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Balanced Communications: Work Your Plan Strategically

We’ve all been there. We’ve hit information overload and – even when the information is important – we stop reading. If it’s happening to us, as professionals in the field, imagine how our families and the greater community feel. How do we meet the challenge of getting the right information to the right people at the right time?


First, let’s look at a fundamental question: Are people really getting too much information? Surprisingly, a survey conducted by the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) found that approximately 64% of parents say they’re receiving the right amount of information from their district staff, compared to 61% of school communicators who believe the same of parents. Communication results for staff are more dramatic.


SOURCE: What Really Causes Information Overload? NSPRA, 11/15/23

The survey also found that 49% of school communicators believe they are sending the right amount of information to staff, compared to 66% of staff who believe they are getting the right amount of information.

 

SOURCE: What Really Causes Information Overload? NSPRA, 11/15/23

If anecdotally, we hear from parents and staff who feel overwhelmed by a wave of information, despite survey results to the contrary, what’s the disconnect?

 

While the information received is fundamentally adequate, how it’s delivered might leave something to be desired. The key, then, doesn’t seem to be the amount of information received, but rather how information is being communicated.

 

Effective communication is the backbone of any successful educational institution. It fosters collaboration, transparency, and community engagement. However, achieving a balanced approach to school communications requires careful consideration of various factors, including the needs of different stakeholders, the use of diverse communication channels, and the tone and frequency of messages.

 

Know Your Audience

Do you know your targeted audience’s preferred method of communication? When was the last time you surveyed them to learn about their preferences? Do you even know who your targeted audience is or which messages are appropriate for each group? A message to the chamber of commerce or a senior center is likely to be different from one to a family with young children.

 

Your first step is to determine your target audience. One way to break down your communication is by demographics and milestones:

  • Birth to Pre-K

  • PreK and Kindergarten

  • Elementary (or broken down further if your district applies)

  • Middle School

  • High School

  • District-wide communications

Additionally, the diverse stakeholders schools communicate to - parents, students, teachers, administrators, and their communities - call for different messages. Tailoring messages to each group's specific needs and preferences ensures that information is relevant and well-received.


 

Using Data to Understand Families


Attracting and retaining resident families starts with understanding them. One way to get to the heart of who they are is to take advantage of existing demographics. The Minnesota Early Childhood Longitudinal Data System (ECLDS) website provides census data and information collated by the U.S. Department of Education and The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to provide important information about families and children's knowledge, skills, and development from birth through elementary school. 


In Minnesota, users have access to a host of information and free help in navigating the data system via a Regional Coaching Network that includes Resource Training and Solutions, one of nine service cooperatives in the state. These coaches can help districts narrow their searches to get the most relevant information for their district. 


Amanda Lamecker, Resource Training and Solutions ECLDS Regional Coach shared some of the insights users can glean from effective use of the database. “Districts can use the data compiled as a starting point for learning about the best way to communicate with families, from the educational level of children’s mothers to language spoken in the home. Lamecker noted the data can be an effective means for attracting and retaining resident families, “using the information available through ECLDS, districts can determine the best way to reach out to targeted families in the way they need to see it.”



Maintain Balance with a Communications Plans

What you say, how you say it, and how often can be a balancing act. Developing a communications plan can help guide individual communications by helping you see the big picture. A smart move before developing a communications plan is to conduct a communications audit to determine what you’re doing now, so you can better evaluate what to do in the future.

 

Jeff Dehler, President of DehlerPR, a public relations firm that focuses on public sector clients, believes communication audits are key to a successful communications plan. “Before communicating, always start with research. Without it you are just guessing about who your audiences are and how your messages will land. An audit of your communications helps determine the extent that audiences are understanding your messages and recommends ways to improve within your budget.


A good balance of communications means you have a variety of topics you convey to your audiences, knowing that the type and frequency can vary, depending on whom you’re targeting, be it via a school-based newsletter or a community-wide publication. In the mix might be any combination of topics and may include items such as the following:

  • Student achievement

  • Financial management

  • Facility management

  • School board goals

  • Upcoming events/reporting on events

  • Recruitment and retention

Providing some variety – that is focused and ties in with your communication plan – helps prevent information fatigue and keeps them interested.

 

Balance also means being mindful of frequency. Establish a regular schedule for communicating and save special outreach tactics for truly special events or occurrences – school closings or incidents that need immediate attention.

 

Maintain Transparency:

Perhaps most importantly, focus on transparency to build trust within your school community. Open and honest communication about school policies, decisions, and financial matters will foster trust and feelings of inclusion and involvement within your community.

 

In-person communications can be the best vehicle for getting your message out – host town hall Q&A sessions and stream them for individuals who cannot attend, be present at school events, and visit community meetings. A transparent approach not only builds trust, it also helps to manage expectations and minimize misunderstandings.

 

Striking the Right Balance

A balanced approach to school communications is fundamental for fostering a positive and collaborative school community. By understanding the diverse needs of stakeholders, utilizing various communication channels, maintaining transparency, minding the tone, and balancing the frequency of messages, educational institutions can create an environment where everyone feels informed, involved, and valued. Effective communication not only strengthens relationships within the school community but also contributes to the overall success and well-being of students and staff alike.


 

User-Friendly Websites

One of the most useful tools for recruiting and retaining resident students and families can be your school’s website. Making registration pages clear, concise, and informative can make a difference between parents who feels the district is transparent and cares about their children and parents who are frustrated at the lack of information and clarity of individual pages. So, what makes a good page? DehlerPR Account Manager, Jayne Helgevold, recently reviewed nearly two dozen Minnesota Kindergarten registration pages and shares her insights.

 

Pain Points

Helgevold noted that on a number of district sites it was difficult, if not nearly impossible, to find the registration pages. “Sometimes I needed to use the search tool – and know the correct search topic – to locate the information. Often once I did find the page, all it contained was a hyperlink to a pdf of a registration form. As a parent, I’d want districts to show they care enough about me and my student to make the information easily accessible from the home page and provide enough information for me to make informed decisions on behalf of my child.”

 

What Makes a Good Site

Easy access, clear directions, and helpful information were among the top needs Helgevold identified. “If I can’t even find the page, that’s a red flagIt can be misconstrued that the district has something to hide.” Clear and timely information were also plusses. “Show me what I need to do and when I need to do it,” noted Helgevold, “and I’ll be able to respond in kind.”

 

Finally, going above the bare minimum to provide insights on how students will spend their day was fingered as the cherry on top. “If I can envision my kid in her classroom with her teachers and other students, I’m already committed to a certain degree to signing her up for classes,” added Helgevold. While getting families into the school to experience it is the best, video or even simple photos of teachers in their classroom and kids participating in activities can be a great start to helping families feel like they belong – and getting them to enroll in your school.


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