No other industry would even consider asking their technology department to manage their communications, public relations, or marketing strategies. These two areas of expertise require radically different skillsets. It would be like asking a prima ballerina to conduct brain surgery. Both are experts in their fields, but their fields are vastly different. But public schools do it all the time. So, how did this come about?
Back in the early days of the Internet, IT departments in schools had their own servers, and they often designed the website themselves, updated the school website content using HTML, and managed the hosting servers, which were often sitting right on a rack in their IT office. So, in those days, it made sense to have the school websites under the purview of the IT department. But that was then, and this is now.
As the Internet and online technology exploded, it became more and more complex, which also meant it became riskier to manage. There were security breaches, ransomware attacks, hacking, spamming, DDOS attacks, and scamming on a daily basis. Maintaining the in-house server was becoming a fulltime job or several full-time positions. That is when schools started outsourcing the actual school website design, development, and hosting to companies that specialized in just that to take advantage of economies of scale.
Matching staff skillsets with school goals
However, when the technology evolved, schools often failed to leverage the rest of the website responsibilities to their communications folks (mainly because a majority of schools don’t even have a communications staff). So, they ended up keeping the school website management in the IT department. Here’s why that is a terrible idea.
- The school website is NOT a technology project. In concert with social media, it is a school’s primary communications resource. Those who manage it must have the skillsets in communications, public relations, marketing, and school customer service. After reading a few of the skillsets we’ve listed below, ask yourself if your IT experts possess such skills:
- Coordinating consistent, effective, and goal oriented public relations messaging that coincide with the school mission and goals.
- Creating friendly, informative content with an inviting tone of voice that is grammatically accurate and typo free. Schools can’t afford to set a bad example. After all, you are educators.
- Telling your school’s stories to highlight your successes and goals engages your audience. That means writing people-focused stories that parents and community can relate to and be proud of.
- Building relationships with the local media so that your community becomes supportive and engaged. You need advocates and willing taxpayers.
- Enforcing ADA compliant updates, which means every item added to the website whether it is a photo, text, document, or video must be ADA compliant. Anyone adding content needs to understand what is required to maintain compliance.
- Managing any website software means ongoing training for staff members who add content. Anyone who touches the website needs to understand the school’s annual communication goals, what goes into ADA website compliance (from color contrast to ALT text), copyright legalities (like image copyright infringement), and marketing strategies. To tackle these goals, in addition to the never ending requirements of maintaining classroom technology, hardware, computers, electronics, and much more can quickly overwhelm any IT department. Providing such training to every newly hired staff member, in areas outside of their expertise, is an unreasonable request. No business would even consider such a crossover of duties.
- Managing servers so that they are secure, which includes dealing with daily issues like hacking, ransomware, server hardening, firewalls, and upgrades. It has all become so complex that even the most experienced server engineers have their hands full. School’s typically can’t afford such staff positions, and the risks put on the school technology folks is simply untenable.
Trending: IT departments leverage communications duties
In the past three years, we’ve seen a marked increase in requests from school IT directors who are looking to outsource their school website management chores. Busy IT departments recognize the dissidence created when tying a communications effort to the primary responsibilities of their technology staff.
IT directors tell us they don’t want to be blamed for typos or grammar mistakes (and they simply don’t have the time or skills to proof and edit submissions to the website). They don’t have the time to reach out to school staff and gather information, events, and stories that are required to keep the websites current and engaging, so the sites get stagnant and out of date.
IT personnel are seldom in a position of authority to demand from school principals or other staff that they keep their school sites current, even though the superintendent or governing board might hold them accountable for complaints from parents about out of date or inaccurate information posted on the website. Their focus is on keeping everything up and running, and they are often not involved in communications or marketing strategies that the administration must incorporate. They are often held responsible for outcomes they simply don’t care much about due to their core responsibilities and expertise.
In any other sector, whether a small business or corporate conglomerate, technology staff are not trained in communications or public relations (nor are they expected to be). But it is the area of communications, marketing, and even customer service that is the very purpose of a school website (or any website for that matter). Check the course requirements of a degree in computer information systems (CIS) or masters of science in engineering (MSE) versus a BA or MA in communications to see what we mean. Very different focus.
What’s a school to do?
For those larger school districts with a communications department, this simply means transferring website decisions, strategy, and management to that department (where it belongs). Where once the IT department selected a school website provider and software, this decision should now fall to the communication team. But for smaller schools or those whose budgets cannot support a communications department or individual, the trend is to seek an affordable solution but still remove this albatross from around the necks of their overwhelmed technology department.
There are basically two possibilities for the smaller, mid size, or budget strapped schools.
DIY school communications
One is to keep it in-house but to assign the duties related to communications (website and social media management) to others who show an interest in communications, public relations, and marketing. The choices will depend entirely on your staff. In a small school, it might be the school secretary, an assistant principal, or a teacher with a minor in communications. They must understand the value of your school communication strategy and the impact it has on your overall school’s success. The more impassioned they are about this role, the better job they will do.
They also need to be recognized as part of the administrative team whenever decisions about annual school goals, mission, your school’s reputation, improving communications, increasing enrollment, or passing a tax levy or override are involved. If you are looking to rebrand your school or engage more parents, involve your communications liaison (and expect to pay them for their work).
Charge this communications role with incorporating all communications efforts (to include website updates, social media efforts, and media relations) with the administrative goals. If you expect to see success, you must include them. They might also be responsible for training staff on the use of whichever school content management system your school selects as well as for ADA website compliance. They are often responsible for quality control issues and periodic reviews to make sure your website(s) stay current, accurate, and compliant. If your school is suffering from declining enrollment due to competition from other schools or online learning, your communications liaison must be involved to implement marketing strategies to compete, attract, or retain students.
For some tips on how to make all of this happen, feel free to download some of our eBooks on the topics of school marketing, effective school website management, school customer service, school public relations, or social media in schools. If school marketing is a primary goal, check out our 50 weeks of school marketing toolkit/calendar to help them get a running start. While they can’t implement everything at once, you can determine the most critical areas and have them begin there. Create a school communication plan, and be sure everyone involved is aware of the school’s goals for the year and that your plan’s tasks support those goals every step of the way.
Get the help you need!
The other option involves learning about how we can help your school have the best of both worlds. Our school website management includes:
- Designing your website (according to your wishes), writing the website content, creating intuitive navigation, consulting with you about the best school websites (what to do and what to avoid), taking your school site live, and managing top tier website hosting.
- Managing all website updates from your staff, proofing and editing as needed, making sure updates are ADA compliant, making recommendations to keep your school websites engaging and informative, and even sending out reminders to encourage your staff to keep sending in that information your parents expect to find on the site. (We call this last step nagging, but we do it very nicely.) If you have a communications person, we become his or her staff and manage all the grunt work so they can focus on strategy.
- We provide ongoing quality control so your sites will stay attractive and professional. Our staff follows the Chicago Manual of Style guide so your school maintains its stellar reputation.
- We can even manage your school social media to integrate the messaging there with the news and events on the website.
- We can also provide you with onsite public relations support (if that is what you need) to implement the strategy normally only available to larger schools. We hire from within your community (a part-time position), and we train, guide, and assist them so that you get the efforts of a communications team for ¼ of the price.
Whichever method you choose, implement it. If you are one of the schools who is still putting your school communications efforts in the hands of your IT department, we beg you to rethink this strategy. It isn’t fair to IT, and it isn’t fair to your customers (parents, students, taxpayers, or staff). Take a tip from the business sector. Put the right skillsets to work in the right areas, and you’ll see improved communications (and more supportive, engaged advocates), find your funds are better utilized, and maybe enjoy the status as a school of choice with higher enrollment. After all, that is what effective communications are all about, and your website and social media is the most effective resource you’ve got. Put it to work for your school.
Bonnie Leedy, CEO