Got good news?
Great, now create ways to tell it
By Brad Hughes
KSBA Member Support Services Director
Back in ancient times – those early years of my journalism career – school districts pretty much depended on three ways to tell the community when they had good news:
• News media – through a hard-copy press release sent through the U.S. mail or an announcement at a school board meeting, both helped by an otherwise slow news day.
• District newsletter – sent home in backpacks, mailed home to parents or inserted in the local newspaper – at district expense.
• Word of mouth – by someone who heard it and was enthusiastic enough to share it or…well, there really was no “or” in this case – you just hoped it was retold accurately.
These days, school districts have plenty of new options for distributing information:
• website postings
• multimedia videos
• email text blasts
• cable TV programs
• digital newsletters
• key communicator/opinion leader groups
As I chatted with some of the newly elected school board members during KSBA’s Winter Symposium in Lexington last month, I heard a recurring theme: how to stay in the loop themselves while keeping their new constituents informed.
So here’s a short primer on basic district leader-to-community communications for our 145 newbies and the veterans alike.
It’s not “someone else’s” job
If it is financially able and visionary enough, your district has a professional on staff with the regular duties of telling the good news. In some cases, this can be a full-time communications person, but quite often, it’s a staffer who wears many hats. The critical point is that your district has someone – someone besides the overburdened superintendent and her/his assistant – who is tasked to look for the good news and then find ways to share it.
Regardless of whether your district has such a resource, you aren’t off the hook. Keeping the public informed is part of the backpack of duties you signed up for when you ran for office.
Some board members do their own electronic news updates via email. Others spread the word on social media via Facebook pages or tweet via Twitter. Some have sit downs with neighbors and other folks in their division. And still others simply make it a routine to tell the good news in a phone conversation or standing in the checkout line at the grocery store.
Board meetings are a forum
Yep, you’ve got to pay the bills. Sure, you have to decide on the action items. No question that you should be hearing about test scores and efforts to raise the numbers of distinguished students. But even if no one comes to your meetings except the board and a few oh-so-happy-to-be-there staff members, the board meeting can be an incredible avenue for shining a positive light.
KSBA has long promoted the idea of regular slots on board meeting agendas for demonstrations of student learning. Science experiments. Quick recall skills. Reports written about field trips. New math techniques. Interactive classroom technology. Reading initiatives that increase comprehension and retention. The board of the tiniest K-8 school system should have no problem finding itself with a waiting list of educators who want to let their students show what’s going on in their daily studies.
Does it add another 15 minutes or so to your meeting? Absolutely. Will you spend a better 15 minutes in the rest of your meeting? Absolutely not.
Become a media-savvy leader
Often, one of the biggest failings for a district with a “PR problem” rests with coverage in the local news media. Sometimes, the image is deserved; sometimes, it’s not. But one thing is for sure: the newspaper is going to keep churning out a regular edition, the radio station is going to have a daily noon newscast, and the TV outlets will come to do a story, especially if it involves the three big Cs: conflict, criticism or controversy.
While the superintendent is usually the top media spokesperson, school board members can’t escape interview requests for very simple reasons: they vote on concepts and plans, they set budgets and tax rates, they adopt policies and procedures, they are the ultimate dealers in many issues of community interest. When people are asking questions or making accusations about schools – or when you decide an issue by your vote - reporters often come calling for board member reactions.
There are no laws requiring school board members to talk to reporters – just as there’s nothing that guarantees a first-term board member will get a second term. The public can learn as much from what you are quoted as saying in the news media as they can glean from the times you drop into the black hole of communications: “No comment.”
The Last Word
The office of board of education member is an awesome responsibility. Communicating with taxpayers, parents, school employees, employers, other public officials and reporters is just one of the tasks that go with the seat at the board table.
As you learn about budgets and buildings, academics and athletics, local control and mandates from Frankfort and Washington, D.C., learn to be an information resource for your community. It’s the best way to ensure more people know the good news happening in your district.
And it’s a message worth getting out.