Do Your Surveys Suck? 5 Tips For Creating Better Surveys

Over the past seven months, school districts are using surveys more than ever to gather stakeholder preferences and feedback for their COVID-19 beginning of the school year planning and implementation of some form of in-person or hybrid reopening plans over the next few months.

While surveys are and can be a useful tool, a survey’s utility is only as beneficial as its design.  In addition, survey results can have some intended consequences (providing the information being sought), and some very unintended ones, as well (stakeholders holding the results and positioning them as “votes” over the district’s head to pressure their leadership to take certain positions).

One of the biggest mistakes I am seeing right now is that school districts are using the term “survey” to define a number of things, from collecting information about learning preferences, feedback about distance learning, and more.  The problem is, these are not all surveys.  For example, I am seeing a number of “surveys” that are collecting information from parents about whether their child will be continuing to learn in a distance learning or will be transitioning to in-person (hybrid or otherwise) learning. These “surveys” collect student name, school, and contact information data, so that the districts know which students are returning to in person learning and which ones are remaining in distance learning. In reality, parents are not completing a survey–they are completing a registration form. Likewise, if you’re looking for the answer to one specific question, a poll might be a better choice, and if you’re looking for general feedback about your stakeholders’ overall experience with a program or approach to learning, asking for a review could be most effective.

Another mistake I am seeing is that surveys are asking for learning model preferences without providing all of the details to stakeholders.  These questions fail to include all of the known information, and stakeholders may be opting for certain responses without understanding the impacts of those choices.

For example, a five day a week schedule in your district may mean that student cohorts will be split into morning and afternoon schedules, and will spend fewer hours in the classroom.  Learning in person may mean that students will be required to remain with their cohort, will encounter restrictions during recess, will eat lunch in their classroom, and socialization will be greatly limited.

This is not to say that in person learning is filled with insurmountable challenges, but in parents’ excitement  to return their children to school, they also may have certain assumptions of what that will look like, and similarly staff and teachers may also have certain assumptions as they complete their surveys.

Without painting a clear picture of what each survey choice means, stakeholders may be selecting certain options based on expectations and assumptions, and if those are not met, then your district risks creating confusion and disappointment, being accused of lacking transparency and losing trust in the process.  This is why providing clear information to stakeholders in advance of sending surveys is so critically important–you don’t want to create more confusion when you send your surveys.

Maybe it’s been a decade since you took your research methods class in grad school–or maybe you never took a course at all. In any case, anytime you want to create a survey, you need to be thoughtful and thorough.  So, here are five ways to improve your surveys so that your stakeholders feel valued, you will collect the data you need, and you’ll prevent confusion and unintended consequences.

 

5 Ways to Improve Your Surveys
  1. Be prepared. First, establish your survey’s goals and objectives. What information do you want to gather–preferences, taking the temperature of your stakeholders, obtaining registrations?  How do you want to use this information? Would your survey be best suited to be split up into two surveys?  If you have vastly different goals, you may want to consider sending two different surveys so that you aren’t confusing your stakeholders.  Lastly, determine whether a survey is the best approach for gathering the information you are seeking, or if focus groups or an advisory committee would be more effective.  
  2. Be informative. Provide clear information in advance of sending your survey–on your website, through video, and through stakeholder meetings.  Your survey should not be the first (or only) place where information is conveyed.  Make sure you are preparing your stakeholders with the most up to date information before asking them to take a survey, otherwise your survey results will not be accurate, and your stakeholders will accuse your district of lacking transparency.
  3. Be clear.  Are you collecting information, do you want people’s commitments, are you taking a poll or wanting a review?  A survey collects data. Registrations collect commitments.  Polls collect preferences, and reviews collect feedback. So, be clear with your audience about how you will be using the information you are collecting, and clearly and accurately title the survey.  Additionally, avoid jargon, keep questions clear and concise, and don’t ask loaded questions.
  4. Be thoughtful. Based on your survey goals and objectives, develop easy to understand, bias-free survey questions. Make sure that you are not asking leading questions.  Do a test run with friends and family outside of your organization to catch any problems or issues with your questions or survey design.
  5. Be varied. Provide a balance of different types of survey questions being asked, and based on the goals and objectives of your survey, you approach to survey questions should support those goals and objectives.  Hubspot provides a great summary of the different types of survey questions, and how to use them, but here is their easy-to-understand summary of the question types in case you needed a refresher: 
    • Multiple Choice: Multiple choice survey questions are questions that offer respondents a variety of different responses to choose from. 
    • Rating Scale: Rating scale questions (also known as ordinal questions) ask respondents to rate something on a numerical scale assigned to sentiment. 
    • Likert Scale: Likert scale survey questions evaluate if a respondent agrees or disagrees with a question. 
    • Ranking: Ranking survey questions ask respondents to rank a variety of different answer options in terms of relative priority or importance to them.
    • Semantic Differential: Semantic differential survey questions also ask for respondents to rate something on a scale, but each end of the scale is a different, opposing statement. Use semantic differential questions to get clear-cut qualitative feedback from your stakeholders.
    • Dichotomous: Dichotomous survey questions offer only two responses that respondents must choose between. 
    • Close-Ended: Close ended survey questions are questions that have a set number of answers that respondents must choose from. 
    • Open-Ended: Where the survey types above all have closed-ended answers that you input as different options to choose from, open-ended questions are usually accompanied by an empty text box, where the respondent can write a customer answer to the question.

The bottom line: Sending a survey is a lot like Thanksgiving dinner. You’re gathering the family around the table and feeding them the opportunity to share their thoughts. Remember to set your table with care before feeding your family. Your stakeholders will thank you for it.

 

5 Things To Update on Your District and School Websites-Today

It’s September 28, 2020, and for many of you, your schools have been in session for about a month now.  Although it feels like it’s been a lifetime, it has been only 4-6 weeks. During this time of constantly shifting priorities, it’s easy to lose site of cleaning the proverbial cobwebs that might be growing on your website pages.

Have you updated and cleaned up your website content lately?  I’m not talking about the millionth-plus-one “Update” that you posted on Friday in response to a recent board or MOU decision…I’m talking about the rest of the stuff you posted since the crazy, ever-changing weeks before the first week of school, and everything since.

I’m currently working through updating a client’s website content on their school reopening and distance learning pages, and as great and informative as that content was before school began, there have been some changes, there is information that is not as useful now, and I want to make sure that their audiences know that those pages are continually updated, especially as the district prepares for potentially opening their school buildings to hybrid learning in three months.

In the hustle and bustle of long board meetings, shifting requirements and policies, and trying to stay on top of the great news that is happening in your district, it’s possible that these updates have slid off your priority list.  But, for a parent who is wading through the masses of information on your website, more information isn’t necessarily better, especially if it’s outdated.  And, if a parent needs to wade through a page of a half a dozen or more date-stamped updates going back three months, it’s really time to streamline your web content.

So, here are 5 things to update on your district and school websites–today:
  • Change all future tense verbs to present tense.  Is your content geared for a parent/staff audience anticipating information about the upcoming school year?  A month in, the school year is off the ground, and no one is anticipating last month’s information.   For example: “the 2020-21 school year, which begins on August 19th” should be changed to “which began on August 19th.”
  • Archive any updates that occurred prior to this week. If you don’t already have a “Process” page as part of your school reopening information web pages, I strongly suggest creating one, which can include a timeline of important decisions that have been made (and ones scheduled in the future) with links to relevant documents and announcements.
  • Clarify which decisions/plans still stand, despite changes to county/state criteria. The state of California has had a couple of shifts to its criteria for loosening restrictions, as elementary school waivers, and if your MOUs and/or board decisions differ from these at all, then it’s important to clarify the district’s plans and timelines.
  • Update timelines: Are the timelines current?  Are they clearly communicated?  Don’t expect that timelines verbally expressed during a board meeting or nestled into a presentation or a report will be read or known by your stakeholders.  Clearly communicate important timelines, and even if timelines are tentative, this information also needs to be conveyed in a transparent manner.
  • Review website categories, page headers, subheads and links. Are your pages still organized in a way that prioritizes the preparation activities for the school year?  Now that information needs have shifted, be sure to rename your website categories, links, headers and subheads accordingly, and ensure that the highest priority information is listed first, and if new pages need to be created for specific categories (especially if certain pieces of information should be housed on its own page, like wellness resources, academic assistance, etc.  Also double check that links to pages are updated.

Through updating and streamlining your website content, you will keep your audience engaged, continue to communicate in one clear and consistently messaged voice, and reinforce transparency.

We’re here to help

If you’re balancing school/district leadership with communication responsibilities, and you’re finding yourself falling behind on timely and consistent communications across your communication channels, Sounding Board Marketing & Communications can help.  Contact us for a free 30 minute consultation, or sign up for any of our services.

What are some other topics that you are keeping updated on your websites?

Leave your reply below in the comments!

 

Don’t Forget About Employee Morale

A conversation with a friend the other day shed a bright light on the casualties of pandemic leading, management and meetings. My friend is well-established in his career, works in public education, is in upper management and is an incredibly hard working, and also humble person.  He is the first person to compliment others’ work, always credits the team, and is least likely to accept credit and compliments for his own work.

Since March, COVID19 closed public schools and transitioned everyone into some form of distance instruction and remote work and my friend, like many others, was able to resume regular meetings via Zoom, and continue his work via email, file sharing and telephone.

When my friend contacted me because he was troubled by his feelings of being under appreciated.  As I mentioned before, my friend is not someone who strives for compliments and recognition, so for him to feel this way meant, to me, that many valuable things may be missing in his environment–and probably many work environments of others who are working remotely–that are having an impact on employee morale.  And, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to feel appreciated and recognized–we’re hard-wired as human beings to appreciate rewards for hard work, thanks to our brain chemistry!

Having worked remotely for a better part of my career, there are a few things I’ve learned along the way. The biggest piece of advice I can give to leaders and employees is to be intentional and purposeful when bridging genuine and authentic connections with others.  This doesn’t happen by chance or by mistake!

  • Problem: Lack of Human Interaction: Although Zoom has resumed the “business of holding meetings” they only get the job done of holding meetings and sharing business in meetings. Regular in-person meetings accomplish so much more: the time before the meeting when people have casual conversations to catch up, people sharing the same space creates an environment that reinforces shared norms and values–not to mention eye contact and observing body language, even the time after the meeting’s conclusion offers opportunities for additional casual conversations and banter.  These personal touchpoints allow for bonding and real human interaction.With remote work, these casual touchpoints also disappear–gone are the “watercolor conversations” and drop-in discussions.Email and telephone interactions are typically transactional or, what I call, “lobbing the ball over the net” until you get the ball returned.It is through these in-person meetings and conversations, whether formal or informal, that compliments and praise are easily and naturally provided, smiles and laughs are a part of the environment, and the true culture of an organization ebbs and flows in the everyday.

    Remedy: While offices are still closed (or are limiting the number of employees on site), offer to meet with people one-on-one, over lunch or coffee. Take some time to have the casual conversations, offer praise for their work, and discuss goals.  This interaction may be just what the other person needs to also feel valued.

  • Problem: Lack of Praise: The pandemic has created a crisis-like environment where everyone’s thoughts and actions are centered around the unfamiliar and tackling the situations at hand. While in crisis, teams are in “fight or flight” mode where there is a common understanding that everyone is getting the job done, going above and beyond where necessary.  When in crisis-mode, there is not always time to take a deep breath and say, “We’re doing a great job” especially when the results of the efforts–either positive or negative–are completely unknown.As humans, we’re conditioned to cross the finish line before we celebrate, and we’re even more deeply conditioned to only celebrate if we know we have been successful.  In this pandemic, with public education, we have no idea if our efforts are successful, because we are literally building the ship while we’re sailing it.

    Remedy: The number one factor behind the happiness of employees is appreciation.You still have to remember to celebrate and recognize employees, each day.  According to a recent post from Leadership First: When employees feel valued, they will contribute more and perform better at work. They tend to be more engaged, passionate, and incredibly loyal to their work to help the organization fulfill its purpose and vision. How can you make your employees feel valued, here are a few simple examples according to Bridget Miller:

    • Recognition. Provide employees with the recognition they deserve.
    • Say “thank you”—simple, but effective, and often overlooked. Tip: Consider writing and mailing a handwritten thank you note.
    • Solicit their opinion and utilize it as often as possible.
    • Invest in their continued development.

There are many more strategies one can use to genuinely show their appreciation; these are just a few.

It’s okay to celebrate in the middle of this race–celebrate the small wins along the way. We don’t know how it’s going to end, whether we were 100% successful, and we definitely don’t know where the finish line is. However, you don’t want your team to drop out of the race before it’s finished, so remember to cultivate genuine connections where possible, show appreciation, and keep their morale at the forefront, no matter what–your outcomes will be much more successful.

Running Your Communication Offense & Defense

Picture showing offense and defenseThe best PR tip I can offer in the midst of COVID-19 (or any crisis, for that matter) is that you should be running an offense and defense at the same time.

This can be a challenge to do, if you’re a one person PR team (or administrator wearing multiple hats, including PR). So, if you haven’t already put together a communication and PR team, start now.

However, it is incredibly important to not only manage the current reality, but also to paint a picture of the future.

I read a great recent article on PR Daily that I’m going to summarize here, and put into context for education organizations, particularly during COVID-19 school closures and re-openings.

Your Defense Team

Your “defense team” includes those managing the current crisis. This team should be comprised of the most resilient—those who are quick to take action, are the voice of calm and reason, and who survey the current landscape and adhere to the facts as they manage the crisis.

In a school district your defense team should include someone from HR (familiar or involved with current negotiations), an instructional administrator (like an Assistant Superintendent for Instruction/Curriculum), and a student welfare/social emotional health administrator.

Your Offensive Team

Your offensive team looks to the future and is not involved in the current crisis. Those best suited for this team are curious and self-starters—they veer away from comfort zones, are competitive and strategic, and can see at least six months down the road.  This could be your CBO, facilities director, health officer/administrator, and a principal rep for each level in your district (elementary, middle, high school).

You, as the communication leader, will work with both teams and manage the strategic direction and progress, and your superintendent will also be involved with working with both teams, as they set the direction for the district as a whole.

Both teams should be providing talking points to your Board of Education and coaching your board members on resisting the urge to post articles or opinions that may cause confusion about the district’s messaging or plans.

Keeping an Eye on Your Future

While your stakeholders are living in the present, they are also shaping their opinions about the future.  While yes, parents are focused on what grading options are available and how Class of 2020 graduates will be honored during  shelter in place, they are also creating some very strong opinions about distance education–not just the delivery, but also the quality.  Parents and staff members are also concerned about schedules and safety when schools re-open.

  • Communicate about your district’s commitment to providing a high quality educational experience and your district’s values: Parents have choices, and there are many online education programs that may be delivering distance education in a higher quality format and approach than what is being offered by their school district. With the prospect of distance education being some part of a hybrid educational approach in the 2020-21 school year, it is imperative that you are reinforcing parents’ confidence in your schools by letting them know how you are planning on ensuring that students are receiving a high quality education and what that will look like in 2020-21.
  • Communicate about what discussions are in progress about the upcoming school year: Silence is not golden in the world of communications.  Silence opens up too many opportunities for other people to fill in the blanks.  Provide your stakeholders some information about the conversations you’re currently having about next year’s re-opening plans, what assumptions will be made, and your district’s priority on the health and safety of students and staff.
  • Show empathy: Acknowledge that you understand that parents and staff desire to have concrete answers so that they can plan ahead, and show gratitude for their patience. Let them know that the upcoming school year will be different for everyone, and that the district is planning for providing more emotional/social supports for students and staff in navigating the changes ahead.

Every great team has a strong offense and defense running parallel, and in school districts, you can develop two strong communication teams that can effectively manage the current needs while also keeping an eye on the ball, so that you can have a winning approach to keeping your district’s reputation and relationships strong and intact.

Need help developing your winning team?

As an integrated partner and strategic advisor, Sounding Board Marketing & Communications can come alongside you in developing your communication team and providing strategic advising to implement successful communication approaches. Give us a call at 916.673.8868 or hvmcgowan@sounding-board.net

 

How to Get Your Key Messages on Track

Key-messagesFrom watching the news this past week, one of the things that is standing out most to me is the importance of key messaging, and sticking to the message.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just take a look at the presidential press conferences from last week and the ensuing confusion and caution in their wake.

Myth: It’s not important to spend time developing key messages—people are going to say what they want anyway.

Fact: Key messages are imperative in the planning process, so that they can be interwoven into every communication message, talking points, etc. to ensure consistency of messaging so that your messages stick!

Here’s the thing–just because people naturally communicate does not make them communication experts.  If people are left to their own devices in developing key messages on their own, their responses will vary, resulting in confusion, lack of clarity and zero consistency in messaging.  The end result is confused stakeholders whose trust will be diminished due to lack of consistent messaging from your organization.

Key messages can be 1-2 sentences long, and you should identify three truthful key messages that will be used throughout your campaign, process, crisis or situation management.  These are not taglines—they are what you want people to remember throughout the process.  And avoid education-ese, jargon or internal terminology/acronyms.  They need to be concise, active, positive, short, and specific.

Key messages answer the “What should we be saying to our stakeholders?” question during a strategic communication process, which can be a short or long term approach to communicating about an issue, program/school, during a crisis or situation.  In other words–all of your communications should be strategic.

How do you decide on your key messages?   Your key messages are the three things you want all of your stakeholders to remember throughout the process–everything else you say and do will support this. They answer the “Why?” and “How?” questions. Here are some examples, based on a school consolidation communication plan I developed for a school district client:

  • School consolidation will help {District’s name} schools stay strong by closing a $12 million budget shortfall and addressing declines in school enrollment. In doing so, we can ensure that our schools maintain the level of excellence that our families expect for our students and support innovative learning in the classroom so that our students are prepared for a highly competitive global society.
  • The District will be working closely with the community throughout the school consolidation process. We will provide our families opportunities for input during the process, including community information sessions.
  • The decision to consolidate schools comes after several years of studying and assessing our district’s finances, facilities, enrollment and impacts to our entire district community.

Who should have these key messages? Again, your key messages should be interwoven throughout all of your communications to your stakeholders–your talking points, FAQs, website content, used in media interviews, etc.  Ensure that your district cabinet, board and other key communicators not only have these key messages, but compel them to use them in their communications.

Who should develop the key messages? Collaborate as a team with your Cabinet members to develop the key messages–having multiple perspectives will strengthen the clarity of your messaging and ensure they’re on target.

Need help developing key messages?  

We’re here to help. Give us a call at 916.673.8868 or hvmcgowan@sounding-board.net.

Celebrating Earth Day-Even During Distance Education

50th Earth Day Logo“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”
-John Muir

As a child, I have fond memories of camping and taking nature walks, and remember so many lessons I learned from my mother on those walks (Who can’t forget the “leaves of three, don’t touch me” rhyme to remember how to identify poison oak?).  My husband (a biology teacher) and I continue to enjoy the outdoors with our children, and spend most of our sunny days together in hikes and walks. For me, being outdoors, enjoying the quiet sounds of nature, is the ultimate re-set button.

With the initial introduction of online learning, one thing that is concerning a lot of parents is the amount of time that their children need to spend learning online. Earth Day is an incredible day for educators to promote outdoor education, and especially during these stay at home times, this is a great way to encourage students to get outdoors and engage in applied learning.

And, it happens to be the 50th anniversary of the Earth Day celebration! How can you encourage and promote all of this beautiful and positive outdoor learning?  Here are a few ideas:

Earth Day Challenge

Source: Earth Day Network

  • Earth Day 2020 social media campaign: Ask parents, teachers, and staff to post pictures/videos of them engaging in Earth Day activities using a unique Earth Day 2020 hashtag for your school/district.  Collect those pictures to curate into a post summarizing the ways your schools celebrated Earth Day.
  • Promote Earth Day educational activities: Everything from NASA to the National Geographic Kids to EarthDay.org and environmentally-conscious companies have activities for children to do on Earth Day.  Promote these via email and social media communications.
  • Earth Day Challenge: Ask students to draw or video how they plan to #bendthecurve on consumption, waste and pollution on engaging in daily activities (see image to the right). Post and share these photos and videos on social media throughout the week.

And, for you, as a busy superintendent, principal, communication director, or other professional, remember to get out, take a walk, and take deep breaths in nature. These are stressful times, and taking a break to reconnect with nature will do more wonders than an extra hour working ever will.

If you need a partner in your organization’s communication, or if you just want a listening ear (or sounding board!), I’m happy to help. Click here to schedule a free 30 minute consultation.

 

How To Streamline Internal Communication–Starting Today

Email InboxThis past weekend, I spent a couple of hours talking with new teachers during a Communication Confidence Boosters workshop and “Throw Your Communication Challenges At Me” Q&A session.

First, I was absolutely floored by the number of teachers participating in their own professional development after what was likely the first week of launching distance education for many of them.  They are true rockstars!

Next, when one teacher asked how she could organize and prioritize the “hundreds of district emails” in her in-box—and the affirmation of the other teachers who related—I realized that internal communication in a lot of organizations is likely looking like my personal email in-box: like a bunch of people yelling at me telling me that their message is important.

Although I gave this teacher some advice on how to filter and organize her in box so that she could at least see parent emails first—and then create priorities and timelines around when she could check the other emails—the truth is, your internal audiences should not need to spend hours setting up email filters and in box folders to organize and prioritize your messages.  That’s a late 1990’s/early 2000’s thing. Don’t get me wrong–organizing your email inbox is a must, however, with your internal communications,  your organization should be doing this through integrated, organized, strategic and concise messaging.

Remember what I’ve said before? More communication is not better. More communication means that you’re making your audience choose what they want to read and open.

Better communication filters out the noise and hones in on the most important messages. More communication means that you’re asking audience members to read to wordy messages, long videos and poorly messaged content to determine whether what they read and saw was important, or if it was just a “fluffy message filler.”

Better communication puts the information succinctly in one place, and prioritizes the messaging. 

So how can you accomplish this?  Simply–put the information in one spot for the employee.  And keep messages brief and to-the-point.  Here are a few suggestions:

Employee Newsletter

An employee newsletter is a great way to put all the information you need to send to employees in one place.

  • Frequency: Aim to send the newsletter 1-2 times a week.
  • Length: Your newsletter should be no longer than 1-1.5 printed pages.  The key is to hone in on key information.  Provide links to more detailed information on your website, where necessary, but not in every single story.
  • Format: NOT a pdf download.  If you make people open an email, then download a pdf to read your newsletter, you’ve lost at least 50% of your audience. There are several online email programs that provide easy-to-use, attractive formats.  Constant Contact and MailChimp are a couple of popular email programs.  And, depending on the number of email address in your organization, you may even be able to use their free versions. These programs also allow you to look at open rates, and link click through rates, which is a wonderful way to track how many of your emails are being opened and which links people are clicking on for more information.
  • Include a couple of pictures (not clip art, but pictures of real employees, or from school sites) where relevant.
  • Because of the frequency, it’s key to ensure that the information is timely, and to organize information around the timing of the newsletter’s delivery.
Employee Intranet

Over the past few years, there has been a small rise in the use of employee intranets (closed internal communications network), though the use of Google Drive has also served this need.

  • Pros: It’s streamlined. An employee intranet gives your employees one place to access shared drives and information.  You can post important employee-only calendar events (versus posting them on your public-facing events calendar), reminders that can be integrated with email, and notifications.  Many organizations have multiple ways that employees must obtain this information, and anything that requires an employee to log in to multiple platforms to obtain information basically reduces the chance that the employee will log in and see that information.  So, if you want success with your employee interfaces, then look at one place they need to log in.
  • Cons: They can be costly and somewhat time consuming to set up.  However, the employee time saved and the opportunity to ensure that they are seeing and sharing your messages is worth the up front costs. Here’s a link to a great article that outlines Employee Intranet: 40 Reasons Why Every Business Needs One.
Employee Texts

If you have employees who do not regularly use email, but do have an employer-issued phone, consider sending brief texts intended just for those employees.  Obviously, they don’t need all the tech-related updates relevant to distance education, but they still need to be kept in the loop.

Employee Phone Messages

You may have some employees who are not working right now who usually receive information via district mail or on a bulletin board.  It’s important to keep them engaged and informed about important matters.  Utilize your organization’s phone messaging program (if you have one) or ask directors and managers to reach out to these employees individually to provide them the latest updates (and to check in on them if they’re personally calling each employee).

Need help setting up strategic and streamlined internal communications, or need some advice on how to do so?  Give us a call at 916.673.8868 or send us an email.  We’ll get you up and going within the day on an email communication, employee phone messages and texts, or can refer you to great employee intranet vendors.

 

Before you Send That Email, Tweet, Record That Message…

Person plugging their earsCrises are incredible opportunities to use communication to strengthen relationships with stakeholders.  In the midst of COVID-19 and the drastic changes to the educational landscape, I’ve been watching my fellow California School Public Relations Association and National School Public Relations colleagues rise to the challenge to inform parents, staff and the public about school closures, free meals, distance learning, mental health tips and resources, community resources, and ways that their staff are going above and beyond the call of duty.  And, in some cases, superintendents and support staff are being thrown into implementing crisis and ongoing communications tactics in ways they never have before.

They’re also competing with an onslaught of communications from businesses and other organizations that are also communicating what they are doing to keep customers safe, business and product delivery options, and well-meaning free approaches to keep children, teens and adults entertained, in good health and more.

It’s enough to saturate any audience member.  This also creates the real and huge risk of audience members tuning and checking out, scanning information quickly, and missing the important details.

Now, more than ever, it’s imperative for communicators to lead their organizations in strategic communication planning and implementation.  This process is a cycle of the four step PR process: Research, Planning, Implementation, Evaluation.

More communication is not better.  More tactics won’t help you reach your audience members. Targeted, strategic, well-messaged communications and tactics are what will allow you to be effective in reaching your audiences, and continue to increase and retain audience trust, and ensure your audience members are doing what you want them to do.

Because I will assume that you have already implemented your communications tactics, we’re going to begin with Evaluation, which is the fourth step in the 4-Step PR process.  Typically, you’ll start with Research.

Step 1: Evaluation

I know it seems odd to start with the final step of the 4-Step PR process, but as I previously mentioned, this is a cycle. Most likely, you’ve already implemented the first three steps, but you probably haven’t had an opportunity to come up for air and evaluate. Evaluation is answering the questions “How have we been successful?” “How can we do better?” and “What do we need to adjust moving forward?”

Here are a couple of examples of what to evaluate: 

  • Environmental Scan: Evaluate where your organization is in this crisis.  Most likely, your schools have been closed for at least one week, and distance learning plans are in place, and possibly implemented. Ask yourself whether daily (or twice daily) communications are still necessary, or if you can reduce communications to 2-3 days per week.
  • Engagement, Click Throughs/Opens, Phone Message Logs: Review your social media engagement, email click throughs and open rates, and phone message logs.  What patterns do you see? Are you seeing a dip in email open rates and click throughs later in the week?  What questions are being asked on social media?  Are your videos being viewed? What kinds of comments are being made?  Take note of what seems to be engaging people the most, what questions need to be answered in FAQs, and other data that will help inform your future communications.  Also, anecdotal feedback from audience members can be incredibly valuable.

Step 2: Research

Research essentially defines the problem. From the evaluation process, what problems have you uncovered?

  • Who do you want to REACH? Are you reaching your audiences effectively, or are there holes?
  • What do you want them to DO? Are your audiences acting/reacting in the intended ways from your previous communications, or do you need to provide clarification and/or other communication avenues (i.e. Setting up separate Facebook or Twitter profiles for answering IT questions from parents, staff)
  • What messages do you want to communicate to each public that will encourage desired behavior, increase knowledge and change attitudes? Review your previous messages—are they working, do they need to be tweaked?

Step 3: Planning

The Universal Accreditation Board outlines a 10-step PR plan (which I also use with my clients) that will work for any situation.

  1. Goals: This is a state of being that you want to accomplish through your communications. Example: “For every audience ABC School District audience member to clearly understand what they should be doing during COVID-19 school closures and how the District will support and serve as a resource for families and employees.”
  2. Target Audiences or Publics:
    • Who needs to know or understand?
    • Whose advice or support do we need?
    • Who will be affected?
  3. Objectives for Those Audiences:
    • Objectives are shorter term.
    • Define what behavior, attitude or opinion you want to achieve from specific audiences, how much to achieve and when.
    • Think in terms of the awareness, attitude or action you desire – the end result.
  4. Strategies
    • The road map or approach to reach objectives.
    • Do not indicate specific actions.
    • Use verbs such as demonstrate, collaborate, etc.
  5. Tactics: These are the specific activities conducted to implement strategies of a program.
    • How you will use your resources to carry out your strategy and work toward your objectives.
    • Examples: Meetings, publications, news releases, websites, billboards.
  6. Activities: Specific activities required under your tactics to carry out strategies.
    • Informal plans often jump from objectives to activities.
    • Vehicles or channels you will use to communicate are listed here.
  7. Evaluation
    • How will you know if you are reaching your objectives?
    • Measurement? Observation? Opinion? Feedback?
  8. Materials: What do you need to implement/execute your tactics?
  9. Budget:ƒ Out-of-pocket costs, staff time, volunteer energy, transportation, images, materials, fabrication, etc.
  10. Timetable and Task List
    • What does what and when?
    • Work backward from deadline or forward from start date

STEP 4: Implementation

Implementation involves actual messages sent through the communication channels and tools you will be using, and includes monitoring tools for execution. And then, once you have implemented your plan, then you will come back to evaluation.

Remember, this is a process and a cycle. But it is effective, and it works.

If you haven’t implemented this approach previously, it will likely feel cumbersome to go through these steps, particularly if you are already feeling overwhelmed.  However, this will become like second nature once you’ve gone through the process.  You will likely uncover ways to be more efficient and effective in your work, as well.

Have questions? Need clarification?

I’m always happy to hop onto a call to help answer questions and guide you through the steps.  Feel free to contact me at 916.673.8868 or hvmcgowan@sounding-board.net. We’re in this together and we’ll get through this together.

 

 

 

A Special Note About Being Open for Business

Open for business signWhen I opened Sounding Board Marketing & Communications 10 years ago, I always intended for my business to provide mostly virtual services to my clients.  During this time of school closures, I’m still providing the same, strategic and creative services for my clients so that they can stay connected with their district’s families–employees and parents–through all of their communication platforms. As a parent of three and wife of a his teacher, I am on the receiving end of the messaging being sent by my children’s school district and I’m on the observing end watching my husband find ways to connect with his students.

Whether you need content development for messaging, a roadmap for communications for the next few weeks, or ideas for keeping schools and teachers connected with families, I’m here to help.  As always, my mission has always been to help educators strengthen their relationships with their stakeholders, and never before has this been more important.

Feel free to send me an email at hvmcgowan@sounding-board.net or give me a call at 916.673.8868 if you want to talk through your communications, or if you need a sounding board for ideas you’re already considering.  I’m here when you need me.

All the best,

Heather

#BetterTogether: High and Low Tech Ways to Stay Connected With Students, Families

Fellow educators—well, we’ve certainly had a fun couple of weeks, right?  It’s an understatement to say that the coronavirus (COVD19) has rocked our worlds.

Virtual High FiveWhile you’re still in the midst of determining how your schools can continue to deliver education to your students, staying tuned for more emerging details (including how long your schools will need to remain closed, whether standardized testing will proceed, etc.), and feeding your most needy students, there is something that will remain constant: your relationships with your students.

First, while parents are in the process of learning how to home school their children, as educators, you are likely grappling with a number of emotions, and the first is probably missing your students.  While scheduled school breaks offer a needed reprieve from work duties, and leave you feeling energized when you return to the classroom, this unexpected (and undetermined) break has likely filled you with some anxiety, possibly some depression, mourning, and has also taken away a huge part of your daily purpose. All of these feelings can sap creativity and drive, and my hope is that the ideas I’m offering in this post will help inspire you and bring a little spring back in your step.  Whether you’re a school principal or a teacher, your relationships with your students is what is at the core of why they succeed, why they want to be lifelong learners, and why you’re an amazing educator.

How do you keep relationships with students going when schools are closed?

I’m going to spend the next few weeks curating some of the best ideas that will likely emerge across the nation, but I wanted to share some ideas with you now, in case it may help with your current efforts.  And, because your parents and students have varying access to the internet and computers, I’m offering both high and low tech approaches.

Something to note: A lot of parents have smart phones…they may not have computers or wifi, but in a survey that I did of a high poverty district in California, 95% of the parents had smart phones.  Based on comparing notes with other school communication colleagues, this number is consistent across the state.  So, at the very least, most parents have some kind of access to online technology, but it’s also important to keep in mind the other 5% who do not.

Keep following this page for updates, and check in on my social media pages for more ideas.

Low-tech ways to stay connected with your students

  • Call them!  A personal telephone call is a great way for your students to get a personal touch from you, and for them to hear your voice.  It’s also a great way to check in with parents to find out if they have access to computers and wifi to determine ongoing tech needs.  If you’re comfortable, ask your students to give you a call, if they need to talk.  You may have some students who are in home or life situations who found school to be a necessary escape, and may need to have that check-in with you. Also use this as an opportunity to remind students and parents about community and district services that are available to provide food, health and other services.
  • Write them a letter: As long as mail delivery continues, writing your students a letter will be a wonderful, unexpected surprise in their mail box.  Check in with your school site or district regarding mailing the letters or getting reimbursed for your personal costs.
  • Email: A weekly/biweekly email to your students and their parents is a great way to stay connected.  Provide them ideas for continued learning and share some fun things you’ve been doing at home.

Hi-tech ways to stay connected with your students

  • Videos: Consider using video to do the things with students that involve you at the front of the classroom—for TK and kindergarteners, this could be your welcome time (weather, counting, letter of the day, etc.) and reading a story, for lower grades, this could be providing directions on art work/a project, reading a story, explaining math concepts, etc.  For middle and high school teachers, this could be some of your facilitated learning approaches and explanation of concepts. PE teachers, this is where you’ll rock: do a virtual dance party, show students how you’re staying active while school is closed, demonstrate the proper way to lift weights…the list goes on.
  • Video chat: For group video conferencing, SkypeHangoutsHangouts Meets and Zoom are good free options. Consider scheduling smaller group chats to keep the chat environment manageable. Ask your students to send you pictures, videos so that you can share them out with each group. Here is a list of a number of tech tools that will help with presentations, collaborations and chats: https://techagainstcoronavirus.com/

Community-building

  • Keep traditions going: Spirit weeks can go home with fun approaches that also engage social media—check out this example from Empire Oaks Elementary School’s PTA:

 

Empire Oaks Spirit Week image

  • Celebrations: Do you celebrate your students at school?  Don’t stop celebrating them because they aren’t there. Here are some ideas:
    • Provide parents some ideas of what they can do to celebrate their children-as-students at home.  Citizenship, helping others, and other character traits should continue to be celebrated, and in the trenches of these transitions, parents may need a helpful reminder that their children love being recognized for what they’re doing well.
    • Ask parents to tell you if their child is excelling at something so that you can verbally recognize them when you send a video or do a group chat.  For older students, ask them what they’ve been doing well so they can celebrate together.
    • Taking a page from the summer reading programs, have your students/parents submit a reading log and recognize students who have read for the most number of minutes.  If you have permission to post this online, put together a social media post recognizing your top readers (Canva is an excellent, easy to use, and free program for this).  You could do the same with math and other subjects.
  • Class Stuffed Animal (good for TK, kinder and lower grades): Well, since the class stuffed animal isn’t going home, he or she is probably feeling a little lonely! Ask your students (with mom and dad’s help) to send pictures and videos of themselves with their stuffed animals, or schedule a stuffed animal video chat with a fun story.
  • A note about high school traditions: I’m not ignoring them, as there are so many incredible high school traditions focused on togetherness—proms, grad walks, senior breakfasts—and your students, especially seniors, are likely feeling deep disappointment about the possibility (or reality) that those events will be rescheduled or even cancelled.  If you’re already cooking up ideas on how your school will be approaching this, please provide those ideas in the comment box, and I’ll also add those ideas to this post.

Note to School Districts: Don’t stop celebrating your schools and staff because of school closures.  Ask teachers, staff to send you pictures, videos of what they’re doing and curate those examples into stories about how your district is continuing to educate and keep your school communities connected.

These are just a few ideas, and I’ll continue to collect more.

Please leave some of your favorite ideas in the comment box or on my social media, and I’ll add them to this post!