Communicate – maintaining a positive school reputation

This is an extract of an article that was originally published in the October 2010 print edition of Teacher.

In the world of marketing, communications and public relations, perception is reality and every school has the opportunity to build its positive reputation and its place in the hearts and minds of the people of its local community.

The best way to build, enhance and then protect your school’s positive reputation is to develop a communications strategy.

Textbook definitions aside, in simple terms a communications strategy is a plan to communicate the right information to the right people at the right time.

Its purpose is to influence your community in the way you intend. This influence must be based on a change in or maintenance of the way your community or target audiences think about you, act towards you and talk about you to others.

So, where to start?

Every day your school community is bombarded by the disciplines and tools of communication from advertising, social media and direct marketing.

The only way to start planning a communications strategy, which will effectively connect with your intended audiences, is to do the strategic work up front.

Many organisations simply plan a schedule of events and activities and call this the Communications Strategy, but unless you have clearly articulated in a written document who you are trying to reach and why, what the messages are that they want to hear from you (not what you want to tell them), and how you can measure their response, you don’t actually have a strategy or even a real plan. At least, certainly not one that has the best chance of being effective.

An effective communications plan has a number of essential elements:

  • an executive summary;
  • the school’s operating or strategic plan and aims;
  • an overview of the school;
  • the purpose of the strategy and communications plan;
  • a communications audit;
  • communications objectives;
  • identification and analysis of target audiences; and,
  • school positioning statements and messages.

An effective communications plan also details the tactics and the specific channels or disciplines of communication. It’s the ‘how’ of your communication.

Let’s look at the various elements in turn.

The executive summary

This is always at the front of your document – but write it last. The executive summary is just that, a one-page summary and an introduction to the elements of your document. It is intended to give the reader an overview only and is designed to be read by people who don’t have the time to read the whole report in the first instance, or who are assessing whether they need to.

Your executive summary needs to say as much as possible in the fewest possible words. It should briefly outline the communications strategy, the background, the methods of planning and analysis, the raising of any important issues in developing the strategy, the main activities to be undertaken and the bottom line outcomes.

The executive summary should be written so that it can stand on its own and encapsulate your school’s communications strategy accurately and concisely.

School overview

This is a profile of the school and a statement about the school’s place in its environment, externally and internally, through environmental scanning.

Environmental scanning involves the systematic gathering of objective and subjective information from your internal and external environments for strategic and tactical purposes. This collected information directly assists you in analysis by way of identifying strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) as the basis for your communications strategy. The results of your SWOT analysis are valuable in this section but need to be kept to a concise report.

Purpose of your communications strategy

Why are you developing this communications strategy? What’s your current position and why does that position need to change? What is the background to your school’s communications? Where do you want to be in the short, medium and long term?

Is your communications strategy proactive or reactive? Reactive strategies should form part of the overall communications strategy for your school, but a standalone issues or crisis communications plan also needs to sit alongside it as a document to be retrieved and used in the unfortunate event of an issue or crisis.

Communications audit

Auditing your previous and current communications strategy and activities is an important process before either modifying or developing a new strategy for the future.

There are two primary criteria for your audit, performance and perception.

Performance should be assessed at the strategic level as well as the tactical level. Strategically, did our communications plan connect us with the right people and deliver the right messages? Tactically, did our communications plan select the right channels to facilitate efficient and effective delivery of our messages?

The audit will often throw up gaps in analysis and highlight issues relating to your school’s ability to assess performance. This is a good outcome as it ensures effective and achievable measurement and evaluation processes are addressed and documented in the next plan.

Perception forms part of the evaluation process. Did your communications plan alter the perception of the school in a positive or negative way or was it neutral? Perception is the lifeblood of your school’s reputation and you need to build, enhance and protect it.

If negative perceptions have not been improved, this should be a driving force for change as you review your plan.

Many schools keep doing the same as they have always done and produce a school newsletter, send flyers home to parents, have the principal stand up in an assembly and say something, build a brochure-style website and hope that things will change.

Doing the same things will take you to the same place.

How you implement an audit and measure results of communications is always a burning question. The measure mechanism must be built into the strategy.

Measurement tools are many and varied but include:

  • research – face-to-face, anecdotal or online surveys;
  • call-to-action campaigns – a call-to-action campaign that requires a target audience to respond in some way provides you with very specific and easily measurable data on the number of, say, telephone calls or emails, or enrolment applications or responses to teacher recruitment advertising, remembering that even the lack of response provides data;
  • media coverage;
  • trends in parental feedback, such as an increase in positive correspondence or contact from parents or a reduction in negative correspondence or contact;
  • awards or industry recognition; and,
  • participation of alumni students in school-endorsed alumni activities.

The results of the communications audit don’t necessarily need to be a separate section in your strategy. They may form part of the commentary in the school overview or the purpose of the strategy sections.

Communications objectives

If there’s one word to sum up your objectives, it’s SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, results-oriented and timelined.

Target audiences

These are the people that you need to communicate with to achieve your objectives and should include a list of groups that have any sort of influential interest in your school – including external groups like existing, previous and potential parents, education departments, alumni, local community traders and the like, and internal groups like staff, students, teachers and so on.

The purpose of defining the groups and subgroups, as well as individuals within these groups who are highly influential in the success of your communications planning, is to make sure you have all bases covered, with the right information directed to them in the right way or by the appropriate channel.

It’s a good idea to rank these groups into low, medium or high influencers so that you can make an informed judgment on how resources – both financial and human – are best allocated.

Positioning statements and messages

For many years schools and indeed most commercial organisations have fallen into the trap of pushing out ‘it’s all about us’ messages.

When you stop to think about it, that doesn’t make sense. The people you are communicating with want to hear information that emotionally or intellectually connects with them – this is what drives them to change their attitudes and behaviour, which is the raison d’être of a communications strategy.

When you start developing your messages for all channels of communication, don’t start from your school’s point of view; start from what you know your target audiences want to hear from you and then weave your important information around that.

The age-old ‘what’s in it for me?’ test is very effective in determining your messages.

To connect with your target audiences effectively and achieve your objectives, you must know what your options are in reaching them through different disciplines, tools and channels of communication – and if you don’t know, go and research it.

Do they read, listen to or watch the media? Will advertising or publicity reach them? Are they mostly online and focused on social media or digital devices such as mobile phones? Do they go to local football matches where they’ll see sponsorship messages? Do they want face-to-face meetings and communication?

Once you have the answers to these sorts of questions, you can assess what combination of options has the potential to work for you. It’s important, however, that you have someone, either internal or external, who understands what various channels of communication – sponsorships, advertising, social networking, public relations, traditional media, direct marketing, school publications, face-to-face contact, the school website and school events – are able to achieve.

Decisions about the way you use these various channels of communication, of course, need to be informed by your budget and resources. Your communications plan should be developed with input from all key staff involved in school communications. Without consultation, there’s no ownership of the strategy and that lessens the chance that it’ll be a practical and useful tool.

While all the key elements are important and should be included, your plan doesn’t have to be 50 pages long. The more succinct you can make your strategy, the easier it will be to use and implement.

This is an extract of an article that was originally published in the October 2010 print edition of Teacher. The author biography remains unchanged and may not be accurate at this point in time.