• Erin Graham

Building Your Communications Program

If you’re working to shake up your outreach, these are some important considerations



Erin Graham, Owner, EGC LLC

Serving public school districts, healthcare organizations, law firms and government agencies for the past 20 years, I’ve had the opportunity to work on both the agency side and in-house to advance marketing and communications initiatives across northeast Ohio. These experiences now feed my approach as a consultant serving multiple entities, doing the work I love best - bringing order and functionality to communications efforts while building confidence and support in the great work occurring in our communities every day.


Perhaps because so much of my work is in support of school districts, I’m often struck by how similar the work of communicating with our stakeholders is with that of educating a child. Gone are the days of sending a flyer home in a student’s backpack - families expect their schools to be as savvy as they are in the ways they choose to be informed. Today’s parents know how to research for knowledge, and engage with content creators - it’s as exciting as the transformation of education in our classrooms itself.


To do it well, we first assess for current knowledge, take time to evaluate the diversity of needs across our audience, put strategies in place to differentiate our approach, and continually assess to ensure our delivery plan is working.


If you’re working to shake up your outreach, here are some important considerations:


ASSESS CURRENT KNOWLEDGE

Before building your communications strategy, you’ll need to know what information your stakeholders are currently receiving, and where they go to become informed. Depending on your budget and timeline, this can be as simple as online surveys that target your internal and external stakeholder groups, or a more robust plan that includes focus groups, individual conversations with key leaders, and survey distribution that reaches out to all community partners via paper and electronic methods.


Audience - Both internal and external stakeholder groups should be engaged in this important step, with responses segmented by group to allow you to customize your outreach approach. Internal groups should include administrators, central office staff, teachers, secretaries, etc. Be sure to also include individuals who do not have regular access to email, including those in nutrition, transportation, and maintenance. Finally, don’t neglect the voice of your students. You’ll be heartened and surprised at the keen insights they have to share. External audiences should include your families, residents, elected officials, business owners, services organizations, faith-based community, and local nonprofits.


What you need to know - Ask questions to discover how they feel about the direction of your school system, the quality of education, the quality of customer service, the quality of communications at classroom, building, and district levels. Find out where they are currently receiving their information. From the local papers? Your website? Are they on social media? Or do they mostly hear about your school system by word of mouth? How would they prefer to hear from you?

Data - If you do not yet have contact lists to reach out to any of the above groups, then it’s past time to begin. Get to it.


EVALUATE NEED

Hooray! You’ve had a great response rate. That’s all you need to create your plan, right? The answer is: maybe. Often, data can get lost in translation. It can help to have members of your stakeholder groups engaged in the review of the data you now have, and to act as an integral member of the team which builds the response plan.


DIFFERENTIATE YOUR APPROACH

You should now have an idea of the strategies and methods you’ll need to employ to best reach your stakeholders and continue to engage them in the decisions that affect them most. Likely you’ll have a mixture of print and online communication, media relations, and community engagement strategies - all requiring differing, though interrelated skill sets to deliver.


This is the time to appreciate the talent you currently have on staff, and evaluate the gaps you’ll need to fill. Your communications team should include both experience with and excellence in writing, graphic design, photography, social media, website development, media relations, customer service, crisis communications, and community engagement. If you have someone on staff who possesses all of these skills, you’ve hit the jackpot. But most likely, you’ll need to supplement your current staff with either a communications firm that specializes in serving school systems, or consultants to support your current work. Looking for support? Reach out to the Ohio School Public Relations Associations for talent in your area.


Consideration: Educators are wonderfully humble. But often, they take for granted the many wonderful things happening in their schools each day. Identify someone in each school who can serve as the conduit of “what’s happening” to your communications team, so that they can share your successes, challenges, and clear pathways for how to get involved.


ASSESS YOUR PROGRESS

One of the beautiful things about communication is that it is ever-evolving, because people themselves are evolving too. The ways we prefer to connect with one another changes over time, and at a rapid pace. Be sure your well-crafted plan is continuing to hit the mark through a data-driven assessment. Again, online surveys are a great tool to provide you with insight, but if you are meeting regularly with your stakeholder groups you should be receiving critical feedback to adjust your sails along the way.


Remember, communication is as much about about sharing information as it is about respect. Focusing on building relationships with those you serve in the same ways you cultivate them in your personal life will garner mutual trust and collaboration.


SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS

Communities with high levels of poverty and/or language barriers require specialized care and attention. Often school districts make the mistake of assuming families who do not actively engage at their child’s school are somehow unwilling to do so. This is rarely the case. Rather, take steps to work with your families to discover and remove the barriers that poverty create.


This often means taking extra effort to ensure addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses are correct. If these are changing multiple times throughout the year, make sure families have input regarding how they are communicated with - maybe billboards are prominent in their neighborhood, or there is a community agency that can help disseminate information. Often, communications sent to mobile phones are the most effective - make it easy for families to update their contact information. If multiple languages are spoken in the homes of your students, don’t assume Google translate is getting the job done. Engage them, in their own language, in ways that make it easier for them to support their child’s education.


Want to learn more about how to connect with your audience? Contact us today....

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©2018 by Erin Graham Consulting, LLC

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