Communicating During Uncertain Times

Communicating During Uncertain Times

The need for ongoing, effective communication from school districts is important even in the best of times. Most would agree this is hardly the best of times. With more questions than answers created by Kansas Supreme Court and the Gannon school finance court case, the discussions happening in Topeka, the calls for greater accountability and transparence –  parents, staff and students need to know what is going on.

How do we provide useful information when there are so many unknowns? The answer is to communicate, communicate, communicate. Reassure everyone that you are monitoring developments and will share what you know as soon as you know it.

That last part of the sentence is key: Share what you know when you know it. KanSPRA – the Kansas School Public Relations Association – developed a two-page communication plan a couple of years ago for the Supreme Court oral arguments. The guide includes useful tips to quickly take control of any communication effort. One hour plus these three steps will be a great start toward allaying fears and providing reassurance.

Step 1: Identify Your Target Audience(s)

The who…Students and their families, employees and your community are primary audiences. Others include local and state elected officials, vendors, etc. Each audience often needs different details, but they will all be looking to the local school district for information.

The how…Website updates, social media, e-mail and phone/text broadcasts are among some of the KanSPRA plan suggestions. This is an excellent time to make social media work for you. Facebook and Twitter are perfect for sharing quick updates and links.

The when and where…Remind your community where to find and receive information, such as your website, social media, sign-up for email updates, blogs, etc. Some of this depends on how you normally communicate news about your district. Regular communication is important, even if the news is simply a short update.

Step 2: Key Topics and Messages

Develop messages for students, families, staff and community based on what you currently know and how you are working to find answers. Here are a few suggestions from KanSPRA:

  • We are actively monitoring the most reliable sources of information from Topeka as the Kansas Supreme Court and Legislature work toward a solution.
  • We are planning on business as usual and having school next year.
  • Planning is a common practice for our district and is based on the best information we have at any time. We plan for a wide variety of emergencies and crises all year long. This includes a plan for the potential of a shutdown, if that should happen.
  • If our district’s plans for this summer or fall change, we’ll let you know first. Here’s how you’ll hear this news: (Include where they can go to find the current and correct information about your local district.)

Step 3: A Call to Action

During uncertain times it often helps to give people something to do. KanSPRA suggests a “call to action” as a way to give the public a proactive role in their future.

  • Focus on a Get Out the Vote campaign. Several organizations, including KanSPRA, KASB and USA Kansas, have a number of resources schools and communities can use.
  • Empower students, employees, families and patrons by reminding them of the importance of their active involvement. “You can take action and make a difference!”
  • Provide links to local legislative representatives and the Governor’s office and ask your community to voice their opinions.

The two-page communication plan developed by representatives of the Kansas School Public Relations Association includes a number of additional communication tips. Kristin Magette, APR, KanSPRA president and director of communications for Eudora USD 491, Martin Weishaar, APR, KanSPRA president-elect and director of communications for Auburn-Washburn USD 437, Tammy Dodderidge, communications manager for Kansas City USD 500, and Carol Pitts created suggested strategies to use as the uncertainties surrounding school finance in Kansas continue.

Challenge Brings Great Opportunity

While this time of uncertainty is stressful on everyone involved, proactive and frequent communication will strengthen the bond and deepen the trust between you and your school patrons.

Bonus Tips for School Superintendents

A key audience is your board of education. In crisis communication (which is very similar to this kind of communication planning) it is easy to overlook your closest internal audiences because of the number of requests from staff and media. Make it a point to update your board of education twice a day – once in the morning and once in the evening.

A blog is a great tool for you to share information and details about what is happening in your local district. There are a number of free blog hosting sites and it takes very little time to get up and running. Once you have the blog created it is very easy to update, then share the link via Facebook and Twitter.

Using a “Frequently Asked Questions” format on a webpage or a blog is a quick and easy-to-update format. It will save time in writing responses and you can edit the answers as more information becomes available.

Additional strategies are available by contacting Carol Pitts 785-273-3600.