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Supporting Your PR School Communications Pro

A communications professional fills one of the specialized roles on your school leadership team. It’s not uncommon for a superintendent to wonder how to make the best use of a leader who, unlike other administrators, often lacks classroom experience. But a trusted advisor who thinks differently and understands stakeholder dynamics is a distinct advantage when decisions are made.

Damian LaCroix, superintendent of Howard-Suamico School District in northeast Wisconsin, values the different perspective communications director Brian Nicol offers his district leadership team.

“As superintendent, two things are essential to my success as a leader: how I make decisions and how I solve problems. Having Brian routinely involved in strategic decisions broadens my perspective. Put simply, he thinks differently and therefore we’re able to explore unique facets of issues that might otherwise be missed.”

While no two school systems are alike — some with large communications teams and others with a part-time or shared-time communications person — the school public relations voice is uniquely valuable. Superintendents also appreciate a team member who shares a holistic view of the entire school system organization, from teaching and learning to finance and operations. In addition, this person understands how to interpret key messages about these functions to the community and how to convey community perspectives to school system leaders.

We’ve rounded up some of the best ways to support your school PR pro. Not only will these strategies help you get the most benefit for your schools, they will also create a synergy that will help the pro thrive — and create a loyal team member through thick and thin. 

Give them your time.

A communications pro is a master juggler, with a steady stream of requests coming from every direction. Reserving a weekly 1:1 meeting on your calendar will help keep you connected with an ongoing review of priorities, progress, and long-term strategy. Ask the pro to develop a list of unanswered questions or issues for each meeting to streamline your work time, both in and outside of the meeting. And as a rule of thumb: Any time you start thinking about a new idea or project, it’s time to tell your comms pro (so they can start thinking too). Bring them in as early as possible for the best counsel and strategic results.

Include communications on the leadership team

Communications pros do their best work when they serve alongside decision makers.The foundation of communications best practice begins with a clear understanding of the issues, challenges, and solutions, as well as the dynamics among teachers, students, families, and community members.

“Involving my director of communications at the decision-making table is both practical and strategic,” LaCroix said. “I don’t have to spend precious time and energy translating decisions after the fact. And he can meaningfully engage as a thought partner. In doing so, we develop more robust solutions and clear communication strategies.”

Help them identify and drive strategic priorities.

It’s easy for any communications office to get bogged down in one-off requests for photo shoots, posts, graphics, and other tactical work. Maximize the value (and job satisfaction) of your pro by focusing together on aligning communications work to the highest-priority district goals and strategic plan. If communications isn’t included in your overall strategic plan, work with your pro to develop a separate communications plan — and then stick to it.

Help them set boundaries.

With social media and seemingly limitless communications channels, school communications can be an all-consuming and unhealthy 24/7 job. Rarely a day passes without being bombarded by requests from departments, event committees, and program managers. As you set priorities together, document decisions for future reference, so you can give your communications leader cover when they need to say no. It’s also important to discuss boundaries to support workplace well-being. Chances are, your pro is monitoring and managing e-mail, social media, and text messages all evening and weekend — often even overnight. To help prevent burnout, normalize healthy expectations with your communications pro and your entire leadership team. Encouraging rest outside of work will help your team perform at the highest level, week in and week out.

Check in on them. 

Public relations has long been included among the highest-stress professions — but nothing compares to the last year of unpredictability and community conflict in schools and the communities they serve. Dr. John Bryant, superintendent of Henderson County (NC) Public Schools, said he quickly realized the importance of monitoring workload and stress with his communications pro, Molly McGowan Gorsuch. 

“Molly is one of those professionals who is very efficient, eager to exceed expectations, and do it all in a timely manner,” he said. “But when you stop and think about it, she’s the only communications person in a district with 23 schools and 13,500 students — and she’s responsible for all media, which is definitely not an 8-5 role. Then add in the last 14 months, with a heavy demand on keeping parents, families, staff, and our community informed.”

It can be tricky to identify a communications pro navigating chronic stress until full-scale burnout creeps in, so intentionally checking in every so often is key.

“It’s critical for leaders to pay close attention to the people who work for them,” Bryant said. “I try to keep an eye on my staff and monitor who’s consistently arriving at the office before me or there when I leave — also the person sending emails long after hours. When I notice a pattern that may show an imbalance between someone’s personal and professional lives, I tend to focus on giving direction and permission at the same time. Saying, 

‘This weekend, I am not just suggesting — I’m directing you not to work. I’m telling our team they’re not allowed to contact you by email, phone, or text, and anything urgent comes through me.’ 

With our best employees, it helps to actually tell them to find time for themselves, and let them know that’s okay.”

Empower them to succeed.

While their background is likely different from yours, an empowered school communications pro can quickly become a trusted advisor. Ask for their opinion and feedback, but don’t stop there. Ask what they recommend on a big decision, or how they think a certain group of people (teachers, community moms, activists or others) might react to it. Find ways to give them budget autonomy, even if it’s on a project-by-project basis. And invest in their professional growth by encouraging participation in the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) and state or local professional organizations. 

Lighten their load now and then.

The truth is, every communication pro or team has important work that gets pushed down the priority list amid the ever-changing needs for high-stakes communication and response. Consider contracting with a strategic partner who will help you reach your goals, deliver high-quality work, and lighten your pro’s load.

And of course, it’s impossible to go wrong surprising your pro to a favorite coffee in the morning or a frozen treat in the afternoon. Find a special way to recognize them at the office and online on May 14, School Communicators Day. Just remember that the most meaningful recognition comes when a school communications pro is trusted as a valuable strategic advisor at the leadership table.

Published on: May 5, 2021