If you’ve recently joined the school communications field or are starting fresh in a new school district with similar responsibilities, this blog is for you! This guide aims to help you create a stronger foundation for a strategic communications plan so you can hit the ground running and start making a noticeable impact at your district.
Starting any new position can be overwhelming but as you ease into your role, the key focus of your first few months on the job should be:
1) Conducting a situation analysis
2) Reviewing secondary research and data
3) Building relationships
These three focus areas should make up 90 percent of what you do, with the other 10 percent dedicated to “keeping the lights on” in your department and assisting administrators with their immediate needs.
Let’s take a look at 10 major ideas and suggestions to help guide your first 90 days as a new school communicator.
1. Define your direction with your hiring manager
Full access to your director or superintendent during the first 90 days of the job is likely the most critical factor in ensuring that you have long-term success. Meet early to discuss their long-term initiatives and the district’s strategic goals, then create a game plan together so you can begin the ever-important tasks of analyzing your situation, gathering secondary research and data, and building relationships.
This approach will ensure a precise understanding of your department’s direction and it will give you credibility and confidence as you meet with others around your school system.
2. Explore professional learning networks and opportunities
School PR Associations (SPRAs)
One of the first things I’d recommend is to look up information about the National School PR Association (NSPRA) and your local SPRA chapter. If you need help finding your local SPRA, search “NSPRA Chapters'' in your browser or review the map below. These associations have members who will stop at nothing to ensure your success. Membership in these associations is the best investment you or your district can make!
NSPRA Mentor Match
NSPRA's relatively new Mentor Match program connects mentors and mentees based on interests and specialties. It’s a free resource for NSPRA members. I am both a mentor and mentee and have found it very helpful in my professional development.
Attend meetings & conferences
Speak to your hiring manager about the opportunity to attend professional learning events throughout the year — either in person or virtually. These events are where you’ll learn school communications best practices, extend your professional network, and meet lifelong friends.
Pro-tip: Use the search function inside the group so you can review old threads.
Area public information officers
Connect with area PIOs from school systems, municipalities, and public services and see if you can meet or chat regularly. Having these connections will come in handy when you least expect it.
Finalsite courses & blogs
In my biased but honest opinion, Finalsite leads the way with original, helpful content (130+ blogs per year) written by many folks who have done the work themselves. Explore The Learning Center and subscribe to the Finalsite Blog for a seemingly endless library of helpful free resources, courses, and ebooks and guides. Some of my favorite blogs and resources from Finalsite are:
- How to Create an Effective Communication Plan for Your District
- School Newsletter Ideas
- The Complete Social Media Guide for Schools
- The Complete Social Media Calendar for Schools and Districts
- Using Your Website to Pass a School Referendum
3. Owning your authority
What does “owning your authority” mean? Glenview 34’s Director of Communications & Strategic Planning and my friend and mentor, Cathy Kedjidjian, APR, said it best:
“School communicators require a leadership lens to make the necessary impact on their organization’s culture, engagement, and brand. Those entering a new school PR role must own their authority as the leader of effective, strategic communications.”
What people think you do and what you actually do is much different. You’ll find that most people don’t know what you do beyond posting to social media or taking pictures.
What is the role of a school communicator?
In a nutshell, the role of a school communications person is to build trust, foster positive relationships, and communicate strategically. It’s written in the NSPRA mission statement.
Are you a people pleaser?
I know I am … But try your best to limit taking on every request that comes your way. As we all know, once folks recognize your talent, they’ll seek help with “pet projects.” These requests mean no harm, but non-practitioners may not realize what you’re doing on a daily basis.
I think any school communicator who has been in the role for more than a few months can relate to this request:
“Tomorrow is National Blueberry Awareness Day, and our school cafeteria will serve the kids blueberries! Could you come over and take some pictures and post them on social media?”
Feel free to have some fun celebrating harmless national holidays, but stay focused on your game plan.
Confidence is key
Confidence is the key to owning your authority, and you should exude it. And if you’re unsure how to move forward on something, don’t be afraid to consult with others who work in school communications. Fake it until you make it!
4. Get to know your colleagues and schools
Building and nurturing relationships with your colleagues and key stakeholders is another important aspect of your new school communications job. Believe it or not, you are one of the primary faces of the district now, along with your superintendent and others on your executive team.
During your first months, I recommend a tour around the area to familiarize yourself with the district and to evaluate the current communication practices of each school. You’ll often find that each school has its own way of doing things, which is expected. Take notes from your tour and evaluate your findings later. Do a lot of listening, but educate folks about your strategic role within the district and convey some overarching long-term goals.
5. Early “Desk Research”
Early desk research, also known as secondary research, helps you understand your department, district, and community. Compile and review this information. It’s free and usually a few clicks away.
Lesley Bruinton, APR of Nichols Strategies, suggests going to the “school of school,” meaning:
“We counsel those new to the profession that your first job should go to the "school of school." That means you should focus on what administrators need to run the district. Take note of when certain activities need to happen, how board meetings operate, and where to find governance documents about your district.”
Essential desk research
- Past and current strategic plans
- District demographics using Census.gov
- Historical bond and referendum research
- Internal culture surveys
- Community surveys
- Board meetings
- News articles
- Superintendent speeches (Are they using key messaging?)
- Google Analytics 4 — Learn why this is important
- Social media reporting — Download The Complete Social Media Guide for Schools
6. Discuss your budget
Knowing what is possible is vital to your success and will shape the communications plan that you will eventually create. Hopefully, you have a general understanding of your budget before being hired, but if not, it’s essential to have this conversation early. Your department will fall into one of four categories:
- No budget, but your expense requests are on a case-by-case basis
- No budget or your budget is limited
- Your spending comes out of another department’s budget (i.e., IT)
- You have the coveted opportunity to present your requests and eventually have a budget approved
7. Conduct inventory and review technology
Being new to the district, you’ll want to meet with your IT department to explore the technology and resources that are available. Reach out to your colleagues in IT and get a better sense of their tools, what their budget is like, and what's on their "wish list" as far as technology, staffing, and resources.
8. Review current tools and processes
Knowing what methods of communicating you have at your disposal will help guide your action plans. Ask yourself, What digital tools do you have at your disposal and what digital tools do you need?
Using the tools and processes you currently have, be aware of how you’re spending your time and ask yourself if it's worth the investment, or could you be spending your time on something else? Working effectively and efficiently will be critical to your success, so if you’re bogged down by repetitive tasks, time-consuming processes, or redundant efforts, it may be time to evaluate your approach.
9. Get some “quick wins”
These little victories are ways to show your value and worth early. Whether that’s finding an initiative that isn’t performing well and seeking to improve it or tackling smaller but noticeable improvements to communication efforts, by focusing on some “quick wins,” you’ll build momentum for future success for your district.
10. Begin drawing blueprints for a basic communications plan
Going from tactical to strategic is a marathon, not a sprint. One of the biggest mistakes for a communicator new to a role is jumping in without a plan.
If your district doesn’t have a strategic plan, how can you have a strategic communications plan? Start by establishing your goals as a department, map out the channels of communication you have to utilize, and the budget you’ll need to implement everything. Having a plan in place will help you justify the work you are doing and also help you to say "no" to requests that don’t align with it.
As you begin your new position, determine what’s necessary for the critical, daily operations of your department and what’s needed to support administrators with their immediate needs. Setting aside time to review current processes, evaluate resources and develop your professional network will ensure your successful transition to your new role. Within the first few months, take pride in knowing that you’ll be making a difference in the lives of school professionals and students, alike.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joshua Sauer, APR, is an Educational Sales Consultant 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). In 2017, he founded the popular #ROAD2NSPRA Twitter campaign, which has raised over $5,000 for the NSPRA Foundation. 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.