Meeting expectations: Communicating with today’s families

A pen and glasses rest on a podium with a microphone nearby. A large boardroom table can be seen in the background

By Adrienne Leon, APR; Stephen King; and Jodie Orzechowski, APR

“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

George Bernard Shaw

How many times have you heard “I had no idea” from a member of your school community in response to a new budgetary expense, strategic initiative or programmatic change that you’ve spent months talking about and publicizing?

Even worse than hearing “I had no idea” is when your communication is misinterpreted and relayed out of context. What should be an opportunity to gain public support suddenly spirals out of control as the intent of your message is lost and you’re triaging a problem that you somehow created or weren’t aware even existed. We’ve witnessed the communication breakdown again and again, in hastily written emails to district leadership, in public comment periods at board meetings, and as comments on social media threads. It’s incredibly frustrating when a message fails to resonate with your public — specifically families — who are among the most invested in your mission.

Choosing the right channel

As a school district, you have several communications channels at your fingertips. It’s likely you regularly use all or most of them to send your families important news and information.

But as these communications channels — email, social media, websites, mobile apps and mass notification systems — continue to evolve, so do the ways our families use them. How our families consume information must drive our communications efforts, everything from how we frame messages to how and when those messages are delivered.

In today’s information-saturated world, choice and customization play significant roles in how audiences consume content. If what they’re consuming doesn’t match their expectations for the channel or platform, they’re more likely to tune out, or misinterpret, what you’re attempting to communicate.

It’s of the utmost importance to choose appropriate channels to communicate with your various audiences — ones that match their expectations for how they should be used.

Tools and audiences

How do you know what your audiences’ expectations are on the various channels you have at your disposal? You first must understand that different people use these technologies in different ways. The first step is considering what stakeholder group you’re actually trying to reach.

According to an annual Project Tomorrow Study on school-to-home communications, parents value convenience, personalization and timeliness in school and district communications strategies and want information pushed to them rather than searching for it.

And, for general communications, school administrators place a much higher value on school and district websites and social media tools like Facebook than families do.

We know that these tools — our social media channels, websites, and online newsletters — are efficient when it comes to managing our messages, building rapport and disseminating information, but the research clearly shows that we must continue to rethink how we use these tools to both inform and engage our families and community stakeholders.

Selecting the right communications channel is as simple as asking yourself, “What am I trying to do with this information? Am I trying to inform my families? Or, am I trying to engage with them?”

Communications that inform

News that is meant to inform is also known as one-way communication. This is content that doesn’t require a response from your audience, for example crisis communication information. Therefore, the communication channels you select should match that intention. Your district website, mass notification system, online newsletter or paper communications are all examples of one-way communication channels because your audience cannot converse with you on them.

Communications that engage

Engaging content is content that you want a reaction to, also known as two-way communication. Social media channels like Facebook and Instagram are the preeminent engaging platforms. The psychology of an audience on social media is to engage with what they’re consuming. Therefore, the content you’re sharing should elicit this response. Ideally, this is feel-good content such as great photos or videos of your students and staff. Creating experiences people will want to share and be a part of should be your goal on social media.

Case study: A manufactured crisis

Sharing a message on the wrong platform can have consequences. Let’s use a controversial decision that occurred in a Capital Region school district a few years ago. The difficult decision to not field a varsity football team because of lack of student interest and risk of injury to younger players was posted on the district’s Facebook page. The post elicited hundreds of questions, speculations and negative comments, many coming from people no longer associated with the community. All of a sudden, the district was embroiled in two crises — the overall management and response prompted by the decision, and the social media crisis that they brought upon themselves.

Canceling the varsity football season was going to be controversial enough, but it was a decision that didn’t require public input. By communicating about it on Facebook, the district opened up the conversation, when they should have chosen a more appropriate, one-way communications tool like email or the website.

Differentiating our messages and the tools we use to meet the needs of families who are increasingly tech-savvy and value greater communications with their child’s teacher and school will make the difference between failed attempts to reach our families and the disconnected families frustrated over a perceived lack of communication.

About the Authors

Adrienne Leon, APR, is Director of Engagement & Development Services, Capital Region BOCES. 

Steve King and Jodie Orzechowski, APR, are Assistant Directors of Engagement & Development Services