If you’ve ever died inside a little when you hear that question — and had to find a gentle way to respond that you’re working hard and secretly worried you won’t be able to get out of the office for more than a long lunch here and there — you aren’t alone.
Summer break can be tricky for school communications pros, as you try to tie up the ends still loose from the year before, plan for convocation and back to school, lead enrollment campaigns, and support at least a dozen other summer projects. But the truth is, your schools need you to work hard — and also get away from the office to recharge your battery after a school year that demanded so much.
The good news? Working strategically allows you to do both. Use this checklist to get started and stay focused (with time to spare!) all summer long.
Your work in the course of the year generally falls into four areas: information flow, relationships, digital assets and professional growth. And remember that the most strategic work happens with that four-step process, RPIE. As you review each focus area, ask yourself:
Research: What’s working well? What needs attention? What more do I need to know about this? Be realistic about how much research is needed to learn more; not every project needs a comprehensive study. Remember that your endpoint is a communications plan, not a dissertation.
Plan: How will I address the things I learned in research — on a realistic timeline? Your summer focus is planning all your work, not completing it. Right now, determine what needs to happen and pinpoint a timeline to execute the plan over the coming year. Schedule yourself a few “quick wins” this summer to lift your energy — and sprinkle in a few all year long. Your future self will thank you.
Implement: How will I best use my time and resources to execute the work and meet the objectives in my plan? As a high-performing professional, you may need to resist the temptation to just jump in the deep end of your to-do list and start swimming. Be true to the realistic timelines you planned, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Evaluate: How will I monitor my progress during the year, adjusting as needed and meeting objectives?
As you embark on your school communications planning, take a step back and remember that no one professional — or PR team — is solely responsible for communications success of an entire school system.
"Last year was challenging for every person in your community. Especially now, it's important to resist taking any feedback – positive or negative – personally. Treat your work as a scientist. Get curious about patterns, clues and lessons that can be applied in the future. And let go of any personal frustrations or regrets that pop up."
~JANET SWIECICHOWSKI, APR, CEL Vice President
Connect with key representatives of internal and external audiences. Using a combination of simple online surveys, small focus groups and one-on-one chats, learn the things that went well over the last year and where improvement is needed. Be intentional about the time and energy you spend in this stage of research. If the CEL team can help take a survey or other research project off your plate to allow you to focus on other work, just let us know.
Did employees get critical updates about the school or school system before others? (Making internal audiences your priority is best practice.)
Did secretaries have the resources they needed to answer the most common and frequent questions? What might have made them feel more prepared to share basic factual information on a day-to-day basis?
Did principals feel equipped to respond to inquiries and criticisms with timely support? Are there channels or procedures that could be improved from their point of view?
How satisfied were families of students with the format, speed and focus of the messages they received or sought over the past year? Does family satisfaction vary between campuses or the school system at large?
Using the feedback, identify the most valuable improvements to plan over the next 12 months. Rank order priorities from “fast and simple” to those that will require more research or learning to implement effectively, and assign realistic timelines to each.
If you don’t already have a key message document for your school system, add that to your plan. The time you spend creating this will be returned ten-fold, simplifying your writing for future web and social content, news releases and countless other internal and external messages with ready-made phrases that tie back to your strategic work.
Whether inside or outside your school system, people are the backbone of your success. As the daily hustle of school days winds down, take a little time to better understand what opinion leaders are saying about your schools. After all, it’s been a long year!
Check in with community leaders and partners. How are they feeling about the school district? From their point of view, what went well over the past year, and what could be improved going forward?
Identify your brand ambassadors — well-known parents, teacher leaders and other trusted voices. (And keep in mind that school bus drivers often rank high as employees that have parents’ ears!) Ask how they feel about the year ahead. What worries them? What has them excited and hopeful? What are they hearing about the schools from their friends and colleagues?
Consider the opportunities to re-invest in community relationships as COVID restrictions ease. An intentional but casual, coffee or lunch date with one or two key leaders each month could go a long way in reestablishing open lines of communication and identifying opportunities for improvement or collaboration.
If you haven’t started a Key Communicators Network, this year would be the perfect time to learn more. (Explore the benefits of a Key Communicators Network would be a valuable, time-flexible action on the plan you’re writing!)
Your online presence has never been more influential — and essential — as it has been over the past year. Focus on the places your employees and student families are getting their information, and consider sources that are less than official.
How did your website meet your ever-shifting needs last year? Review your Google Analytics for traffic and behavior to better understand users’ preferences and priorities. (If you don’t have Google Analytics installed on your district website, make that a high priority on your communications plan.)
What website updates are needed to keep your content fresh and engaging? Are there outdated head shots of leaders? Student or staff photos that are more than four years old? Pages, documents or other resources that should be retired?
If your plan includes work to update website photos, consider the best time to photograph students in your schools — weather, daylight and visually compelling classroom activities, spirit days — and be sensitive to the use of masks in your district to help convey a timely image to your stakeholders.
Analyze insights from your social media platforms. What was the most popular content, time and day of the week, campaigns versus one-off posts, use of photos and videos, etc.?
If you have more than one social media channel, which one provided the greatest reward for your investment of time and energy?
Review your social media community guidelines and profanity filters for possible updates or revisions.
A content calendar is one of the most powerful ways to plan and simplify your digital media efforts in the coming year. It is well worth your time to spend a day or two this summer mapping out web and social media content for at least the next few months. This work will help simplify and automate your workflow, no matter how wacky a future week might get.
Measure what a Google search reveals about your district. Use an incognito browser, and ask a few friends in other communities or states to Google search your school and school system names and send you a screenshot of the results.
Claim your Google Business page (if you haven’t already). How are the Google reviews? Develop a plan to solicit positive reviews privately (it only takes a few).. Consider how you can use the connections being developed in your relationship work to intentionally build the number of local, positive reviews.
The most valuable (and happy) professionals spend time reflecting on their own performance and learning every day. Summer is the perfect time to take stock of where you are in your career and how you can continue to strengthen your skills and knowledge.
As summer begins, protect time to personally reflect on the past year. As you reflect, jot down what comes to mind — thoughts, insights, regrets, ideas, goals — to help guide your professional growth in the coming year:
What insights or skills did you learn?
What makes you most proud of the work you’ve done?
How would you like to grow in the coming year?
Are there activities you’re doing that no longer benefit your role or school system?
How has the chronic pressure of a year with intense health risks, racial tensions, economic losses and personal demands affected you?
Identify a professional learning opportunity, keeping in mind the objectives you’re setting for your district and yourself. Look for seminars suited to your needs, offered through National School Public Relations Association programs and state chapters or other groups.
Strategic abandonment. One of the best ways to stay sharp is to understand tasks and activities that no longer provide meaningful benefit to you and/or your school system. Abandoning these efforts (in coordination with your supervisor and teammates) frees up time to elevate your focus and do more strategic work.
If you’ve thought about starting your Accreditation in Public Relations or other advanced credential or degree, take this opportunity to think about a concrete timeline — even if it extends over a few years — that breaks down the work into simpler, attainable steps.
If burnout prevention is high on your list, the k12prWell conversation will give you the tips, best practices, encouragement and support you need to successfully manage chronic workplace stress and stay at your best for your school system, your loved ones and yourself.
So, as you consider the weeks of summer break ahead, know that strategic school communications planning will help you do the best work for your district — and even free up your time this summer and in the year to come.