Superintendents must play a wide variety of roles to build successful districts supported by a solid foundation of motivated students, engaged parents, and supportive community members. They must be mentors, managers, counselors, visionaries—and public relations agents. This last one, the role of the liaison between the school and the community that supports it, can easily become the least prioritized as superintendents focus on standardized test scores, parental involvement, and staff development. Planning and executing a comprehensive public relations strategy, however, is essential to a successful district.
Schools need the support of their taxpayers, and communities need schools to be successful in their role of producing dedicated, intelligent, future community leaders. The superintendent is a lynchpin in the symbiotic relationship between schools and communities, and no such relationship can succeed without effective communications. The best practices outlined below have been curated to guide you in your efforts to inform, connect, and engage your community members better so that they, in turn, can support your students and your strategic initiatives.
Five Ways School Leaders Can Better Engage Their Communities
- Ensure Your Communications are Proactive More Often than Reactive. Your community should not hear from you only when you are responding to questions, concerns, or critiques. Nor should it only hear from you when you are addressing negative reports about student misconduct that impacted life outside of your school. Superintendents who only speak to the media or issue communications to the community when reacting or responding to unfavorable press risk local residents misperceiving them as not excelling and producing positive outcomes. Your community needs to hear about the positive work your students have accomplished, your goals, and strategic initiatives, and it should be made aware of them proactively. Make it a routine part of your job to issue regular communications to your community to share news about student accomplishments, athletic achievements, academic growth initiatives, and student community outreach events. There will unfortunately always be a need to react to inquiries or concerns, however by sharing proactive, positive PR; your community will see a balanced view of your district and will be more supportive of your overall mission and vision.
- Leverage Multiple Communication Channels. There may have been a time when superintendents were only able to reach the community through open public forums. Thanks to the advent of technology, however, those days have passed. Your students are not the only generation tethered to digital devices and living in a world of on-demand communication expectations. The most effective approach to reaching the widest variety of members of your community is to use as many communication channels as possible.Talk to your local print and broadcast media representatives. Issue updates, share photos and accomplishments via school social media accounts. Hold public forums and invite the community to partake in open dialogue. Encourage the community to sign up for your district’s email distribution list and issue a quarterly newsletter, or a monthly Superintendent’s update. Remember that not everyone in your community is tech savvy, so traditional communication such as postal mail or articles in your local newspaper can still play a role in your overarching communication strategy when your budget allows, and the distributed message is critical.
- Be Sincere. The National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) affirms that school district public relations should not be about “puffery, spin doctoring, and techniques to make [district leaders] look good.” Rather, the role of a public relations strategy for a school district is to foster healthy, open dialogue that can be used “as a vehicle to build trust, confidence, and support for doing the best for all children in our schools.” Offering genuine remarks, in as transparent a manner as is appropriate will help build trust with your community members. It is also vital that superintendents put careful thought into communications on any topics that could be controversial or divisive.
Even when topics you need to discuss are challenging — such as reports of student bullying, budget increases with tax implications, or program cuts due to funding limitations — be as honest and transparent as possible. Also, ensure you give members of the community a forum to ask questions and provide thoughtful, diplomatic responses. You may not always be able to make decisions that are in the best interest of your school and the community, but earnest, genuine communications will always be respected, even by those who do not agree with the direction of events.
- Collaborate. A successful public relations agent does not only report school news. He or she asks questions, listens, accepts suggestions, and uses the feedback from surrounding influencers to inform the decision-making process. To be successful, superintendents must follow a collaborative process with teachers, school leaders, parents, and even students. Why should members of the community be left out of the process? Ultimately, all your decisions must be made to achieve the school’s ultimate goal of producing positive student outcomes, but the reality is that not every decision that is best for a school will be in concordance with the opinions of every individual community resident. Still, when superintendents work with the community to make decisions together when possible, it allows the vital relationship between school and resident to align and solidify more closely. While decisions about staff development initiatives and academic programming may are less well-suited for open community dialogue, deciding where to build your middle school’s new junior varsity football field could undoubtedly be made with input from surrounding homeowners.
- Think Outside the Box. Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest. Technology is great, but not everyone in your community is tech savvy. In the book, Schools Cannot Do It Alone, by Jamie Vollmer, Vollmer offers educational administrators a practical program to secure the understanding, trust, permission, and support they need to change the system and increase student success. One idea that Vollmer brings to light is the use of the school signs/billboards to inform the community about what is going on in the district.1 Many schools announce days off or the first day of school, but why not use your school’s billboard to announce positive happenings in your district, such as achievements in sports, academics, a special student or teacher, theatre or art event, or even just thanking your community for their support? Think about all of the people that drive by your school each day that would be interested to find out what’s going on!
To lead a school and develop a generation of successful future leaders, it takes more than a focus on classroom curriculum. It takes teachers, parents, and a community of residents who understand your school’s vision and want to be an active part of student development. Cultivating such supportive relationships can only occur through honest, proactive, collaborative, multichannel communications. While residents may not always agree with every decision district leaders make that directly or indirectly impacts them, what is essential is that superintendents aim to build the types of mutually respected relationships that can support the occasional misalignment because they are formed on a stable foundation of respect and trust.
1. Vollmer, J. R. (2010). Schools cannot do it alone: Building public support for Americas public schools. Fairfield, IA: Enlightenment Press.