• General Best Practices
The Ultimate Communications Plan for Uncertain Times
Risa Engel

I don’t know about you, but I’m weary from six months of communications chaos. I’m tired of hearing, “We’re in unprecedented times.” Even the title of this blog gives me angst. Let’s face it—when you’re in school communications, you always have to be ready for the unknown. Uncertainty is part of the job: be it a major power outage, disgruntled parents on social media, or heaven forbid, something worse. And yes, this year has brought more challenges and tragedy to our communities than most of us could have ever imagined.

It has also shone a spotlight on inequities within our systems: from access to computers and WiFi, to the most basic of needs such as healthy meals. (Let’s all take a collective deep breath.) And just in case you missed it, the thing about uncertainty is — you never know what that “unknown” might be. So pandemic or not, the best way to prepare for uncertainty is to build your communications plan around what you do know, what you think you know, and leave room for the unexpected. 

“Build your communications plan around what you do know, what you think you know, and leave room for the unexpected.”

Since pandemic baking is a real thing (evidenced by my own British Bake-Off Instagram posts), let’s think about building your communications plan like baking a cake.  It’s about how you mix your ingredients, baking instructions, and stacking layers to make sure your cake gives your community confidence and leaves them feeling content (informed) and delighted (engaged). 

Risa’s mini pear pies from the Great British Bake Off technical challenge

Normally at this time of year, back-to-school communications would be wrapping up, and we’d be rolling into what the fall term looks like on school campuses across the globe. But this year, there’s still a lot of uncertainty and plans may yet change again. Whether learning is in-person, remote, or hybrid — whether sports are happening or not, you have fans in the seats, or are live-streaming — that which you are planning to do next week could very well change tomorrow. Contrary to what you may think, while putting a communications plan in place during a “normal” year is important, it’s even more important today.

So what can we do about uncertain times like this? 

  1. Plan for what we can

  2. Prepare for what we cannot

  3. Open the lines of two-way communications

Plan for what we can.

Put a plan in place based on what you know today. If you have the luxury of a year or two at your school under your belt, you know what a “normal” school year looks like. You might even have a detailed plan already based on past years. You know what events take place and what your communications should look like before, during and after. We’ll give you a framework for your standard communications plan in this article.

Prepare for that which we cannot plan.

Generally, moving into the start of the school year, we saw that schools presented at least three scenarios for back to school: in-person, hybrid or remote learning. Though you may be in-person right now, what are your plans if there are one, five, or 100 cases of Covid on campus? If you’re remote now, do you have a plan to return students to campus at all? You can prepare communications for any anticipated scenarios — and you should.

Open the lines of two-way communications.

Finally, what's even more important than it has probably been in the past is to keep the lines of communication open with parents, students and faculty in your community. In addition to providing them with information; be sure to provide avenues for them to provide you with feedback. There is a growing need for connection — especially during this pandemic when everyone is feeling more isolated. Take this opportunity to strengthen your own programs as well as the relationships you have with your families by building dialogue. 

Planning for What We Can to Create Certainty and Build Trust

One of the most important ways to create a sense of certainty within your community is to be consistent and transparent with your communications. If the past six months have shown us anything, it’s that nothing can be guaranteed as certain. But as school marketing and communications professionals, we can still create a sense of certainty within our community by being consistent and transparent in our communications. By doing so, we have the ability to build trust.

And really, trust and certainty go hand and hand. You want parents to say, “I trust that my school or district is going to do the right thing. I trust that when they send out their Friday newsletter, it's going to have all the information I need going into the week ahead.” Certainty doesn’t necessarily stem from knowing exactly what's going to happen next. The goal of your communications plan isn't to predict every single potential scenario and have plans in place. Certainty stems from a sense of trust and a sense of connectedness with your community — and much of this  stems from the way you build your communications.

Building your plan is really like baking a cake

Think of your communications plan like building a cake. A cake has many layers. There’s no right answer to, “What should we do?” or, “How do we do this?” What we like most about the cake analogy is that at the end of the day, no matter how you structure your cake, how many tiers it has, if you go with strawberry or vanilla cake, sprinkles or not — you can use different ingredients and processes, but you’ll always end up with something delicious.

 

Standard Communications Plan Cake graphic showing layers of communications strategy

To build your cake, start with your predictable Standard Communications Plan. (Note the laughing emoji, because we really know that this year, nothing’s predictable.) Typically you have events that happen on a regular basis every year. You might have special events and you would have regular communications to go along that make up your standard plan. We’ll delve deeper into the Standard Communications Plan shortly.

Your next cake layer would be your contingency communications. As a school communications pro, you’ve always had some sort of contingency marketing or communications plans; weather closings or a water pipe burst and you needed to shut down school a little early, that was unexpected. So try to think of your Covid updates and urgent Covid communications as contingency communications. When schools shut down in the spring due to Covid, we were all-in with crisis communications. Not many could have predicted what ensued. But now we have a better handle on what “might” come up, and we can plan for different scenarios. 

Likely you have a standard template for weather closings and early school dismissal. You may have an email, Facebook and Twitter posts, and page pops for the website — all ready to go. With these all set, you just have to fill in the date and hit “send” or “publish” on the day they were needed. (When I was at Stuart, this was especially useful at 5:00 AM when I got the text that school was closed due to snow.) So for Covid as well, you can prepare for the possible scenarios your school or district has identified.  Think about what those scenarios are and what communications you’ll need. Have drafts written, approved and ready to go so that you're not panicking when you have a closing or a case of Covid. 

You’ve probably spent your summer writing and re-writing your school opening plans, so unfortunately, you’ve likely had a lot of practice with contingency planning this year already. If you don’t have one, be sure to create a one-stop communications hub on your website where parents can find the most up-to-date information from your school or district. Your protocols for school closings or quarantining classes closing should be very detailed and posted on your communications hub in advance. Additionally, you should have a feedback form available on that hub as well. Be sure that your emails allow a reply-to so people can respond to your emails if they have a question — you’ll want to be sure to reply. 

Finally, crisis communications is the top layer of your cake. Planning ahead for a crisis is different altogether. You may be able to anticipate different scenarios and you most definitely should have a Crisis Communications Plan in place — but that is an entirely different session which we’ll tackle at another time. 


free lesson: How to Cultivate Community and Connectedness Using Social Media


Think Like a TV Network

When you build your communications plan, think like a TV network. To carry through the pandemic baking theme, we’ll go with the Food Network. For our global audience, you can probably deduce that the Food Network only broadcasts chef competitions, baking, food travel and other shows related to food. “How does this relate to communications,” you ask? Think about the Food Network, and all TV networks (at least in the US) as a way to think about your communications plan; the way a TV network sets the tone for their programming also makes for good communications. They're predictable, they're consistent, and the content is tailored to their audience.

Food Network logo

When I turn on the Food Network, I know I won’t see home improvement or decorating shows. For that I know I can turn on HGTV (Home & Garden TV). When I want to watch sports, I turn on ESPN (Entertainment Sports Programming Network).

When you turn on any one of these networks, there’s not going to be any unexpected content; no surprises. And there's something about this that provides a sense of certainty. So when you think about your communications plan, think about how you can provide that same sense of predictable consistency with your communications. When someone comes to your website, opens an email, visits your Instagram, Facebook or Twitter, they know exactly what they're going to find. So it's important that you define what your audience will find on each one of those channels and how you're going to be consistent in delivering communications. 

Your TV Network: Tentpoles, Special Events and Regular Scheduled Programming

Returning to the Food Network — I know that if I turn on Food Network at 8:00 PM on Tuesdays, I’ll get Chopped, a chef competition. It’s very predictable. We’re going to show you how to use the same concepts used in a TV network to build your standard communications plan, the foundational layer of your communications cake.

Start by breaking down your communications into three types of programs: tentpoles, special events and regular scheduled programming. “Tentpole” is used in the TV/film industry to indicate a program/film that does well financially and is popular for a TV network or studio. The term is derived from a central pole that holds up a tent. Tentpoles are a recurring signature event that your school or district might have. Regular scheduled programs are more frequent than tentpoles, such as a weekly newsletter. Both tentpoles and regular scheduled programming should have a regular cadence that are dependable and can be anticipated. They are consistent and, therefore, convey certainty. Finally, special events are just that — they don’t reoccur on a regular basis.

Here’s an example of what a schedule might look like with events and programming filled in by week for the school year.

Sample Editorial Content Calendar

Tentpoles

Examples of tentpoles might be a superintendent’s fireside chat, a board meeting, or coffee with the school division head. Perhaps it’s a new virtual event that you’ve incorporated into your communications plan. What's really important about tentpoles, and how they differ from regular scheduled programming, is that they’re not going to happen as often as a weekly newsletter or a daily communication. But they're still potentially going to be more frequent than those special events. They kind of live in their own category of repeating events.

What's really, really important about tentpoles, and special events in particular, is that they provide great opportunity for greater success. Schools and districts for years have been so fantastic about building hype for an event and communicating in advance to say, “Be sure that you attend our fundraiser, or open house, for example. Often, though, it’s radio silence afterwards. Herein lies a great opportunity! In a virtual or hybrid world, with digital content, you can make that event last longer and spread farther, by maintaining that event buzz well after the event has happened.

When you need to hold events virtually, attendees won’t have the same experience as they would have in-person. In-person there’s a lot of different stimuli, different sounds, many things happening at once often, and people take photos and videos to remember. With a virtual event, sending emails, posting social media and website content keeps momentum going and keeps your school or district top of mind after the event has already happened.

Being sure to incorporate post-event communications into your communications plan. This also allows you to extend the life of an event. Take advantage of the video and audio, if it applies, to get it to people that were not able to participate live. Additionally, you can and should repurpose the content whenever possible. If you have a conversation with the Head of School, for example, or a Q&A session with Health Services — transcribe the video (YouTube does it for free) and turn it into an article or blog on your website. 

Highling Public School Family Input webinar Facebook post

 

If you’re a small communications shop, tentpoles are a really good place to start. Highline Public Schools on Puget Sound in Washington, for example, hosted a webinar series for parents to learn and ask questions prior to school opening this fall. Just because it started out as a webinar doesn't mean that piece of content, that's the only way it needs to live. The audio can live as a podcast. It can be uploaded to a social media channel or YouTube transcribed. There's a lot of things that you can do with a single piece of content to save you time, but reach all of your audiences in one fell swoop.

Remember it’s important to be consistent (to help develop a sense of certainty) when you schedule tentpole content. Our sample editorial calendar starts with fireside chats with the superintendent. We’ve scheduled them so that parents know that if they want to sit in on the fireside chat live, they can tune in on the first Monday of every month.

Separately, we’ve slotted in school or division parent meetings. So you might have the principal of the middle school or all of the principals of your middle schools hosting on the same night. Then, the high school and elementary schools are on different weeks. If you’re a smaller school and have multiple divisions, you can break it out the same way. Generally we’ve scheduled a tentpole event once a week which doesn’t overload the communications schedule and for parents with children at multiple schools, there are no conflicts. 

Special Events

Next are your special events which, depending on the school and the year, may change. Special events are one-offs such as your back to school nights, ice cream socials, concerts, art shows, STEM fairs and other school happenings that require communications. These special events are going to look very different this year,at least for the near future. As you plan out your regular calendar, look at each event and ask yourselves which events can you still do, and which can we do differently?

You may not be able to bring in an audience for the fall play, but maybe you can live stream it, making it available to not only those who could come in person — but also to family and friends that wouldn’t have been able to make it in person. So there might be different, but better, ways even to host events.

For example, bring in some ice cream trucks for that ice cream social distancing event. Mark out spots on the field, and have families come together. Any time that you can bring students and families together, you’re making connections. It’s not going to be easy for large districts. You’ll need to get creative. Maybe you can break down groups by grade level or classes within a school. Maybe you can't do it four times this fall, but maybe you can do it once. 

This summer, many were hoping that they’d be able to move ahead with fall events as plans and then all of a sudden they had to pivot at the last minute and rushed to get the communications ready. But, depending on your school or district’s unique situation this fall, you may need to think social distancing first, think virtual first, think the alternate first, because that is what is certain. You may need to start by building your communications plan around the alternative. 

Regular Scheduled Programming

Your last layer of content is your regularly scheduled programming. Think about this like a TV series that airs every Thursday night at 8:00 PM—(Friends anyone?). Regular programming is predictable. You know that when you tune in, you’ll get exactly what you’re looking for. 

Regular content can be your district/school  weekly, biweekly or monthly newsletter. If you have the luxury of additional staff or crowdsourcing, you might want to add a blog, or a video blog (vlog). Whatever you choose to do, remember, it should be sustainable, regular programming that students, parents, and teachers can look forward to receiving during a regular school schedule. 

Once you have your programming planned out, think about using themes to hold it all together. In our example, we’ve broken the school year down into two-month chunks. We started with community and communications because it’s important and top of mind when everyone’s getting used to coming back to school — this year, especially. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are always important to focus on. Pick educational, social and academic themes that are important to your district or school. 

If you’re an international or independent school, admissions requires another layer of activity. You may also have communications for fundraising events and perhaps also community relations or board meetings. It’s great to have all of your regular scheduled programming and special events in one place so you can see the big picture for planning. 

When I was at Stuart, the podcast was one of my favorite pieces of content. As a tentpole, I would transcribe the podcast interview into a Q & A article. That content could live as a podcast, on YouTube, as a blog, and if it makes sense, even as a magazine article. People in your community will consume content in different ways, so don’t be afraid to repurpose it in different forms. 

The Icing on the Cake

At the end of the day, the goal of developing a communications plan is to create a regular cadence of content throughout the year that can give your community a sense of certainty. Be consistent in the timing, the structure of the content that you repeat, and try to use themes to pull it all together.

Going back to our cake analogy: think of tentpoles, special events and regular scheduled programming like the layers. The content you deliver are the ingredients, themes are your flavor profiles. Ultimately, communicating during uncertain times is not about having a crystal ball to predict the future; it's just about giving your community a sense of confidence in your school or district, and that when you have information to share, they're always going to have immediate and transparent access to it. 

The job of school communications professionals isn’t easy on any given day —and these last six months of crisis management, working from home, making plans and changing them, have been even harder. Whether you’re a team of one or 10, the more you can plan, the less you’ll need to scramble. Just remember to leave a little room for flexibility. The consistency you’re developing is good for you too. We could all use some certainty right now to build trust and confidence. Ultimately, that’s really what communicating during uncertain times is all about.

This blog was adapted from the Summer Camp Lesson: The Ultimate Communications Plan for Uncertain Times hosted by Risa Engel and Mia Major Charette. To download the full recording and accompanying worksheet, as well as the other summer camp lessons, visit finalsite.com/summer.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
risa engel headshot

As chief marketing officer, Risa orchestrates the talented team responsible for worldwide marketing strategy and plan execution at Finalsite. She joined the company in June 2019 with an extensive background in education, finance and tech marketing communications. Most recently at Stuart Country Day School in Princeton, NJ, Risa transformed the school's brand awareness through innovative programs including the CASE Circle of Excellence award-winning #LEADLIKEAGIRL K-12 conference. Born and raised in Silicon Valley, Risa cut her teeth at tech startups and is excited by the incredible opportunities technology provides schools to better communicate, demonstrate value and, therefore, advance the mission of their school.

  • Best Practices
  • Crisis Communications
  • Marketing/Communications
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