means getting everyone on the same page. The best way to introduce change is to get buy-in from everyone who will be affected by these changes. But, as you already know, telling people about change isn’t often popular. To do it more effectively, introduce change with a story. What story could you share that will tell them the reason the changes are necessary? Why will it be better for them (individually)? How will these changes make their jobs easier or improve the school’s public perception? When they can see the benefits of a better school reputation, engaged and supportive parents, and positive community relations, it provides the motivation to accept and implement change. Precede your presentation of your marketing plan with the benefits they will enjoy.
  • Create clear in-flight processes. Once everyone involved understands the value of the changes (the value of marketing, customer service, and communications), they will need to know exactly what is expected of them. They will need to know how they can help and how their efforts will be recognized. Provide specifics for each group. How can teachers help implement your marketing goals? Will this mean when you hold “Back to School Night”? Will there will be new expectations and you will be analyzing the success of those efforts? How will that look? Will you expect your office staff to complete some customer service training? When and where? What about the bus drivers? What can or should they do? If you don’t have clear strategies by group, then enlist their help by creating their own and submitting their team/department goals to you. You’ll likely be impressed with their solutions.
  • Set the flaps, apply full power, and release the brakes. Walk the talk and recognize others who are doing likewise. You will need to demonstrate that these changes matter to you by highlighting them at every opportunity. Regarding customer service, you emulate your expectations in how you treat your staff, parents, and students with each interaction you make (everyone is watching you as their leader). Regarding marketing, clearly outline the marketing and communication goals for the year to all of your school staff. Be sure they know how their department or team can contribute to those goals. Recognize their contributions and successes at every opportunity, and you’ll see more successes as other staff members want that same recognition.

In the air

Okay, you’ve taking flight by rolling out your marketing plan. You’ve shared your stories about how the marketing, communications, and customer service efforts you’re asking your staff to implement will make for a better working environment and how they will all benefit. You’ve rolled out your goals, and your staff have participated in deciding how they can put strategies into practice in their areas to help your school achieve those goals. You’re in the air. Now what?

  • Check the weather along the route. Yes, principals, you must touch base often to make sure progress toward your goals are happening. When they are, be sure to thank those helping you achieve those goals—publically when possible. If things are falling short, review the marketing plan to find out what isn’t working or needs to be revised. Look objectively at your progress, and involve your staff in making revisions, re-engaging them, or getting more assistance if needed.
  • Keep your eyes on your destination. One way to see if your efforts are paying off is to conduct surveys, put together a focus group or two, and conduct some personal interviews. This is even more effective if you do it prior to implementing your marketing efforts and again mid-way through the school year. It can help you track your progress. It also goes a long way toward showing your audience that you care about their needs and challenges and are striving to address them.
  • Look outside. When flying, especially cross-country, you will see the country the way few others can. This is true of marketing your school as well. The very act of marketing, improving communications, and raising the bar on your customer service will make you aware of other opportunities and improvements in nearly every area of your school’s management. You’ll begin to see things differently, and areas that are both effective and ineffective will suddenly become quite apparent. So, be observant. Look around. See your school from a higher perspective. It will be enlightening and provide you with some great opportunities to make a positive difference.

Landing

Now it’s time to come back to earth, so after contacting the tower, you’ll line up with the runway, lower the flaps, and lower your gear. A few feet before the edge of the runway, pull the power back to idle, and gently flare to lose airspeed and touch down. Raise the flaps and apply the brakes.  You’re safe on the ground. But in the real world of school marketing, the fun is just beginning. Your landing is when you put that marketing plan and all those clever ideas into practice.

This article can’t cover the specifics of what you “should” do since that will depend upon the needs of your school. Do you need to rebrand your school because you have a new focus now? Is your struggle to engage busy parents (or uninvolved parents)? Is your staff not a cohesive group and it affects student learning? Are you just not getting the kudos from the community you know your school deserves and you want to turn that around? Do you need to increase enrollment or stop losing students to other schools? Well, that’s how you determine what strategies to put into place.

For 50 weeks of ideas and resources, check out our Marketing Your School calendar/toolkit. It was written for school administrators, principals, assistant principals, school secretaries, or school staff who are not marketing or school communications pros. It contains hundreds of suggestions, ideas, and strategies you can implement immediately. Just pick and choose what will work for you and get started. You’ll also get access to dozens of bonus website resources and templates. You may also want to sign-up for the Marketing Your School blog and get more ideas each month.

As a principal who wants to make an immediate difference in staff morale, parent engagement, and student enthusiasm, I recommend you start here:

  1. Your school website. The best school websites must be current, responsive, fun to read, and it should tell your success stories (highlight successful programs, students, teachers, parent volunteers, alumni, etc.). Here are a few articles to get you started: 
  2. Create and integrate school social media platforms with your website content and website management. That means set up Facebook and Twitter (at a minimum), and use these platforms to update, entice, and funnel parents and students to your website (where more detailed information is posted). These two resources (websites and social media) will support and feed one another. Social media pushes its information out, and you use those contacts to pull your audience to the website where you and highlight your successes in engaging and exciting ways.
  3. Develop relationships with the local media editors and reporters. Find out who covers the education beat, and offer to send them new information and stories as they come available. Keep them in the loop, and you’ll see more positive articles being published about your school and the good things happening there. Make yourself available to them, and gain some control over your stories. If you don’t guide the narrative, you may not appreciate the outcome.
  4. Create a schedule. Make assignments to your staff about submitting content for the website and social media. It might be as simple as a story about why a particular learning module in the 4th grade is so effective and how much the students learn from it (pictures and some quotes from kids will make it more engaging). It could be a story from the food service director about favorite foods or cute student interactions she sees that exemplify their kindness to one another. It may be from a school secretary sharing her favorite front office memories that demonstrate parents who care. The list could go on and on; you’ll never run out of stories for the website if you recruit from your staff.
  5. Recognize and thank those who participate. This is essential if you want people to be ready and willing to feed the media machine (your communications, marketing, and public relations efforts). We know of one school where twice a year the governing board recognizes the grade levels who do the best job in communications based on their website and social media articles. That recognition has helped every teacher in the school strive to get their students and classes recognized as well. They have developed a tremendous reputation at their school because of it.

So, go for it. Fly to new heights with your school marketing and public relations. When you create a positive school environment, you will see some amazing sights like enthused students, engaged parents, teachers who love what they do, and staff who are happy and cooperative. Everyone wins, and you get to be the leader who made it happen! Get marketing today.