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Strategic Communication Planning - It's About Trust

Strategic communication is about more than just getting the message out to your audiences; it’s getting a message to your audiences that aligns with your school’s goals and objectives. It’s about determining the best way to reach out to targeted audiences to maximize effect, be it to educate, communicate, or motivate. Strategic communication planning isn’t as concerned with the tactics as it is ensuring your messages are on point and focused.


While, ideally, early summer is the best time to gear up for a strategic communications plan, anytime you can get started gets you closer to more effective storytelling within your district. But how do you get started?


Communications Audit - A Look Back to Look Forward

Just like any journey, it’s hard to gauge if you’re going in the right direction if you don’t know where you are in the present. Communications audits do just that. 


A communications audit inventories and evaluates current communications vehicles, including type and consistency of messages, delivery methods and relevance compared to industry standards. A good audit also searches out information about attitudes, perceptions, and the effectiveness of the organization and its current communication efforts, and it offers recommendations to expand or enhance the overall community relations program. The audit also provides a benchmark for measuring progress in the future.

Planning Ahead

Once you’ve completed your audit and know where you stand with your community and communications tools, it’s time to plan ahead. Your communications plan should include: 

  • Goals and strategies, based on your strategic plan and initiatives. This can include board and administrative goals for the coming year and how you plan to implement them.

  • Audiences, including families, staff, and the community at-large and provide a balanced approach for communicating for each group

  • Measurable objectives, messages and tactics by audience

  • Determining how to complete tasks by using existing resources you have at hand, as well as to determine additional resources and services that may be needed 

A word of caution: It can be easy to lose sight of where you need to move with your strategic communications plan. Bringing in an outside perspective, such as a communication consultant can provide insights on any blind spots your leadership has when developing its plan.


Building a Trusting Presence

The underlying goal for strategic communications is building trust. Cultivating a trusting relationship with your community helps everyone to focus on the same objectives and move in the same direction. Cultivating relationships provides a solid foundation on which to flesh out and implement all elements of your district’s goals and initiatives as identified in your strategic plan, such as explaining budgetary decisions, school finance, teaching and learning, or other district priorities.


“Building trust with your audiences is imperative,” says Jeff Dehler, president and founder of DehlerPR. “For schools, the benefits of a trusting community are innumerable. They include support for a referendum, creating internship programs with local businesses, funds for scoreboards, and even a track for quality school board candidates.”


Remember, too, that communication is a two-way street. Ensure there are avenues for the community to provide feedback and experiences with you and your leadership. Hearing what your stakeholders have to say and responding in an appropriate way is foundational to assuring a strong framework of trust.

The following case study describes the year-long process for developing and implementing a strategic communications plan in a Minnesota school district.


Case Study: Royalton Public Schools’ Collaborative Approach to Strategic Communications


When the Royalton Public School District, located about an hour and a half northwest of Minneapolis, began working on its strategic plan two years ago, it didn’t take long to realize that strategic communication is vital to the success of the plan. With that in mind, the school board and Superintendent Kristine Wehrkamp got to work on making communication a top priority.  “The board knew during the first year of developing our new strategic plan that we needed to take a look at how we communicate internally and with families and the community,” reflected Wehrkamp.


The superintendent assembled a Strategic Communications Plan committee of board members, parents, students, and staff to provide a comprehensive look at what the school was currently doing and to plan for the future. However, the committee has cast a wider net for input. “We’ve involved a larger group throughout the process,” noted Wehrkamp. “Internally, besides teachers, we’ve gotten input from nurses, custodial and transportation staff.  We’ve received some great feedback that we’ve taken back to the committee to further develop our plan.”


The committee is involved in every step of the process and we don’t proceed until they’ve given it the okay,” noted Wehrkamp. “While I have taken the lead role in this process, it’s important to recognize that it’s ‘our plan,’ not mine.”


To get a better sense of where the plan was heading, the committee took stock of where they were at the beginning of the process by conducting a communications audit that included family and staff surveys. The audit pointed out areas of improvement for the district. “During the inventory phase (which was necessary to know how we reach out to our various constituencies and the budget for each), we realized our website needs revision,” Wehrkamp recalled. “It was good to go through the inventory to recognize our pain points. Now we’re looking at timing and cost to revise our online presence.” Additional findings included learning of inconsistencies. “We learned that sometimes it can be frustrating for parents with kids in different grades because our communications were inconsistent. Finding this out from parents has really had an impact on how we plan to communicate in the future.”


During the development of the plan, the committee devised a one-page document with links to additional details to articulate the purpose, audiences, and resources to more clearly and effectively communicate to all stakeholders. Wehrkamp recognizes that communication is a two-way street, that even while staff are communicating outwardly, they are also receiving feedback from their audiences that inform future communications. “There’s some overlap between when someone is receiving communications and when they’re sending it out, like our teachers, coaches, and principals. The plan takes this into account so that they reach out and also reach back in.”


The committee recognizes that there is more to implementing the plan than simply publishing it. Wehrkamp shared that plans are underway for introducing the plan both internally and with the district’s external audiences. “We’ll roll out the plan via Welcome Back emails to families and staff and we’ll have it posted on the homepage of our website, so that everyone has a clear understanding of the way we communicate and how people can expect to receive information.”


Wehrkamp realizes this is not a “one and done” process, but that strategic communications is ongoing. “From here, the plan is to have the document reviewed internally annually and by the Strategic Communications Planning committee at least every other year. This document will evolve as our needs change. Making it flexible was important. What matters is that we have a clear communications document so that our audiences know how they’ll be communicated to.”


Wehrkamp offers this advice to other school leaders who are looking to initiate a strategic communications plan. “Definitely involve lots of people; get input from multiple stakeholders and have a thick skin to be able to recognize when you’ve missed the mark, so you can fix it. Involvement from all audiences is key so you don’t miss anything. Rely on experts to do what you don’t do well. I’ve relied on our tech person to assist with the process to make sure the document is more usable. Look to others for their help.”

Draft of Royalton Public Schools communication plan. The document contains hyperlinks that provide supporting information to users.


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