Communication is vital for school districts, and part of that is public relations. Without a means of giving your district a voice in time-sensitive matters, you leave it up to the public to imagine your responses. Parents and community members are demanding up-to-date notifications and are no longer satisfied with traditional media as a means of receiving important school news. Quality communication can prevent misunderstandings in a world dependent on social media and the internet for news.
Importance of a PR Plan for Districts
While your reputation is essential in promoting your district, perception accounts for how current and prospective parents, students and community members view you. A successful PR plan puts you in control of others' views of the district. It’s a way to put your best foot forward to the public by giving your community a way to share the accomplishments of teachers, students, staff and others in the area.
Sending letters to students on the district's letterhead will no longer suffice for disseminating information. Parents, students, and the community will rely on what you put online first for information about events, news and more. A well-crafted web presence will do more to improve your standing in the community's view than a fancy letterhead that few will see.
Unlike the past when communities banded together in uniform support of school districts, today, bad press can come from anywhere — tax groups, news sources, parents or disgruntled students. Your area needs a source of positive news for the community and others. Being a voice of support for your district can rally others to uphold your district's schools and their efforts to educate students.
Several groups will rely on your PR plan to get their information. Understanding what each group needs to know and how to best present it will help you start on planning changes to your online presence. Parents, students, and the community all will require different things from you.
1. Information for Parents
Parents will need information about their children's schools, including the most updated news, especially in emergencies. For instance, parents today turn to school districts' social media accounts to check for school closings rather than wait for the information from the news. You need clear, easy to follow social media accounts and a webpage that makes it simple for parents to quickly find the information they need about the individual schools and district news most related to their children. Our Social Media Integration tool, Finalsite Feeds, can help you streamline social content and conversations from 15 social networks that refresh every 5 minutes on your site. If your district has more time-sensitive news that you want to draw attention to on your site, you can add Page Pops with a specific start and end times to ensure parents see the message.
As importantly, prospective parents also get information on how the district operates, including the success of the schools in it. How these prospective parents view the community could determine whether they move to the area or not.
2. Connections for Students
Older students will need to easily navigate their school district's website and social media to also learn about school closures and other related news. Students in many districts also use their school's site as a portal to upload homework, view assignments and connect with teachers. Connecting students to their teachers is one method districts can use to improve their public relations while keeping students safer online.
Students can also find out about school closings, sports scores, district events and much more on your district's site. By sharing district news and events with students, a district can bolster participation and school pride. Students who feel proud of their schools will help promote the district through their own social media postings. While districts have no control over what students post online, they can help students feel happier at their schools. Happier students are more likely to share positive online information about their schools.
3. News for the Community
Even people who don't have children in the district will need the latest news about how the district and its schools operate. This becomes critical when voters in the area must decide on who to choose for school board elections. Without an updated website, community members can only guess what the district's needs are and who can best serve them. An easy way to share online news with community members is with Finalsite's flexible module Posts. The news module can highlight the day-to-day life of a faculty member to showcasing the new construction going on to expand the high school.
Getting a PR Plan Started
Having a PR plan is essential, and before you hire a company to change your social media, blogs, and website, you need to establish your goals. Several factors will help you hone your district's best public relations strategy.
- Mission: What does your district need to accomplish online? Clearly outline goals to have a way to measure the success of a PR campaign.
- Audience: Who will receive the information? What will they need to know? Targeting parts of your online presence to specific groups can make those parts of your website more effective.
- PR point person: Who will handle your district's PR plan? Will you have a designated media official? Will you focus on updating your website to make the most of your online persona for the lowest investment?
- Deadlines: How soon do you want the plan put into action? Do you need to stick to an academic calendar?
- Communication channels: How will you communicate your news, information and more? Will you use blogs, social media, your website, emails or a combination of these?
A PR plan ensures that your district will be ready to communicate to your different targeted audiences with a multi-media approach.
Key PR Content Hubs for Districts
Focusing your communications strategies to your targeted audience starts with creating hubs for specific groups. You will need a place for everyone to receive crisis communications, a place for internal information, a media area and a place for parents.
1. Crisis Communications
In a crisis, you must send vital information out to parents, community members, and students. Whether the situation involves an immediate emergency that would require a campus evacuation or a shelter in place, parents need to know whether they can come to pick up their children. The district also needs to tell students who are not on campus if they can go to school or if schools will have different dismissal time due to the situation.
Today, schools around the country face the risk of fires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards, active shooters, chemical spills, power outages, widespread illnesses and more. When any of these things happen, instruction will be disrupted, and students and their parents need the latest information to know what to do. In situations where a campus needs evacuating, crisis communications can tell parents where to pick up their children. For shelter-in-place scenarios, the news will advise parents to stay away for their safety.
Despite the rare occurrence of a crisis situation, you still need a plan for if a crisis occurs in your district. Through a multi-media approach, you'll be able to give the necessary information to the correct groups.
- News outlets: To let the community know what is happening, send official statements to the local news stations.
- Password-protected portals: Send teachers, students and parents campus-specific information about the crisis through password-protected portals. Using a secure website that restricts access will reduce the chances of any negative press getting released to the media.
- Social media: Emergency messages for everyone in the area quickly get circulated through social media. Use this approach for school closings from weather, early dismissals or to augment other forms of communication with the community.
- Email: Sending out messages directly to parents through email will help ensure that they see it since parents frequently use their phones to check emails.
- District website: Everyone from the news stations to parents will turn to your district's website first in a crisis. Regularly updating the site with information or a news feed will help them get accurate information without having to go elsewhere or rely on rumors.
After a crisis, don't neglect the efforts required to mitigate any negative press. Your district may need a focused method of building positive news online to recover from serious events.
2. Internal Communications
Not all messages need a public audience. For particular messages, only specific staff members should see them. Recommendations for accommodations for students with learning differences, behavior infractions, grades and other metrics of academics should stay within the district or even a specific campus. Internal communications make sending information out to staff fast, safe and secure.
3. Media and Community Relations
When you need to send out official notices to the media and the community, social media and your website will prove to be invaluable tools. Parents and nonparents in a survey from the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) ranked newspapers, television news and radio as second-to-last in a listing of their preferred sources for information about their school districts. Because traditional media is slipping away in importance, keeping your school district's website and news information as up-to-date as possible is critical to public relations.
4. Parent Engagement
The NSPRA survey found that parents were highly interested in connecting with their children's curriculum. In fact, curriculum information was the top request of parents from schools. Create parent portals that allow parents to log in, send messages directly to teachers, look at lessons and get the latest information about school activities. These portals give parents more information than they can find in public areas of the district's website while protecting the privacy of students.
Key Channels to Implement Your PR Strategy
Creating your PR strategy will help you to ensure the value of your school communications program. You must establish your digital footprint in multiple ways to effectively communicate with parents, the community, students and staff. While a website is vital, consider the changing needs of your target audience by providing a mobile app, email messages, social media postings, a blog, and videos.
1. District Website
Your website will become the entry point for anyone who wants information about your district. Without easy to find information, you could lose visitors and reduce your chance of sending out positive information about your community. If you don't have web-building experts in your district, find ways to easily construct a web home for all district news and school information.
2. Mobile App
Because many people access websites from their phones, your district should have an easy-to-use mobile app. An app makes it faster for parents and students to obtain information about their classes and assignments. If you don't already have an app for both Apple and Android phones, put that on your list of communications methods to access as many people in your district as possible.
3. Notifications and Alerts
When any urgent event occurs in your district, you will need to send alerts via text or email to those in the area. With notifications and alerts, you can specify whom you want to send messages. For example, parents may sign up for communications about only their children's school. However, nonparents may want information about school incidents that could affect local traffic. The ability to automatically send out real-time alerts will give the people who need to know the news they desire.
Email is a critical part of any communications plan for school districts. Parents and nonparents both report in the same NSPRA survey they prefer emails over social media. With smartphones, people can access emails from anywhere. In addition to being a preferred method of communications, emails also save paper and mailing costs. Parents get email messages faster than with mailed letters.
For sensitive information, such as report cards, email notices could direct a parent to log into their portal to access their children's academic progress report.
With so many uses, districts need to focus on collecting as many email addresses from those in the area who need news, updates and more about both the district and individual schools. Email marketing creates a simple way to send out news briefs and laud your district's workers and students in their achievements.
5. Social Media
Social media includes everything from Twitter and Facebook to Instagram and Pinterest. Becoming an active participant in social media shows that your district cares about communications and wants to be in touch with those in the community.
While social media is not the top source of information for parents, it still plays a vital role in encouraging discussion among residents, students, parents, and staff. Some might feel better asking a question or leaving a note on a social media account. By using social media, it also makes it easier for others to share the positive stories you post. Keep the good news about the district coming to encourage a positive view of what you do.
6. News Post
Adding a school newsfeed to your PR strategy can open your communications to a more casual method. News from the superintendent or the latest from the district gives readers the feeling of getting information directly from a person.
To make the most of news postings, encourage readers to leave comments. With a well-designed news post platform, you can approve or deny comments to allow only those that stay on topic and do not use profanity or other prohibited types of language to appear on the site. Don't forget to answer questions and address comments to news posts. Interactivity is just as crucial with news posts as it is with social media.
Don't neglect the power of visual media. Through videos, you can introduce board members, teachers, staff and students to the rest of the world. Through well-made videos, you'll connect your district with the faces of your staff members in viewers' minds. Because they've seen the human side of your school in a positive light, viewers come away with a good impression of the work the district's schools accomplish.
School PR Plan 101
School PR plans are vital to your district's standing in the public's eye. Your district's internet presence will combat any negative postings about your community with a positive, promotional message. To maintain a good reputation and send out the news you want the public to know, updating your digital resources is no longer optional.
Parents, community members, students, and staff will all turn to your social media, website, and online newsfeed to get the information they need. Unless you have these sources regularly updated and easy to navigate, visitors will go elsewhere. Instead of getting the official news from you, they will only hear rumors and conjecture.
Protect your district's reputation by becoming the first source of information for everyone. The only way that can happen without breaking your district's budget is through upgrading your existing digital platforms.
Learn More About District Communications
Take the first step toward improving your district's communications effectively and efficiently. If your district needs help in setting up its website as part of a PR plan, we're here to help. At Finalsite, we design websites for schools, districts and other educational entities. We take the effort out of improving your online presence and public relations with best-in-class marketing and communication platforms.