District Communications, from Compliance to Crisis
Managing communications can be a big job, but through a combination of outsourcing and sharing responsibility internally, districts can be ready for even the deepest crises.
Through decades in district communications, I’ve seen our ability to reach stakeholders more effectively blossom, from websites to mobile devices to social media. But with all those new channels has come the responsibility for managing them. How can a communications director effectively control the firehose of information without getting bogged down in website maintenance or constantly responding to a plethora of social media accounts? At the Sheldon Independent School District, we manage through a combination of outsourcing what we need to and sharing responsibility internally where we can.
Outsourcing the Website
Once upon a time, maintaining a district website was optional. It was a nice thing to have, a way to be on the cutting edge. These days, however, it’s a necessity. Families expect to be able to find information there, such as our code of conduct, dress code, back-to-school information, and board policies. In Texas, as in other states, we have web standards that stipulate a number of things we must include on our website by law, such as posted information about school board meeting notices at least 72 hours in advance, or student health advisory committee policies and procedures.
When I first started working with websites for school districts in the 1990s, not only were they optional, they were pretty basic. We didn’t have a lot of choices as far as services to choose from, and the what-you-see-is-what-you-get design templates didn’t exist. Dreamweaver and open-source options were our best choices in those days.
Managing a district website efficiently with those services required third-party extensions and plugins, however, and as websites became more widespread, so too did attacks on websites, and those third-party add-ons lacked security and became an open door for hackers.
Between the increased compliance requirements and security issues, I eventually found that paying for a content management system (CMS) was worth the cost. We were looking for a company that focused exclusively on websites and communications tools for K–12, met performance standards we focused on such as uptime — the percentage of time a service is functioning and available — and was affordable. We chose to go with Edlio.
Sharing Communications Responsibilities
Outsourcing the CMS may take the technical responsibilities off a communications director’s plate — and help you breathe easier about security and compliance — but there’s still an awful lot of information to manage. We do this by sharing the responsibility for that information with the people closest to it by, for example, having teachers manage their own classroom or personal pages.
We don’t have any requirements for what or how frequently teachers post to their classroom pages — they have enough to do already. But many of them choose to post homework assignments, notices to parents, classroom photos or videos, or even blogs about classroom experiences to better engage parents and guardians in their students’ educations.
To get teachers up to speed on managing their pages and all the capabilities available to them through the CMS, we have them attend 55-minute professional development sessions during in-service days. With the help of a colleague, I host five sessions a day, and afterwards teachers are cranking out their own pages within an hour.
Connecting via Social Media
No matter how well designed and interactive your website is, social media is a critical component of district communications. People will go to the website when they’re looking for information, but when you want to push out information they may not already be looking for, social media is the way to put it in front of them, because they’re already checking those channels for their own personal reasons.
With that in mind, we’ve come to think of our website as an information hub or repository. If you need to send out a notice that a policy has been updated or the dress code has changed substantially, Twitter’s 280-character limit on posts may not give you the room to communicate the details. But you can send out a tweet letting everyone know about the changes with a link to more information on the website.
If you’re looking to get your stakeholders chatting with each other about something, Facebook or Twitter is probably a useful avenue because, again, they’re already there for their own reasons and much more likely to see what you’ve posted.
There are so many social media options that you can quickly find yourself bogged down trying to use them all — not to mention the volume of communication you’ll be overseeing if you try to manage everyone’s interactions from the district level down to the classroom level.
To cut that flow down to a manageable size, we’ve decided that at a district level we’ll only maintain a presence on Facebook and Twitter, because they’re the two most popular platforms. We’ve also decided that, at the school level, principals are responsible for deciding which social platforms, if any, they’ll use and how they’ll be managed. Most choose simply to rely on the district’s social channels, but some do maintain their own.
Informing a Community in Crisis
The day-to-day communications of a school district are certainly important, but every once in a while, something happens that drives home what a crucial piece of the community a school district is, and how vital the information we get out can be.
We had just such a crisis in 2017, when Hurricane Harvey flooded Sheldon ISD along with the rest of Houston and surrounding areas. Most members of our community were unable to leave wherever they happened to be and spent days without food, water, or electricity. Our administrators depended heavily on our website and social media channels to reach them, because there simply were not any other communication channels available.
During the flood, we weren’t sharing information such as the next PTO meeting or the upcoming school carnival. We were telling members of the community where to find safety shelters or locations distributing food, clothing, diapers, and baby formula. Along with churches and other nonprofits, we helped people find one another or let loved ones know they were okay.
It was a stark reminder of how important technology can be, and how district communications can go from a day-to-day informational resource to a community lifeline in the blink of an eye.
Derik Moore has been working in school communications for more than 25 years and currently serves as the director of communications for the Sheldon Independent School District in Houston. He can be reached at [email protected].