How to Craft a School Communications Plan
October 12, 2017 |
School administrators must possess a number of strengths. They need to have vision, they need to know how to delegate, and they need to be good at motivating others, just to name a few. But none of these skills are nearly as important as communication.
A school has a lot of information that needs to be conveyed in a timely fashion to a variety of groups, including teachers, office staff, students, and parents. And many school problems can be traced directly back to whether information was communicated and how it was shared.
Good communication affects every facet of an educational institution. As adults interact more effectively, students thrive. And improved communication increases parental involvement, which also impacts student achievement. Lastly, better discourse creates a culture of trust among faculty, which fosters a team atmosphere that’s more supportive to students in the long run.
Sharing information clearly and effectively nurtures important relationships, and ultimately gives you the influence you need when you must build support for new curriculum, standards, or educational reforms.
As we’ll show you, this includes identifying what you’re currently doing well, where your trouble spots are, and where your biggest opportunities for improvement lie. After that, you’ll examine your communication channels to identify the best ones for which jobs. Lastly, we’ll look at the kinds of interactions you send, and how you can streamline the process.
Good Communication Is Strategic and Intentional
Effective communication doesn’t happen by accident. It’s thoughtfully planned and is the result of intentional, everyday behaviors. It starts with imagining the ideal organizational structure and working backward from there to place the channels required to create and maintain that framework.
The communication goals you set should be unique to your district or school, aligned with your objectives, and focused on your unique strategic initiatives.
Identifying strengths, problems, and opportunities
To begin with the end in mind, you need to ask yourself some critical questions:
What experience do you want parents to have with your school?
Imagine the average parent’s daily touchpoints with your school, staff, teachers, and administration. What impression do you want them to get from the conversations they have, the mail they receive, and the information they’re given in a crisis situation?
- What are some obstacles to improving communication with parents?
Now that you’ve highlighted the ideal experience you want parents to have, you need to identify some of the barriers in your way. Where does communication fall through the cracks? What are some communication issues that parents, teachers, or staff have raised in the past?
How do we want to come across?
Understanding what experience you want parents to have with your school can help you identify the kind of impression and “voice” you have with parents. When you avoid wrestling with this question, communication can come across as aloof, clinical, and even terse.
What kinds of confusion have arisen from poor communication in the past?
This is the kind of question shouldn’t be answered in a vacuum. Solicit as much feedback as you can. Your office staff and teachers probably all have good examples of confusion that has ensued from poorly transmitted information. Identifying specific, real-life examples can help you create strategic processes.
What is our current process for communications?
Walk yourself through a couple of communication scenarios: If lice were discovered in a classroom, what route would that information take in order to get to parents? If a teacher workday was planned, how would parents learn that there was no school that day? Would one method of communication be enough? If there was a hazardous material spill and you needed to evacuate the school, how would the media and parents find out?
As you consider how information would make its way to parents in a typical situation, you can ask yourself some key questions:
Is there anywhere we need to “trim the fat” in our communication?
Are there permissions or approvals that are preventing the information from being shared in a timely fashion?
How is communication crafted?
If various kinds of information come from a variety of channels (e.g., administration, office staff, or teachers), it can create communications that vary wildly in tone and language.
What channels are most effective for various kinds of communications?
Knowing what channels to use is half the battle. If you wanted to alert parents that lice had been discovered at the school, and they need to check their children, you wouldn’t want to simply bury a notice on the school’s website.
How can we keep information to a minimum?
Information fatigue is one of the biggest problems that organizations run into when they’re trying to improve their communication. Overwhelming people with too many announcements can have the same effect as not giving people enough information. Eventually they tune it out and miss critical information.
Where are we already excelling in our communication?
Chances are that some area of the organization is communicating really well. It could be that administration communicates well with the staff—or maybe the teachers communicate well with parents. Identifying your communication strengths can assist you in strengthening other departmental communications.
Identifying available communication channels
Technology has dramatically expanded the channels available to communicate effectively, and schools need to keep up with the constantly evolving informational landscape. If you want to craft a working school communication plan, you need to know what channels you have at your disposal and how to use them in a way your intended audience prefers.
These channels should include:
- Direct mail. This is one of the age-old standbys for school communication. It still has some value, especially with communication that you want parents to hold onto: calendars, flyers, and programs. If it’s used too often or poorly, it quickly becomes an expensive and wasteful method of communication.
- Telephone. The telephone is still one of the most effective forms of communication. But it’s time consuming, invasive, and really should be reserved for communication regarding individual children or when responding to direct questions from parents.
School website. This is the ideal location for static information like schedules (and upcoming schedule changes), frequently asked questions, lunch menus, what to do in case of an emergency, and other important school information. It also can be an information portal that other communication channels link back to.
Your website can also double as location that takes care of your e-commerce needs. This is where you can take payments for tuition, uniforms, field trips, or any other areas requiring payment.
Email. Email has replaced direct mail as the way most parents prefer to receive information from a school administration. Email allows you to draft information of all kinds and maintain a one-on-one, intimate feel.
Perfect for announcements, reminders, registration, and newsletters, email is ideal because it can link elsewhere (like your website) for more detailed information.
- Text notifications. The ability to alert parents to critical, time-sensitive information makes text messaging one of the most important tools you have in your communication arsenal. But the key to its effectiveness lies in using it sparingly.
- Blog. Featuring a blog on your website can be a fantastic way to engage parents. With a blog, you can present shareable information—whether time-sensitive or long-lasting—in the exact tone you intend. If you need to build consensus for upcoming changes, a blog lets you craft the message and argument in just the right way.A blog is also an effective way to champion programs, share testimonies and stories that can build confidence in the organization, and introduce parents to school staff.
Social media. One of the biggest pros of social media is the number of people who use it. A 2016 Pew Research report identified the percentage of Americans that used various social platforms. To get the most out of these channels, someone on your staff needs to invest the effort to learn how they work best. They broke down this way:
- Facebook: 79%
- Instagram: 32%
- Pinterest: 31%
- Twitter: 24%
- Your mobile app. Many schools are taking communication into their own hands with their own mobile apps. Your mobile app becomes a hub for many of these other communication channels, allowing you to pull in your blog, take payments, connect to social media, and access the school’s website. It’s also a powerful way to share things like calendars, newsletters, and directories.
One of the most valuable aspects of a mobile app is the ability to send push notifications alerting users to specific needs and information.
Identifying Types of Communication
In order to plan your communications effectively, you’ll need to have a firm handle on the sorts of messages you’ll be sending.
Typically, these messages will fall into one of four categories:
- Emergency/crisis communication
- Internal communication
- Parental engagement
- Media and community relations
By thinking through each of these broader communications, you can better recognize and craft individual communication that builds and improves upon your school’s brand.
Communicating efficiently during an emergency situation is a school’s utmost priority. Whether it’s a lockdown, cancellation, weather alert, or any of the other issues that can crop up, parents and media are counting on you to communicate clearly, effectively, and immediately.
- Furnishing accurate information on the crisis or emergency
- Maintaining confidential student and staff information
- Notifying parents and guardians
- Coordinating with appropriate local services like law enforcement or emergency services
- Implementing school emergency plans
Successful emergency communication relies on preparation. You can’t count on your school to respond effectively in a high-stakes, time-sensitive situation if you’ve never run through potential scenarios.
Creating a detailed checklist for emergency situations can prepare your organization to nail the basics. This checklist should run through the following items:
- Collecting important factual information
- Contacting law enforcement
- Contacting appropriate school officials and board members
- Notifying school employees
- Contacting student families
- Providing current and appropriate media updates
Making sure internal communication is working well is a major key to improving your school’s culture. If you want your staff to internalize and manifest your goals, values, and practices, you need to focus on how you communicate just as much as what you communicate.
Here are some questions that can help you create better internal communication:
Are we happy with our communication plan?
It’s easy to randomly toss out information when the need arises and never really think about your ultimate goal. You need to ask yourself:
- Where does our internal communication need improvement?
- What needs to change for us to meet our goals?
- Are we using the best tools?
The biggest internal communication struggle that many schools face is reliance on less ideal forms of communication. Maybe it’s time to look at methods that can reduce some of the friction. Maybe that’s using a software solution like Slack or text messages when appropriate.
Are we using and communicating the right metrics?
Every employee in any job needs to know what metrics have the biggest impact on meeting their organization’s goals. School staff are no different. Not only do staff members need to know and understand those metrics, but they need regular updates on their personal performance.
Is it easy for staff to provide feedback and ideas?
Communication is a two-way street. It’s not enough to have channels that deliver information to your team. Your team also needs to feel like they can communicate successfully with you.
- Are we inspiring and informing our staff with industry trends and insights?
It’s inspiring to hear about other teachers, staff, and administrators who have found interesting fixes and workarounds for common problems. Your team isn’t an island, they’re part of a greater industry of educators. Strong internal communication should allow staff to share the inspiring stories, news, articles, and testimonies they discover.
Do we use internal channels to recognize and praise success?
There isn’t much that provides higher levels of satisfaction and motivation than affirmation. When praise is public, it’s even more encouraging. Finding ways to use your internal channels to reward performance and success will have a profound effect on your school’s productivity.
A 2011 National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) survey addressed the communication preferences of parents. It’s an interesting read for administrators who want an understanding of what kind of communication parents desire from their child’s school.
The communication that was prioritized highest parents and guardians included:
- Updates on their child’s progress
- Timely notices when their child’s progress is slipping
- Information about what their child is learning
- Homework and grading policies
Apart from teacher-specific communication, there are a number of other interactions that staff will need to have with parents including:
- Announcements about changes
- Notifications about tuition/payments
- Event updates
- Fundraising communications
Identifying who is responsible for different kinds of parental communication, how they will be prepared, and who has to give final approval on outgoing communications can greatly improve the speed, efficiency, and overall productivity of parent communication.
Media and community relations
Dealing with the media and community through news releases should really have its own section. This isn’t an area that many administrators feel equipped to deal with, and the right information could stop you from making some pretty standard missteps.
In lieu of a complete manual for media and community communication, here are some tips to get you headed in the right direction.
If you want to share a news release or public-interest story, you’re going to need to know how to build an effective media relations strategy. It’s important to have a conversation about who will be the school’s mouthpiece. Maybe it’s the principal for most things and the superintendent for more sensitive matters. This should be decided ahead of time.
Here are a few basic media relation tips:
Keep a list of the appropriate contacts:
As you read your local newspaper or watch local news, identify what kind of beats are covered by different personalities. If you have a story that has a real community element to it, reach out to the reporter who tends to cover community events and local-interest stories.
- Contact media professionals directly:
The reason you want to build a media contact list is that you want to contact these individuals directly. If you have a story that seems appropriate, it’s likely going to fall through the cracks if you try and pitch it to their gatekeepers.
If you find a reporter who seems to cover a beat that intersects with future stories about the school, find out what you can about them. Google their names and see if you can find an email address, phone number, or social media account. Don’t worry about being invasive. They want to be contacted with story ideas.
Find a connection to local stories:
Reporters are constantly looking for new stories. When you see a cycle of stories that reveals a reporter’s interests, look for ways to follow up with your own angle. For instance, if you see a news story about local literacy, pitch a follow up on your school’s summer reading programs or nightly ESL classes held on your campus.
How Will Content Be Created?
There’s a lot of communication content that needs to be generated over the course of the year. Having an idea of which departments or people are responsible for each type can keep the school’s voice consistent. This means having an idea how content gets created, proofed, and approved.
Creating a workflow that makes sense is a must. This will ensure that communications are professional and error free. For all content created there needs to be a clear understanding of….
- Who will create it
- Who will edit it
- Who will give the final sign off
For this workflow to make sense, it has to be fairly streamlined. If there are too many people involved, communications won’t go out in a timely fashion, and things start slipping through the cracks. Ideally, you want just enough oversight to guarantee quality content, but not enough to gum up the works.
Create a Repeatable, Teachable Communication Strategy
All it takes to fashion a workable communication solution is time to step back from the fray and ask yourself: “How can we do this better?” Don’t be afraid to overhaul your current system, and make adjustments as you go. The more input you can gather from other key players, the better!
Once you have a working strategy, you can present it to your team. You’ll probably find that the difficulty isn’t in putting a plan together; it’s in sticking with the plan until it becomes second nature for everyone involved. So, make sure your leadership is completely on board with the new plan and consistently expresses its importance, and your communication will improve in no time.