School district leaders are facing an unprecedented PR challenge. America's confidence in public schools is low, with only 28 percent of people saying they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in their own institution, according to a recent Gallop poll.
The tension between teachers and parents in some school districts hasn’t helped either, with some stats putting the perceived honesty and ethics of grade-school teachers at a new low of 64 percent.
To help rebuild that trust, school district leaders need to build excitement and support engagement within their community. Effective school district leadership begins with effective communication.
When representing a diverse ecosystem of board and cabinet members, educators, support staff, students, and parents, there are a number of important factors and observations K-12 district leaders need to consider when communicating effectively with their community.
Building a brand of community
Before diving into tactics or tangible actions to improve your communications as a district leader, it's vital to first understand the importance of your district’s brand. Branding can impact every aspect of your school district, from the culture of your schools to your ability to recruit prospective families and employees.
A school district superintendent must lead the district’s brand positioning. After all, the reputation of a school district is often considered a direct reflection of the superintendent’s leadership – meaning a successful, well-loved district brand will also impact a leader’s personal brand.
A district’s website and online presence are strong indications of a brand, and users feel a sense of community when visiting Kansas City Public Schools website. With separate pages for leadership, the board, departmental pages, and more — all under its About section, the district focuses on its leadership’s involvement in education and its positive impact on the community.
Consider: Does your cabinet embrace and align with your brand? Regular check-ins are needed to ensure buy-in from your cabinet and building principals and prioritize an excellent customer experience.
Reinforce district brand messaging
Once your brand strategy is defined, it's important you stick to it and reinforce it. (Your communications experts will thank you too!) Consistency builds trust, credibility, and a foundation for understanding what to expect — expectations your community has of you, but also expectations you have for your community.
Make sure you keep your brand top of mind when engaging with internal and external stakeholders and that consistent, tailored messaging is integrated throughout each channel.
Serving as an inspiration, Issaquah School District’s award-winning website features searchable announcement boards with tags for families to filter personalized news and content — including those from school leadership — in one central location.
Having undergone a website redesign and brand identity project with Finalsite Advantage, Issaquah gave each of its district’s sites a unique look, but a cohesive visual identity within the district’s network.
“The PTSA was super excited about the new branding!” shared Lesha Engels, the executive director of communications and digital strategy for Issaquah School District. “There's definitely been that energy as far as people getting on board who are strong supporters of the school. Everything looks professional and consistent between the website, our messaging, and new print pieces…It is great to know that the software is working for us and working for our building leaders as well."
Get the messaging and tone right
Often teachers and parents feel leadership is too disconnected from what is really going on in their school, class, or at home. It’s hard to establish trust if they feel like you can talk the talk, but can’t walk the walk.
Make sure your messaging supports your actions and that you’ve done your homework. It’s not always what you say, but how you say it! Empathy is generally defined as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. Keeping this top of mind when formulating the appropriate message will go a long way.
Your messaging should be authentic and transparent. It should drive empathy and will make your target audience feel connected and understood.
Following an 18-month comprehensive facility master plan, Lee’s Summit R-7 Schools bond project outlines the goal of building a brighter future for all its community members. With a dedicated hub to track updates, post regular communications, and establish timelines, the progress and goals were all made transparent as part of this collaborative project that included multiple stakeholders from its school community.
Know and honor communication preferences
An increasing challenge in the world of K-12 education is personalized communication preferences — preferences on how students want to learn and best learn, as well as how teachers teach, the tools they use, and how district leaders provide and receive communication.
K-12 leaders are seeing a surge of options for mass communications (email, social media, phone, SMS and text, etc.) and when juggling four generations of parents with students to serve with varying skill sets and preferences — one size does not fit all.
How is your community accessing your message? It’s important to consider and understand how your target audience not only prefers to digest content but also what devices families have available to them.
According to recent research finding from the 2022 Speak Up Survey from Project Tomorrow, the stakes are higher today for personalized communication because of the pandemic:
- Parents have new demands and expectations for being engaged with their local school
- Parents enjoyed the new transparency into their child’s learning afforded to them through virtual learning
- Parents want more communication from their child’s teacher and school district, but they also want it “their way!”
Using your district's preferred methods of communication to promote, announce and share content will boost engagement and open the lanes for more transparent communication.
As communication expectations continue to climb, district leaders will need to respond and sharpen their strategies to communicate with their community more effectively. To continue to build trust, K-12 leaders should prioritize their brand strategy, fully understand their target audience and their preferences, and foster a sense of belonging in their community.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stacey brings 14+ years of education technology experience across various marketing and account management leadership roles. As Director of District Marketing, Stacey leads a team of marketers responsible for driving client acquisition and retention strategies through delivering meaningful communication and marketing content, engaging learning opportunities, and memorable in-person and virtual experiences. Stacey resides in Annapolis, MD with her husband and two small children.