In today’s highly-connected world, it is more important than ever to establish trust. One of the main contributors to trust is creating a culture of transparency. To most of us, being transparent means you’re hiding nothing. You’re letting others look through a window into your world, throwing the blinds wide open.
Now, that doesn’t mean that anyone expects complete transparency, all the time. There are issues that cannot and should not be shared publicly. There are personnel issues, student privacy issues, medical situations, and security issues that must remain confidential by law. But what the public doesn’t trust is when public issues that are not addressed. Then, when they hear about it and don’t understand why some decision or another was made, they speculate. Their speculation may lead to the assumption that it was a cover-up and not merely an oversight.
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Excluding politics, which has its own set of conspiracy theories and hidden agendas, and in spite of what some media outlets say, most schools do not deliberately hide or cover up information. Often times, it might not be shared because “we didn’t think anyone would be interested” or “it was kind of boring.” And they might even be right. It might be boring or not pertain to most people. But failing to share is where the problem comes in. Your public wants to decide if it is boring or of interest. If the blinds are closed, they can only guess what is going on behind them. That’s when doubt and mistrust creep in. But, if schools try to share all the minutiae, the overload of information will soon have no one listening to anything at all.
So, what’s a school to do?
Tell them what, and then tell them why
Nearly all the school leaders we work with put tremendous thought and planning into every decision they make. Few determinations are made on a whim. There is a purpose, a value, a goal behind every major decision. There is also a “why” behind each problem to be solved or improvement to be made. When that “why” isn’t shared, that one failure can cause more trouble than any other communication oversight.
Create a transparent culture in your community. Develop trust, and during the tough times (budget cuts, school closings, lower test scores, etc.), that earned trust will carry you through. When the community understands the facts and the factors you had to weigh to come to a decision behind any given situation, mistrust is more likely to evaporate.
Your information will trump the rumors and gossip that is sure to surface—if you get it out there. However, you must be proactive, not reactive. Sometimes you don’t have a choice and must react in an unexpected crisis. But when you maintain consistent transparency, those times are the exceptions. You will have proven to be trustworthy, caring, and conscientious educators with your students best interests in mind.
Some more tips about maintaining transparent communications strategies:
- Be consistent: Establish reliable channels of communication that are continually updated and informative. Your school website should be the communications hub from which everything else radiates, including social media, newsletters, parent notification systems, local media articles, employee intranets, governing board meetings, parent e-mails, staff e-mails, local TV channels, etc.
- Watch your tone: Know your audience and talk to them, not at them. Your messages should be conversational and friendly. Avoid jargon and educational terms that the community and parents wouldn’t know. Avoid passive voice. Write with your audience needs in mind. Remember, it’s about them, not you.
- Provide evidence: If you have facts and stats, that is great; be sure you share them. But don’t forget to tell your stories. Talk about the people and situations behind the decisions, how it affects them, what differences these changes will make in their lives or in their education. Create school videos; let people tell their stories and speak their truths right into the camera.
School leadership matters; be that leader
Your school’s leaders typically set the bar. If they are focused on keeping the staff, students, and community informed, they are more likely to be trusted and followed. If you’re lucky, your school leaders demonstrate integrity and honesty. They don’t demand it; they live it. When this is the case, the school’s staff know to what values they are expected to adhere. These standards become the expectation. When this is the expectation, going from integrity to transparency is a short trip and will be easy to implement.
However, maybe you’ve worked in a school where a leader actually lowered the bar. His or her behavior was less than stellar and certainly not something to which you personally aspired. When a school environment is littered with minefields of mistrust, gossip, and innuendo, the culture becomes toxic. No one does their best work in a toxic environment, so students don’t receive the best education possible. Certainly, this is not ideal. But you can effect change, from right where you stand.
Regardless of the leadership in your school, we are all leaders. We each have our own sphere of influence. As teachers, our sphere of influence is not only our co-workers and our students but our administrators. As support staff, we influence teachers, students, and parents.
For example, I have a co-worker who believes in being loyal to those not present. He doesn’t backbite, gossip, or criticize behind anyone’s back. If he has a concern, he takes it to the source. He has set the bar and doesn’t lower it, even when it is convenient to do so. Because I’ve witnessed this value in action, I also know that he’s loyal to me in my absence. His example, the standard he’s set, helps me to do likewise. This value is another form of transparency, and it is just one example.
What’s your superpower of transparency? Integrity? Honesty? Loyalty? Trustworthy? Keeping confidences? You have that same powerful influence, no matter your role.
Become comfortable with pushback
Some people avoid transparency because they hope by saying nothing, no one will notice and they can avoid any conflict. The problem with this approach is that when someone does notice, they may assume you are hiding something. Otherwise, why wouldn’t you have communicated this information? What are you hiding? If this happens very often, those assumptions and that mistrust will become difficult to overcome.
If the typical communications approach, especially during a crisis, is to duck and cover and hope the media doesn’t get wind of it, you’re playing a dangerous game. You won’t build public trust if your methodology is to circle the wagons against any challenge or question. Your strategy should be to get out there first and state the facts. Tell your story or take the risk that someone else will tell a far different version. Trust me, they will. You’ll be on the defense instead of the offense.
How to deal with pushback:
- Recognize that pushback gives you a chance to show the thought and planning that went into a decision. Give the reasons and strategy behind it. You can share the advantages you’ll gain and the challenges you’ll face with other choices or if you don’t make any decision at all.
- Take the opportunity to listen. Ask questions instead of doing all the talking. We often make faulty assumptions about what a concern might be if we spend more time talking than listening.
- Share how the school’s vision and goals tie into the decision. Tell them who wins and why.
- Explain the situation and ask for ideas. You might hear the perspectives and solutions you had not even considered. If nothing else, you will have shown the public what it is you have to work with so they can see what the challenges are.
- Communicate each step along the way. Articulate the why and answer questions.
Incorporate transparency in your school communications plan
Effective school communications is about building trusting relationships. It can’t be faked in the long run. It requires that you believe in the value transparency can bring to your school’s culture and your community. It means you need to value the importance of working collaboratively with staff, parents, students, and community members. It means you value such qualities as:
- Respect: Treat each person as an individual, and don’t make assumptions. Let others tell you their ideas without interruption.
- Listening: First, pay attention. Focus on what is being said, and maintain eye contact. Ask open-ended questions. Know when to be silent. Remember we have two ears and one mouth for a reason.
- Courtesy: Greet others with a smile or a “hello.” Say “please” and “thank you” and “you’re welcome” or my personal favorite, “my pleasure.” Express appreciation. Treat others with dignity by being thoughtful and receptive. Give others the benefit of the doubt (as we do to ourselves).
- Honesty: Be truthful while being considerate. Avoid absolute language like “never,” and “always” (they evoke defensiveness and lack credibility). Check your motives before criticizing. Get the facts before repeating rumors/gossip.
- Integrity: More than just being honest, it means consistently keeping promises, being trustworthy, and acting ethically. It is holding to your moral standards. It is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.
Take your community members and parents behind the scenes. Let them see these qualities at work in your planning, strategies, decisions, and solutions. Inviting them in and sharing valuable background information removes doubt and builds trust in your school and its leaders.
To create a simplified school communication strategy that incorporates transparency and school public relations, consider this simplified approach:
- Communication objectives: What communication goals do you want to achieve this school year (or maybe for just this one project)? Be specific and quantify those goals. (I want to establish a school social media presence of 1500 Facebook, 500 Instagram, and 500 Twitter followers. I want to incorporate transparency strategically.)
- Target audiences: Who are you trying to reach? What are their primary concerns? (There may be more than one target audience.)
- Desired action: What concrete action do you want your target audience to take? (Comment? Attend? Think you’re awesome? Understand a purpose or change? Become supportive? Donate? Respond to a survey?)
- Which platforms: List the platforms you intend to use. (Examples might be: website, social media, newsletter, local media coverage, signage, parent notifications, group meetings, e-mails, videos, etc.)
- Article topics or themes: What stories, examples, or information will support your goals and objectives? Be sure to include transparency as one of your article goals. (Articles, blogs, or posts for your website, social media, newsletters, local media, meetings, videos, etc.)
- Key recurring events: Does your school have annual recurring events or dates? How can these projects or campaigns support your school’s annual objectives? (Open house, back-to-school events, tax levy or bond override, kindergarten enrollment, school marketing, fundraising campaigns, etc.)
- Success measurements: How will you measure the success or progress of your school’s various projects or campaigns? (Facebook followers, newsletter sign-ups, blog subscribers, website analytics, enrollment numbers, parent volunteers, etc.) Set intermediary goals, end goals, deadlines, and metric goals for each project.
Incorporating transparency in your strategic communication’s plans is worth the effort and will pay off by building trust, strengthening your school brand, and marketing your school and its strengths. You will avoid more misunderstandings and quash rumors because your community, staff, and students will learn to trust that your school can be relied upon to keep them informed and included in the decision-making processes your school leaders make.
Start simple, if necessary, but don’t be afraid to share the motivating factors behind the choices and plans your school implements. Trust is something you want to earn every day.
Bonnie Leedy, CEO, School Webmasters, LLC.