School communication efforts never stop moving. But being busy doesn’t necessarily equate to being effective. How can you tell what’s working … and what’s just more work?
When it’s time to evaluate strategic communication for schools, benchmarking is an indispensable process. Measuring your program, practices and results against standard best practices is the best approach to identify areas of strength and areas for growth.
The National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) Rubrics of Practice and Suggested Measures, compiles strategic communications thinking and practice from some of the nation’s top school communication professionals. This practical resource was designed to help guide the development of a communications program over time.
“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” These words from Peter Drucker, renowned management thought leader and author, certainly apply to strategic communications. The trick is knowing what to measure. The number of newsletters or weekly social media posts are easy metrics to track. But there is a difference between outputs and outcomes.
“School communicators can easily fill their days communicating ‘stuff’ or promoting events and activities,” said Janet Swiecichowski, APR, CEL vice president. “And while it’s tempting to count pieces, posts or reach, focusing on outputs sells our work short. In the world of educational leadership, outcomes are what matter. Does your work change attitudes, build support or inspire action? Does it impact student learning or staff morale?”
School communicators and superintendents alike have an opportunity to shift communications work to high-value outcomes with a focus on key measures and benchmarking.
Measure What Matters
A communications plan is among the easiest ways to move from outputs to outcomes. Begin with a review of the big picture goals set by the board or school leadership team. This could be student achievement, community support, enrollment growth, family engagement, staff retention, mental health awareness, inclusive excellence or any other top leadership priority. Then brainstorm ideas to use strategic communication to advance progress toward those goals.
If the school system’s strategic plan is in transition or outdated, schedule a focused conversation with top leaders. Inquire about the priorities they have for the next 12-18 months, and identify two or three target areas that would benefit from communications support.
Measure Using Benchmarks
With a strategic communications plan aligned to top organizational goals, you are ready to evaluate the effectiveness of communication, rather than the mere volume of work. This is where benchmarking comes in.
“NSPRA’s benchmarks are designed to help school communicators and others understand the best practices,” Swiecichowski said. “There’s no better resource for a school system to compare its own program in a practical and meaningful way. Clear standards and measures for decision-making give you a data-based approach. And it makes it easy to monitor and measure progress, year in and year out.”
The NSPRA resource guides users through a process to assess the current communications program, measure work, compare against best practices, align communication results with key school system goals and grow in effectiveness over time.
Where Do I Begin?
A comprehensive strategic school communication program seeks to engage and serve a variety of audiences, including students and families, employees, community and business leaders and others. NSPRA suggests measuring the effectiveness of any program in six critical function areas, essential to this success:
Comprehensive Planned Communications
This is the overarching communications function in a district. It includes policies, procedures and roles, as well as expectations for a highly trained communications professional serving on the executive team. Effectiveness in this area also requires the intentional and embedded use of the four-step process — Research, Plan, Implement and Evaluate.
Research shows that there is no audience more critical to the success of a school system than its employees. With a focus on relationships and leadership behavior, effective internal communications increases morale and staff retention. And this, in turn, benefits students and families. Your employees are communicating about you every day. Intentionally engaging them toward the same mission and goals should be the top priority for any organization.
A proactive communication program has the potential to engage students and families as partners in learning. Providing parents and guardians timely information, resources and support will reinforce student learning at home. A strong parent/family communication program also builds trust. Parents will send their child to your school only if they trust that you act in their child’s best interest. This reality makes trust a key factor in enrollment stability and growth.
Once upon a time, most families chose a community based on its schools and sent their children to the neighborhood school without reservation. Today’s parents have more choices than ever, whether public, private, charter, virtual, homeschool or a combination. A trustworthy brand articulates a school’s values and experience, keeping it top of mind with current and prospective families.
Few things define a school’s handling of a crisis event — good, bad or otherwise — than its communication with stakeholders. A formal communications plan and practices should prepare for a wide range of scenarios to support a speedy and caring response, while prioritizing the diverse needs of critical stakeholder groups.
Bond/Finance Election Plans and Campaigns
Asking voters to support a ballot measure for funding is among the most technical areas of work. Effective strategic communication for schools is based on a thorough knowledge of state and local laws, as well as formal research of voter opinions and behaviors. It also should seek to build extensive collaboration to engage various stakeholders in advancing key messaging.
Plan Growth Over Time
The NSPRA benchmarking rubrics provide a matrix to determine whether a program is Emerging, Established or Exemplary. NSPRA also includes sample ways to measure outcomes in each of the six areas.
Swiecichowski suggests taking a long view when it comes to growth in communications effectiveness. “Every program, no matter how high-performing, has room for improvement. An Exemplary rating in all areas is an admirable goal, but it’s important to only take on what you can do well. Working to improve over time is the priority.”
NSPRA’s benchmarking resource is a helpful tool for collaboration with administrative leaders, as well. Working together, you can identify which areas should be Exemplary, which areas can be Emerging — and explore the highest value improvement and growth areas for the coming year.
The first time you embark on a formal evaluation process, you are sure to discover both strengths and gaps. (It’s normal to feel a little nervous about the unknown.) But remember that a strong strategic communications program isn’t built overnight. It requires a focus on best practices, as well as regular reflection on what changes can increase effectiveness.
“When evaluating a communications program,” Swiecichowski said, “place curiosity over criticism. The idea is to truly understand how effective you are right now, without assigning judgment. Then choose a few key areas to advance your work in the months ahead. Small, strategic changes over time have the power to create sustainable growth with a focus on lasting relationships.”
Are you a superintendent or school leader thinking about starting a formal communication program or hiring a communications professional?
Our Vision in Focus confidential communications support may be just what you are looking for. Our experienced school communications professionals can tailor interim or part-time services for your school or district.
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