A school communication professional wears an incredible number of hats. One of the most visible – and important – hats is that of a community advocate. Schools, it can be argued, are at the heart of any community. Their students, staff, and families give life to neighborhoods nationwide.
As communicators, our work to champion our schools and district can lift up the wider community. Intentionally leaning into the role of a community advocate can further foster a stronger connection between schools and a community, leading to a widespread sense of shared responsibility for the well-being of students and the community.
But if you’re newer to the field and haven’t intentionally leaned into the role of a community champion, where do you begin? How do you get started? Let’s explore some paths you may want to consider.
Understand the issues important to your community
By nature of the work of a school communicator, you likely already have a grasp of what matters in your community.
• What issues are local news channels covering?
• What topics rise to the top on community websites, local Facebook pages, and in your schools?
Start identifying which issues have some natural overlap with education, and research the organizations in your community that work to address them.
Community organizations are always looking for volunteers to fill both large and smaller roles. Think about organizations you’re passionate about that also align with your district’s goals.
When I was a school communicator in Northern Virginia, I became involved in an organization called First Night, which provides a safe, family-friendly environment for the community to spend New Year’s Eve by partnering with local retail shops, restaurants, and other businesses.
It was a great way not only to give back to the community but also gave me an opportunity to connect with other leaders in the city and really learn more about families outside of school walls.
Foster community partnerships
Don’t wait for a crisis to connect with local law enforcement or until your district wants to propose a sponsorship campaign with local businesses to meet with the chamber of commerce. Reach out to local community leaders and ask to meet with them to introduce yourself and learn more about their organizations.
I also learned during my career that community leaders who are sometimes overlooked, such as leaders of local faith-based organizations, can be some of the most important to connect with, given their deep histories and relationships with families.
Set up periodic meetings with community leaders to continue exchanging information about your district and what’s new at their offices or organizations. These connections not only foster important relationships for your district but also provide you with an opportunity to be seen as a community leader in your own right.
Apply a community lens to your work
As you begin to develop a fuller perspective on the issues and values of your community, think about ways to incorporate them into your work.
• Is there a communication initiative that could benefit from getting a larger community or community group involved?
• How can you position messaging that might resonate further with members of the community?
Your involvement in the community will naturally lend itself greatly to your work.
For example, by better understanding the community I was serving, I discovered that non-English speaking parents and families preferred to dialogue in their native language about school issues or concerns.
We changed how we engaged these families: previously, we included a question-and-answer format with a translator translating each question and each answer throughout the conversation, but then we posed more open-ended questions and allowed them to speak in their native language for as much time as needed. The translator then summarized and provided context at the end. This led to more authentic, honest conversations.
And don’t forget: YOU are a community leader, too! No matter your title or job responsibilities, all school communication professionals contribute to the community in important ways.
When asked, offer your expertise and perspective, make yourself accessible to community members, and be responsive to their inquiries. As you build community partnerships, build a reputation for having an open door and prioritize staying connected even when things get hectic. And don’t shy away from asking for feedback from trusted community partners.
Remember, you’re all working to elevate the same community, even if it’s in different ways.
This blog post is part of an ongoing series from the National School Public Relations Association and Finalsite. Finalsite is proud to partner with NSPRA on the new School Communicator of the Year Award to honor one outstanding individual from the school public relations profession. The first SCOY award will be given at the 2024 NSPRA Seminar in Seattle/Bellevue.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Barbara M. Hunter, APR, became the executive director of the National School Public Relations Association in November 2020. Prior to joining NSPRA, she spent five years as the president/CEO of Hunter Communications LLC, based in Alexandria, Virginia. She also spent 14 years as the chief communications officer in two school districts in Northern Virginia, including Fairfax County Public Schools, the 10th largest in the nation.