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.

 

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

 

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.