Coming from the school communications field, I know it's impossible to predict what’s on the horizon for school districts in 2023, especially concerning communications. As we all have witnessed over the years, a single national or local event can change the trajectory of school communications work at any time.
In my role at Finalsite consulting with communicators and superintendents, I have picked up four communications trends that will impact school communication departments this year and beyond. These predictions are responses to family and constituent needs and the demands that center around delivering strategic content that is personalized, student-focused, and intended to build and restore trust, including
Prediction #1: An investment in strategic communications
It's no secret that today's parents want clear, relevant, expedited information. Added to that is the lingering cloud of distrust school systems face, intensified by divisive politics and culture warriors. Building trust with your community is paramount, and it's why more schools are beginning to focus on data-informed strategic communications and planning.
What does it mean to invest in strategic communications?
In short, strategic communications focuses on the “why” behind what you're trying to achieve with communications. The tactical is “how.” Unfortunately, many schools spend a lot of time with tactical communications without knowing the why. A prime example of this is when the only consistent method of storytelling is via social media or a mobile app. If these are the only two ways you communicate with families, you're only reaching a percentage of families. (I’ll go into how you overcome this with a web-centric approach at the end of this article.)
How can school leaders invest in strategic communications?
How do people rate your internal and external communications from the district level? Are there areas to improve?
Do you have someone on your team whose job it is to oversee district-level communications, in addition to school and teacher level? If not, consider making it a priority. At the very least, have someone who can assist in addition to their other duties.
But, it’s not about hiring a random someone to fill the position. The person needs to have a clear understanding of the value of strategic communications and the research, planning, implementation, and evaluation that go into a successful program. They should know the difference between goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics. Most importantly, they need to have passion for the work they do, and be willing to grow and learn.
All school leaders
Communication is likely a challenge and a priority. School districts should consider investing in regular third-party communication audits that occur on the frequency of accreditation audits or district strategic plans. Communication audit packages are great because they give school systems an objective look into their communications programs and their efficacy. More importantly, they help communications staff set more precise goals and objectives for the next few years.
For assistance getting a communications program started, inquiring about audits, or enrolling in continuous professional development, I recommend contacting the National School Public Relations Association based in Rockville, Maryland, home of over 2,500 members around the globe. For a list of communication agencies or consultant groups, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you're looking for tips on digital strategy, be sure to look into the dozens of articles in the Finalsite Blog, written by folks who have worked in school systems of all types.
According to Statista, people worldwide spend an average of 463 minutes per day (7.5 hours) with media. Because of this information overload, parents are looking for ways to see through the clutter. Schools that recognize this and set up systems to deliver relevant, personalized content that will earn big points with families.
Active personalization vs. passive personalization
Districts have many opportunities to personalize their content (both seen and unseen) and break through the information clutter to reach families. Suppose we follow the highly-successful examples from the news and media industry. In that case, districts should employ two types of personalization:
- Active (or declared), where the users inform you of their choices
- Passive (or inferred), which doesn't rely on pre-knowledge to present a personalized experience
What is active personalization?
Active personalization includes information that a school system already knows about an individual, such as their language preferences, home address, title, name, etc. Merge tags, and intelligent messaging allow districts to use existing data sources to personalize messages and target communications to specific audiences and even automatically translate messages and deliver them to different family members in their desired language. School systems can target their communications to the neighborhood, block, or street, using integrated geofencing and family's home address information.
Districts should also employ a more "transactional" approach to personalization, encouraging users and families to make individual choices for content and communications. For instance, users can subscribe to different news stories, feeds, or channels and receive notifications only when that source or topic is updated.
Users should be able to choose and save their calendar preferences shared across websites and mobile devices so they only see and receive notifications about events important to them. Also, users can select their delivery preferences for different types of communications, ensuring that bus alerts are sent via text message or lunch menu changes are emailed, for example.
What is passive personalization?
Passive personalization can be harder to define and envision. Still, it may make a more significant impression since the scenarios are less obvious or expected by the user. Search analytics can automatically present users with the most popular search items, helping to guide them to the correct information. Intelligent workflows can deliver tailored messages to a targeted audience or individual user based on specific conditions–clicking on a news article, responding to an email, or not responding to an email.
Even online translation services can benefit from passive personalization by simply presenting language options in the speaker's native language versus offering the language options in English. Many website translation services list a language option as "Chinese" but written in English versus displaying the actual Chinese characters. This simple change provides a more accessible, personalized experience for the end user.
Many school communities today face divisive politics, contentious school board meetings, upset parents, and bad press. None of these issues is a recipe for success. This year, districts will need to double down on restoring trust with families.
Here are some ways to go beyond reactive mode and into trust-building, proactive communications:
- Get a pulse of what is happening around you. Conduct research, walk the hallways, and talk to community members and stakeholders. Go beyond your bubble and reach out to folks you rarely speak to. Most importantly: Act on the data.
- Talk to students. They're your best research asset because they report issues to parents and can provide insights into what parents say and think.
- Hold ongoing in-person and virtual community town halls, including intentional outreach to marginalized communities.
- Be transparent and lean into trust-building work. Think outside the box. This initiative could include live-streaming board meetings, hosting a weekly chat with the superintendent, or even creating spaces where your staunchest critics have a seat at the table.
- Tell stories through video! We already see an increase in short-form videos, and they're trendy.
- Lighten the tone! It's ok to lighten the tone of communications where appropriate (such as snow day announcements) so you can better relate to what is going on in the minds of families.
- Amplify unique voices in your community! Be sure to diversify your voices.
- Make it easy for families to understand what their students are learning at school. Stillwater Area Public Schools in Minnesota does a great job of providing curriculum transparency with its Family Roadmap.
The essential thing in all of this is consistency with this work. Conduct this work year-round as the goal post is constantly changing. New families are entering the district, referendums are neverending, and recruiting a quality workforce always continues.
Prediction #4: A focus on student success
Much like trust-building efforts, we will see more districts double down on student success stories as a powerful way to restore trust and build brand identity. And communities that succeed in this effort will use the most potent voices they have: Students and staff.
Where do I begin with storytelling?
First, ask yourself: Why do schools exist? The answer may vary slightly, but school systems generally exist to help students learn and build better tomorrows for families. This answer is the "why" behind your storytelling. You're doing your job as long as you focus on student achievement and success and broadly share the stories with the community.
Where should I begin?
Stories should be hosted on your school website because it's the #1 place families go for information and it’s the easier source to distribute content from. Your website is the hub. It's your digital home. Adopting a website-centric model makes it easier to distribute your story to mediums like social media, email, mobile apps, printed pieces, etc.
Website-Centric model in action
Think about your local TV stations and the stories they share across social media platforms — almost all of their stories and content live on their website. They do this to centralize their news and information because it's most efficient for employees, and more accessible for viewers to search for and consume information at any time.
The same philosophy applies to school systems. If you build and store your content centrally, you can adopt the same share-out model via email, page pops, text messaging, mobile app notifications, and more. Using this approach, more families are likely to discover unique learning opportunities they otherwise wouldn't have learned about. More importantly, it's easier for schools to update information on lunch menus, calendars, teacher pages, testing schedules, and more.
Take a look at Adams 12 Five Star Schools in Colorado, easily one of the top communication programs in the nation because of its strategic approach to connecting with families. Their district newsroom is top-notch because they allow users to refine their news searches right on the page by clicking through filter options.
They do this by placing a tag on their story during creation and then connecting Finalsite Post tools so that users can quickly sort and engage. Moreover, they also separate "Five Star Stories" and "District News." Their focus is clearly on student achievement and success.
These trends are already beginning to shape how schools communicate with families. During the coming years, schools will need to move toward creating robust digital communication suites. These powerful solutions allow schools to be strategic with their integrated communication efforts, allowing for personalized communication that informs families and highlights student achievement.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joshua Sauer, APR, is the Director for District Communications Strategy with Finalsite. Before joining Finalsite, he spent six years working as a #SchoolPR professional for a large public school district in Oklahoma and one year as a freelance webmaster. Joshua is heavily involved at the national level in school PR and is the former president of the Oklahoma School Public Relations Association (OKSPRA). Joshua is an Accredited Public Relations (APR) practitioner with more than 11 years of marketing and PR work experience. He earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and communications from the University of Oklahoma and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Central Oklahoma.