Making the Case for Communications
Keeping up with changing technologies can be challenging, but in recent years many districts have found themselves facing similar challenges when it comes to keeping up with the changing trends and demands for communications. It seems that just as a district masters the best process to reach and engage its community, that method becomes outdated, requiring a shift in the tools, styles, and frequency of communications. How does a district stay ahead of these shifts in communication practices? Similarly, how does a district mainstream communication to avoid confusion, delays, or miscommunication on the topics that matter most to their community? And perhaps most importantly, in a social media world open to interpretation, how does a district tell its true story and narrate the school experience through a firsthand lens?
Each school year, the need for staff, family, and community communications increases exponentially, and with this comes the need for someone who can oversee and coordinate these communications. Welcome to the district’s communications manager.
What is a communications manager?
The definition can differ widely, but foundationally the communications manager controls the narrative, considers the bigger picture, and establishes district culture; in short, they are the voice of the district. In developing a district’s communication strategy - both internal and external - the communications manager ensures consistent style and branding, determines the best forms of outreach, creates content to convey information, and ensures that all of the district’s communications expectations are met.
Depending on the district, the communications manager may also handle the district’s public relations, sharing school or student-specific stories, acting as the media liaison, handling social media, running workshops, and sharing a wide range of daily updates. The communications manager's insider view of the district allows them to know what matters most and to then share this desired information with the community so they, too, feel in-the-know.
Why have a communications manager?
School districts that have strong communications programs and provide timely information to stakeholders are successful in building a sense of trust and community in their districts. Having someone in the schools who is trained in communication helps to ensure that the community gets clear answers and guidance on how to work with their schools.
Professional communications managers will develop and execute communication plans through print and electronic media, through face-to-face communication, and through relationships with the outside media. They have a cordial relationship with the press and can quickly provide local newspapers and websites with comprehensive and accurate information when asked. A professional communications person will share the positive news about student and staff achievements and programs and develop a coordinated proactive, rather than reactive, approach that anticipates problems before they develop. In the absence of positive communication from the school district, only the critics' voices will be heard.
However, although the many roles that fall under the communications manager enhance communications, both internally and with the community, most schools can’t afford to have specialists in each of these areas, and some of the overlapping areas can be neglected. So, it is important to find the right mix of roles that best benefits your district.
What is the value of communications?
With the array of graphics and video tools that are free or almost free for educators, anyone with an internet connection can create flyers and handouts, and most think they know how to create them effectively. However, this is a problem as they may not be in line with the story your district’s brand is telling. Even more concerning, these shared communications may not meet ADA compliance standards, putting a district at risk for litigation.
A communications person serves as the authority to be the checkpoint before these things are published, ensuring consistency across the district, becoming the gatekeeper of the brand, and putting tools into place that help to maintain and promote a consistency of style, voice, and professionalism. No matter how, when, or where a customer - your staff and community - experiences the brand, they will experience the same underlying traits.
It's this consistency across every touch-point that helps build a brand. All of these key elements can be outlined in a user-friendly Style Guide for the district to follow, leading to a more polished, better received message to the school and non-school community. How do you know? The communications manager will be able to track and assess the impact of the various communication touchpoints. Using analytics tools built into the software programs and applications combined with a tool such as Google Analytics, the communications manager can track the demographics and effect of information shared via social media, newsletters, and the website.
What is the cost of communications?
With the right person in place and a fully-integrated communications strategy, enhanced communications can reap multiple benefits for a district, including cost savings.
It may be that people are naturally assuming some of the communication manager roles in your district, but many school districts discover the need for a communications professional when there is a crisis, whether it involves bad news, a controversy in the district, a tragic incident in a school, or another sort of emergency. A communications manager quickly removes the cost of mis(sed) communications while also increasing the productivity of others who need to manage the crisis itself.
Districts need to weigh the cost of a communications manager compared to:
- incorrect or bad press
- a lack of relationship with reporters
- low trust
- inconsistency and lack of branding in voice and tone
- a decrease in responsiveness, timeliness, or accessibility
- ADA compliance litigation
- and more.
Effective communications that tell the stories of a district’s school(s) and provide information and responses in times of crisis are not only vital to a district’s relationship with its community, but priceless in value.
Why do some districts not have a communications manager?
With all of the benefits, it is hard to imagine why a district would not have a communications manager. However, many districts still grapple with the decision. For school districts in New Jersey, the most common reason for not having the position is a misinterpretation of the 2007 School District Accountability Act. Districts mistakenly believe that schools are not allowed to pay staff to be involved in school public relations.
The reality is that every school district can have a communications manager as long as public relations activities do not comprise more than 50 percent of the individual’s duties. Activities that go beyond those defined as public relations by the regulations can be included in the communications professional’s job description, and these possibilities are endless, ranging from website design and maintenance to overseeing policies and regulations to technology support.
But perhaps the biggest reason for not having a communications professional may be the underestimation of the benefits and overestimation of the costs. Underestimating the true value and benefits of the position combined with budgeting for an additional salaried employee can cause districts to shy away. But a true cost analysis quickly shows that the benefits far exceed the cost when the position is customized to the district’s size and needs. In short, you don’t know what you are missing until you need it.
What is the job description?
The role of the school communications manager is customizable. YOU get to define the role based on your district’s specific needs: responsibilities may include managing press inquiries, handling crisis communications, running the district website, supervising social media, designing newsletters, and strategizing referendum communications. Your communications manager is your expert on establishing the connection between school and community. Consider this when determining the qualifications. The ideal person must have certain skills that develop this relationship and possess an understanding of and support for the vision, mission, and core values of the district. And, in addition to the obvious communications skills, they should excel in social interaction, patience, and open-mindedness.
The one must-have characteristic for every school communications professional is trust. If a communications manager is expected to prepare a quick and effective response to a situation, it is imperative that they be fully aware of the situation that created the question. Bringing them into the situation too late can have truly negative repercussions.
Remember, this person is a school district’s brand ambassador: they receive information, they write the story, and they engage with those outside of the district walls in a way that your district wants to be viewed and seen. Select a person who talks the talk then walks the walk.
So, how exactly do we integrate a communications role?
Take a good look around! The necessary skill set may already exist within your district and a new stipended or part-time position could be the answer. Smaller districts might combine the role with other responsibilities, such as website management or technology support. A stipended or part-time individual can work with teachers and administrators to share photos, videos, and news updates. For larger districts, a full-time or a position combined with another part-time role could be the answer. There are many creative combinations that will result in communications that take on the importance and responsiveness needed to ensure the best possible outcome. However you choose to design the role, remember that trust is essential: the person in this role must be part of the leadership team.
Identify your decision makers, tapping the individuals who know your district best. These include the people who know what is being asked for or what is missing, and who understand what needs to be communicated, both legally and to meet expectations. Include those who understand what is involved in the process, create a BOE communications committee if one does not yet exist, and be sure to incorporate other front line individuals who hear the comments from the community. Through these individuals or groups, you will identify the key elements of the position.
Once the role is defined to best meet the needs of your district, the search is on and proactive, results-driven communications are just a person away.