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Educators need to pay attention to the communication needs of the public
For Administrators

Don't Leave Your School Community Starved for Information

By Brian Gatens October 30, 2014

There are lessons to be learned everywhere.

A couple weeks back, I had the opportunity to attend a talk given by a representative of the New Jersey Department of Education. When the topic of the Common Core State Standards came up, the speaker took a somewhat philosophical approach to the various controversies roiling the country and said the following:

“One thing that we’ve learned about all of this is that a hungry people will take nutrition from any source.” 

I wrote that down immediately.

Educators need to pay attention to the communication needs of the publicObviously she was talking about the huge amount of information presented to the public from many sources, and how Common Core supporters were slow in helping to fight the public relations battle for the public’s hearts and minds. Being behind the curve in sharing that information was one of the key reasons why public opinion swung heavily in one direction and was so strong in some states that the Common Core rollout was slowed or stopped altogether.

School administrators and classroom teachers can draw several vital lessons from that quote:

People expect more today

Our hyperconnected and instant-information culture has caused a huge shift in the volume of information that can be shared and the speed of its delivery. Members of the public, whether they are all of the parents in your school district or the parents in your class, now expect to receive updates, information and clearer explanations. Be sure to consider the frequency in which you offer updates and the depth at which you go on your topics.

Silence isn’t golden

I sometimes wonder if veteran politicians long for the olden days, when they could be unavailable simply by staying away from a land-line phone. In controversial situations, they could insulate themselves from all the chatter by simply making themselves scarce.

Today’s parents have grown to expect some sort of a response to their emails or phone calls. Now some people expect it instantly, which isn’t reasonable, but it is appropriate to set commonsense guidelines for when a response should be given.

My rule of thumb is that within one business day, a member of the public should receive either a reply or at least a timeframe for the reply. Any longer sends the message that your communication is poor and their concerns are unimportant to you.

Get ahead of the information curve

When I was an elementary school principal, I learned quickly that you never wanted the news that a child was scraped up that day by a playground accident to be delivered by the child. I always jumped on the phone before school ended and let the parent know that the child was fine but may be a bit bruised.

Be proactive in your communication. Don’t hesitate to share relevant and important information as necessary. Driving the narrative of the situation is key when sharing information with the public.

Explaining is losing

A common adage when working with the public is, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” That quote is less about the need to explain, and more about the belief that the initial communication was insufficient in satisfying the public’s need for information.

When sharing, be sure to be complete, succinct in your writing and clear in what you want to say. I’ve written many important press releases, Web notifications and community emails, and have found it essential to draft, edit and rewrite multiple times. Don’t sacrifice goodwill by having to double back and explain something that wasn’t clearly expressed the first time.

Pick your venue

Before the advent of the Internet and all of the related communication technology, there were very few ways to get information out to the public. Hard-copy newsletters, articles and public speeches were pretty much all we had.

Today you can pick from among a wide variety of options — social media, blogs, subscriber emails, website updates — to reach out to your parents. The important thing is to pick options that enable you to grow your audience over time and that are easy to update. If the site is hard to use or difficult for someone to find, find a better way to communicate.

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