Executive Director, National School Public Relations Association
We must be proactive to advance our education issues.
As educators, we are often our own worst enemies. Traditionally when a school reform effort is percolating, we say close to nothing to our external audiences or even our internal publics. We then create a vacuum that our critics quickly fill. They jump right in and brand our programs with their messages. We forever play catch-up when we should have been ahead of the game from Day One.
Our critics are proactive and we have to be, too. Doing nothing in communication is a sure-fire way to diminish or even kill a promising effort in today’s world of critics who use an arsenal of communication devices and strategies to tell their side of the story.
We must remember that when emotions and facts collide, emotions win just about every time.
This should be an easy rule for educators to remember because we deal with terrific and positive emotional situations every day. But we often slip into a bulleted-fact machine approach that shoots off rounds of facts that neither stick nor penetrate the minds of those we are trying to convince. We can boast about test scores, we can talk about the one-to-one iPad programs we have, but those facts won’t make much of a dent in the persuasion business. We must tell the story about little, non-English speaking Sophia who joined your system in the second grade and will be graduating this year with three scholarship offers to elite universities. And Sophia’s story automatically becomes a great example of Adequate Yearly Progress in your school district.
We must remember that if your house is on fire, tell everyone on the inside first.
In education, we do not do a very good job at internal communication. And yet, as one of our NSPRA members likes to say, communication programs without effective internal communication are built on quicksand.
Just think about the communication and support mechanism you could have if all of your employees were key communicators for your system!
Years ago while conducting a communication audit for a large county system, we asked a question about a new math program being phased into their elementary schools. Our first group of teachers, who were not yet involved in the program, said they heard that it was awful, a waste of time and money, and surely will be gone by the time their school was scheduled for implementation. Our second group of teachers who were already using the new math materials loved it, said their kids were achieving more, and noted that it was one of the best instructional approaches they had ever used. In that same system, we had at least two different perceptions, and a definite need for stronger internal communication. Educators must respect the power of internal communication as the lifeblood of their systems.
Communication is a contact sport, and it is always good to listen and talk with your contacts.
Technology helps but there is no truly effective replacement for face-to-face communication. Communication research has told us for many years that the more personal we can make our communication, the more effective it will be.
Listening is also a major component when talking to parents, community leaders, and others about our education programs. In our work, external and even some internal groups tell us that education leaders do not really listen but use purported engagement efforts as window dressing to help them make their predetermined decisions. The most effective communication efforts in education build relationships and trust through authentic and personal communication efforts.
To build support, remember that an invitation to everyone is an invitation to no one.
Think about all the invitations educators send to parents and others during the course of a school year. Many of these fall into the category of a “You All Come, Now” approach to a parent meeting, open house, or special event. And then we are disappointed that our turnout was only a small fraction of what we expected.
You can change this by making your invitations as personal as they can be.
Instead of “Dear Parent or Guardian” or “To All Parents/Guardians/Family Members,” consider using your database to directly name the parents and guardians and even name the students in the invitation. Perhaps your principal can directly sign a number of the invitations.
Your superintendent can do the same with a handwritten note for a staff task force meeting for your district. Using today’s technology, send messages to them through email, text messages, and applications for their smart phones. Handwritten notes or telephone messages from students also increase greater attendance at school meetings.
All this extra work to personalize invitations is indeed more work. But it pays off because stronger home and school links lead to greater achievement in your schools.
The views expressed on this site are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pearson Foundation.
Rich Bagin, APR is executive director of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA), a nonprofit organization that aims at building more support for K12 education. NSPRA is a professional membership association comprised of various levels of school leaders—superintendents, school communication professionals, principals, school board members and others charged with improving communication for their systems.