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Strategic Storytelling for Schools: Start with Message Pillars

In the day-to-day life of school leaders and communicators, it’s easy to get wrapped up in transactional communication. Parents need to know about events, due dates, forms, lunch balances, drop-off procedures, grading, infectious diseases, bullying and more. It’s easy to neglect the messaging required to win-over the hearts and minds of our parents, staff, students and communities.

A few years ago, at the Ragan Social Media Conference in Orlando, Disney showcased its communication and social media strategy. Disney is a leader in many categories and is fascinating to study and emulate.

If Disney can get the world excited about a mouse, what can schools learn from them to get communities excited about our kids and our schools?

Although we think of Disney as a hospitality and entertainment company, it crosses into many market sectors: engineering innovation, film, media, real estate, travel, retail, housing, food service, even farming and agriculture…the list goes on. It’s a complex organization. At the conference, the Disney communications team presented simple key message pillars that frame its storytelling across all platforms. Amid all the complexity, Disney was laser-focused on their pillars. It was discipline that fueled their magic.

Defining key messages

Defining key message pillars for your school district can be an empowering and freeing activity. It provides focus for storytelling, supports district priorities and gives school leaders a simple framework for messaging. It isn’t rocket science, but it’s an activity that is often overlooked.

What are the stories most often told about your school? Are they the stories for which you want to be known? In many communities, schools are best known for their strength (or lack thereof) in high school athletics. Sometimes, schools are most known for transportation failures or school lunches. Is that what you want most people talking about for your school?

Academic excellence is what drives reputation and enrollment. Realtors regularly taut “strong schools, strong communities.” That means stories about academic excellence should outnumber the other stories our key audiences hear (even when you are competing with hundreds of parents and sports writers who instinctively share sports stories). Defining key message pillars is the first step in changing the narrative about your schools.

Early Learning
Dual Credit
Student Success
Choice Schools
Cultural Competence
Respect Self & Others
Safety & Security
Student Belonging
Student Empowerment
Staff Achievements
Responsible Stewards of Taxpayer Resources
Teachers as Learners
Visionary Leaders

Involved Families
Fiscal Support
Pride in Kids & Schools

Sample Key Message Pillars to Help You Get Started

Pick no more than five key messages to provide focus and opportunity for repetition. People need to hear consistent messages over time.

Key message pillars also increase efficiency and effectiveness. They save time when staring at a blank page. They make it easier to fill holes on an editorial calendar for social media. They narrow focus to a few important topics. Pillars also act as guardrails when a colleague wants a story about a pet project that doesn’t align with your strategic priorities. They provide accountability when you set specific targets for the number of stories or posts supporting each pillar.

Key message pillars strategically unify marketing and public relations activities across all channels to advance your mission and goals: websites, blogs, email, newsletters, video, social media, media relations.

Focus your communication on your key message pillars and share them with your team to keep everyone on message. Sharing compelling stories with simplicity and repetition, cuts through the clutter to build long-term support for your goals and priorities. It’s a good investment that will result in a unified and engaged community.

Published on: March 21, 2019