Schools need to hit important objectives. They have to provide a quality education while caring for the well-being and safety of every student. Not only do they have to meet these goals, but they also have to do it under ever-increasing scrutiny. It’s not enough to teach and protect the children in your care: You need to manage the perception of how you’re handling the job.
Communication is about more than keeping parents informed of policy and curriculum changes, child progress, and potential emergencies. It’s about telling the story of your organization and the positive difference you make in the lives of your students. It’s about making parents feel confident in a culture that seems to lay out a never-ending buffet of things to worry about. More than ever, parents want to feel confident in the schools where their kids spend so much of their time.
But schools are not only institutions of learning: They’re also increasingly competitive businesses. With public schools, private schools, online schools, charter schools, and homeschools all vying for the attention of parents, using every potential tool and platform to communicate well is more critical than ever.
Let’s examine some of the communication tools schools have at their disposal by looking at their pros and cons, and finding the best ways to use them to keep parents and the public informed.
Communication Tool #1: Phones
One of the biggest phone debates raging today is whether or not smartphones should be allowed in the classroom. And while that’s definitely an important discussion to have, we’re going to look at when and how schools should be using this old communication standby.
The thing that’s made phones such an integral communication tool is that they’re so personal. When you have someone on the phone, you get to have a real-time back and forth conversation. And because you get to hear each other’s voice, it’s more difficult to misunderstand anyone’s tone. Having the ability to adapt your tone to the other person is one of the advantages of communicating by phone.
Another great thing about a phone call is that you know for certain that the person has received your message. This is one of the few methods of communication where you know exactly who’s been reached. On top of that, you can respond to questions and concerns which cut down on miscommunication considerably.
Phone calls take too much time. Your staff can’t afford to regularly contact the parents of every child by phone (other than by automated calls, but we’ll get to that later), and when you factor in kids who have more than one household to communicate with, it only increases the challenge.
While it’s good that you can cover an issue in its entirety over the phone, that only adds to the time-consuming nature of phone calls. The very thing that makes it such a strong communication tool is its downfall. Once you get someone on the phone, you lose a lot of control over the length of the conversation.
The nature of phones has changed over time. It used to be that everyone had a landline in their home and when you called, the chances for distraction were much slimmer. When you call a parent today, you have a better chance of catching them (they tend to pick up when they see a school calling), but you could be getting them on a noisy street, in a coffee shop, or at work.
This cuts down on the quality of communication immensely. This can make for brief, awkward conversations, especially if you’re trying to communicate critical information.
Messages this channel works best for:
Obviously, a phone works best for sensitive issues where you need to ensure that you reach a parent and that they understand what you’re trying to communicate. This might work best for students having behavioral issues or emergency situations with an individual student.
It can even be used to organize smaller groups of individuals: Chaperones for field trips and dances, organizers and participants for assemblies, PTA members, etc.
What about automated calls?
The ability to set up automated robo-calls that remind parents of early releases or teacher work days offer a more productive way to use the phone. It’s easy to set them up to call everyone, and it’s a fairly hassle-free system.
The drawback is that it takes away from a lot of the pros of the phone as a communication device, and turns it into another channel with many of the same positives and negatives associated with other platforms. It casts a wide, impersonal net, and you can never really know for sure who has received the information.
Communication Tool #2: Texts
Texting has become its own method of communication. In fact, 33 percent of American adults prefer texting to any other form of communication, and it’s the most common cell phone activity.
When it comes to communicating quick information, nothing beats a text. That’s probably why the number of texts sent have increased over 7,700 percent in the last decade. Why talk to someone when you can quickly send them a couple sentences?
It’s also incredibly easy to send out texts to any number of people in any configuration. You can set up text lists for a group of virtually any size. You can also take advantage of automated texting apps and services.
When it comes to creating mass texts lists, it can be a time-consuming endeavor with a lot of potential to accidentally exclude people.
There are also limitations to the number of characters that you can send in a text, so trying to communicate in-depth information can be a hassle. The more texts you need to send in order to communicate your intent, the higher the likelihood that it will be miscommunicated or misunderstood.
The great thing about sending texts is that it’s one of the most monitored communication channels there is. If you send a text, it’s going to be seen. Unfortunately, it’s also one that gets looked at while people are distracted by other things. People often read a text with just enough attention to get a sense of what’s being communicated, but not closely enough to process complicated information.
Messages this channel works best for:
Texts are perfect for communicating concise and timely information. For instance, if a school function is going to be affected by inclement weather, a mass text is probably the best way to communicate this information to all involved.
Communication Tool #3: Email
The average US adult has 1.8 email accounts, so it’s a pretty safe bet that most of the people you want to reach have an email address. Here are some of the pros and cons of this communication channel:
It’s incredibly easy to create emails and send them out to specially-curated lists. And unlike text lists, it’s a lot easier to create those special email lists. In fact, there are helpful tools like MailChimp, AWeber, and Constant Contact which can make emailing specific lists (or emailing in general) a whole lot easier.
It doesn’t hurt that emails can be as brief or as long as you want, which makes them suited for more detailed information. It’s also nice to have a history of your exchanges with people.
Emails have their drawbacks. It’s incredibly easy to delete an email without reading it, and people receive so many that they’re actively looking for ways to weed it out. If they feel like the email they’re receiving from you is unimportant, they’ll eventually tune you out.
It’s also easy for emails to get lost in unopened mail, or worse yet, sent to spam folders. Once you end up in someone’s spam folder, you’re probably there until they realize that they’re missing information from you or until they accidentally notice. This means that people could miss out on tons of critical communication—and they’ll blame you for it.
One of the biggest frustrations with email communication is that it’s hard to manage back-and-forth communication with groups. It’s an entirely different thing if you’re simply emailing one person and they want to respond with a question or two, but no school employee has time to exchange two or three emails with 50 people in an email group.
Messages this channel works best for:
This is always a good channel for contacting a single person, but it’s strong for mass communication as well. You just want to make sure that the emails you’re sending are helpful or pertinent so that people keep opening them.
Email can be a helpful tool for building confidence in your organization. Try sending out a monthly roundup to parents to let them know about the cool things that happened in the last month, and give them a heads up about upcoming events and dates they need to know about. You can also use it to tease out more detailed information with a link to the website or other destination.
Communication Tool #4: Social Media
Social media is one of the greatest opportunities available for an organization to communicate with a large group of people about who they are and what’s most important to them. While there are a lot of social media platforms we could talk about (Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.), we’re going to focus on Facebook. With 2.07 billion users, it seems like a strong place to focus our attention.
With 79 percent of Americans using Facebook, it’s a pretty important communication channel to get right. What organization wouldn’t want to get their messaging into a place where the people they want to communicate with spend so much of their time? I mean, the average smartphone user checks their Facebook feed 14 times a day!
Facebook is constantly working to make their platform a better tool for organizations to get their message out. Videos (particularly live videos) are given preference, and images also get a lot of attention and traction. This gives you a great opportunity to communicate with people in ways that other channels don’t offer.
Facebook events are a superb way to manage whatever’s happening at the school. People can add themselves to the event and invite others, and all the information given within the event is shared with everyone who’s invited.
The challenge that companies face with this platform is that Facebook wants them to pay to reach their audience. You might have a 1,000 people who follow your page, but if you’re not paying to boost your posts, you probably won’t reach more than 2 percent of them. While the cost for boosting posts is pretty low, most schools don’t have the kind of budget where they can afford to throw $20 at everything they post on Facebook—which means you have to be pretty strategic.
People are used to scrolling through their Facebook feed for information, but not necessarily with the intention of acting on anything. So if you’re expecting people to perform a certain action after reading your posts, you’re going to miss a lot of people who are casually scrolling and intend to respond later.
Everything you post leaves room for critics and trolls to make negative comments. It can take some work to manage those well. But if you have the right person in that position, it’s another way to build strong advocates.
Messages this channel works best for:
This is one of the best tools available for sharing stories and videos to help people connect with your mission and grow in their confidence in your school. While Facebook isn’t the best place to share a lot of detailed information, it’s perfect for helping people know and understand you better.
Communication Tool #5: Your Website
One of the first places people go for information is your website. It’s a central hub of communication. If you can keep it up to date, it’s one of the best ways to create a strong first impression.
The nice thing about a website is that you can include as much information as you want. It’s an ideal place to host a blog or create pages that give long-form looks into areas like your educational philosophy, curriculum, and safety protocols. It’s where people can learn more about your staff, calendar of events, or even your hot-lunch options.
You can put together a list of frequently asked questions (FAQs) that you can link to from other platforms like Facebook or in emails. This allows you to send folks to one definitive answer to the questions that you receive the most.
Your website can also host Parent Portal software that offers even greater access to the information that parents are looking for like:
- Student progress
- Daily activities
- Account balances
- Classroom assignments
Your website is a destination. So while it’s the perfect place to host information, it’s not the best place to disseminate time-bound information that everyone needs to know. On top of that, it’s not a great place for constantly-changing information. Sure, you can keep calendars updated and make occasional changes to other areas, but for the most part, a lot of this information is going to be static. This can be difficult if things change, but people aren’t on top of website updates.
Your website layout can mean the difference between having an amazing website and a terrible one. Even if you have the most well-written and informative website in the world, if people can’t find what they need, it’s a waste.
Messages this channel works best for:
It’s important to think of your website as a destination. Then ask yourself, why would people come here? Your website should cover all of those bases. This means that you’re going to want to cover all the day-to-day operations that might make someone hit up your website, but also discuss some of the finer details that someone might be trying to find out.
A lot of the content you create for the website can be used by other communication channels as a place for people to go who are interested in finding out more.
Communication Tool #6: A Mobile App
More and more schools are looking at mobile apps as the best communication tool available. It has many of the strengths seen in other options, but without as many of the weaknesses. Let’s look at some examples:
In the last few years, companies like Amazon, Starbucks, and Facebook have sunk a lot of money into getting people to download and use their apps. Why? Because apps are driving people’s use of mobile devices, and these organizations felt the need to get ahead of competitors there. So it’s no surprise that one third of all sales at Starbucks in the first quarter of 2017 were made through their app. The point is that people are becoming accustomed to the convenience and ease of using an app for most tasks.
For schools, an app allows you to share information with parents and students. You can customize your app with school news, texts and calls, Google forms, printed materials, calendars, emails, social media, class blogs, and notifications. You can even use push notifications to send messages to segments of parents who don’t even have their app open.
Not only can you share all that information through your app, but you can process payments quickly and easily so people can take care of tuition, sports equipment rentals, or dues for field trips or clubs.
Obviously, an app only works for parents with smartphones, but that group is growing all the time. In fact, right now 96 percent of adults aged 35–44 have smartphones and 97 percent of adults 25–34 carry one.
One of the biggest challenges for schools when adopting this communication tool is educating their student body. They need a plan to get parents to download and use it. Thankfully, a trustworthy company is going to offer you a demo to help you see how it works, and then help you with an adoption plan to get everyone on board.
Parents Are Counting on You for Timely Communications
What parents want in school communications is two-fold: They want to receive critical information as soon as possible, and they want to be able to easily find other information as it becomes necessary.
In an age when there are so many communications options available, it’s essential that you’re using them in the most advantageous ways possible.