During this unprecedented time, school leaders have wrestled with a whole host of communication decisions. From meal and device pickups to at-home learning plans and socio-emotional supports, the tidbits add up. That means, for your families and employees, the deluge of information can feel overwhelming.
It’s a good idea for school leaders to take a step back to understand how all of the messages fit into the larger picture of what your district is trying to accomplish during this stressful time. Some districts are now weeks into the journey while others have only just begun. No matter where you are, pause, breathe and think: When the history of your district is written of this era, will the story be clear, concise, compelling and cogent?
To be clear, this isn’t spin; but it is PR.
This is an important distinction, as public relations is defined as “the management function that establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and the publics on whom its success or failure depends” (EPR 11th, p. 5). During a time of crisis, the emphasis is on the phrase “or failure depends.” That is quite the reverse focus of the stories districts framed before this all began.
You already know that the decisions of the district have far-reaching implications beyond those who are directly affected by them. The National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) offers this valuable advice on managing crisis: “the way you manage a crisis can cause you even more lasting harm to your reputation than the crisis itself” (2013). It is wise counsel even today, as the goal of an effective public relations program is to establish trust and credibility with stakeholders. In this case, the term stakeholder extends far beyond just families and employees; it also includes the media.
Daily, there seems to be something new to communicate. Challenge yourself (and your communications professional) to see each element as more than just a tweet or automated phone call. These messages, regardless of the platform, must tie into the larger story which your district is trying to communicate during this time. This calls for a strategic approach to communication, but what does that really mean?
It starts with goal-setting, as in a strategic plan. In this case, what do you want your families, employees and the local media to take away from your district’s communication strategy? Perhaps you want them to have access to frequent updates, maybe you want the updates to be consistent, or you could want them to see the culture of care teachers are establishing in a virtual setting. The answer to your overarching goal for communication should be thread through each message you send. Communicate those messages through that lens to reinforce the values of your district during this time.
Understand that each group of stakeholders has different needs and may need to receive that information through different channels to increase effectiveness. Don’t let this overwhelm you.
During this time, districts can use all the help they can get. Done correctly, stakeholders will help amplify your message to those your district cannot reach. How your district communicates will shape the narrative about the response to this crisis.
Lesley Bruinton, APR, is the public relations coordinator of Tuscaloosa City (Ala.) Schools, and president-elect of NSPRA’s executive board. You can reach her at email@example.com.
Broom, G. M., & Sha, B-L (2013). Cutlip and Center’s Effective Public Relations (11th or current edition). Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Education.
Communication E-Kit for Superintendents PDF. (2013). Rockville, MD.: National School Public Relations Association