Chapter 12: Communications, Media Relations and Social Media
Communicating with the community is an important part of the trustee’s role. All board constituents need and have a right to know about what children are learning and how well they are learning. They also have a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent and a right to participate in discussions on the allocation of education resources in their community.
This chapter offers tips to help trustees communicate effectively, either through direct contact – in person or online – with parents, school councils, and community associations, or indirectly through the media.
Developing a Communications Plan
A communications plan is a road map for your communications over a given period of time – for example, a school or calendar year. A plan might focus on your individual goals, or it might guide the communications of a committee or of the whole board. Many school boards have expertise on their staff and effective strategies for communications planning.
There are no hard and fast rules for communications planning, but an effective plan might address the following:
- Goals: what you want to achieve through your communications during that time period, with an emphasis on one or two priorities
- Strategies: the specific ways in which you hope to reach your goals, connect to your audiences, share information, and receive feedback
- Audiences: the various groups within your community that you are attempting to reach and engage
- Key messages: the information you want to stress with each audience – over the long and the short term
- Responsibilities: the persons who are charged with implementing various elements of the communications plan
- Timelines: when things need to happen
- Evaluation tools: to measure the effectiveness of the plan
A good starting point is to consider how you or your group is communicating at present. Ask yourself:
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of the approaches you are using?
- Who aren’t you reaching that perhaps you need to reach?
- What approaches are being used by other individuals or groups, and to what effect?
It is important to review your plan periodically and evaluate the effectiveness of your strategies. Ask members of the community, in person or through brief surveys, whether they feel that appropriate information sharing is taking place. Use this information to strengthen your plan for the coming year.
Keep the following tips in mind when planning your communications:
- Assign communications responsibilities to individuals or subcommittees and make sure the responsibilities are clear.
- Use a variety of information-sharing approaches, including letters, newsletters, phone/e-mail networks, websites, blogs, social media, radio, community-access television, and print media.
- Prepare information sheets on important topics.
- Be aware of communications barriers, such as language, culture and accessibility needs.
- Be mindful of who needs to know, when they need to know and how they usually access information.
- Focus on listening as much as telling. Explore two-way communication, feedback, and input throughout the community.
- Be informative, but do not impose your views. Welcome a range of viewpoints, and seek common ground.
- Design committee structures that allow for maximum participation from school councils, parents, and other community groups.
- Involve community volunteers in the initial planning of major initiatives.
Regardless of your audience, and whether you are speaking or writing, certain principles apply. You should always strive to be:
Always tell the truth. Use factual and credible points that are not open to misinterpretation, and state the facts candidly.
You may be able to skirt a sensitive question, but don’t lie. If you do, the truth will eventually come out and your credibility will be damaged or destroyed, and you may have influenced an important issue destructively.
If you can’t talk about something, you should state that you are not prepared to discuss the issue at present, and will respond in the future. If you don’t know the answer, say so, and refer the person to someone who may know. Don’t risk the long-term consequences to your reputation by speaking recklessly.
Never say “no comment.” To a reporter it means you have something to hide, or you’re deliberately making their job difficult. Instead of saying “no comment”, explain why you can’t answer the question.
Trustees also have an obligation to respect confidentiality. As members of the school board, trustees must comply with protection of privacy legislation. Most of the board’s business is done in full view of the public and the media. A board’s policies will determine what information is confidential, but in all cases a trustee must not reveal discussion or material from a board’s private session to a member of the media.
If a board’s collective aim is to promote public understanding of and confidence in the school system, it is important that trustees support the process of democratic decision making. During board meetings, some disagreement or controversy is almost inevitable. But once the vote is taken, trustees are collectively responsible for the board’s decision.
Speak and write in clear, concise language. Your goal is to communicate, not to confuse people with educational jargon or impress them with your vocabulary. If you are talking to reporters, remember that they cannot present information clearly if they can’t understand it themselves. (See “Tips for Better Writing” below.)
Stay calm during any discussion or interview. Losing your temper will only hurt your message and damage your reputation. Try a relaxation technique if you are angry, tense, or nervous.
Don’t say things you don’t want other people to hear about, in any public situation. Although it is reasonable to ask a reporter before an interview to keep certain discussions “off the record” and most reporters will honour this request, it is wise to only say things you want to see in print.
Have your key messages ready on issues. Key messages are two or three short, easily memorized, simple messages that trustees can use to articulate the board’s position on a given issue. Key messages are designed for a specific audience and are those aspects of an issue that the board ultimately wants the audience to remember.
If you are making a presentation or preparing for an interview, write out the main points of what you want to say and rehearse them. Think of all possible questions you may be asked. If confronted with a question you have not anticipated, take time to think before answering, and be ready to admit you don’t know the answer or don’t know enough to express an opinion, but will get the required information.
Being prepared and having practised your message makes it easy to follow the ten Cs: be confident, consistent, credible, clear, calm, compelling, correct, compassionate, candid, and concise.
The Education Act requires a board to make its meetings public. Encourage attendance at board meetings by highlighting the issues that will be under discussion. Posting information on your website, blog or social media feed will quickly and easily let the media and the community know if something particularly important or controversial is coming up. Make background information available to the public on your website and send it automatically to local media. Where the situation warrants, hold information briefings and public information meetings. If a board proves itself to be a credible source for information about difficult issues, the media and the public are more likely to listen when the board wants to share its good news.
Monitor the media. Be aware of current education issues and fast- breaking news stories. Most media outlets have websites that are updated regularly. Twitter and Facebook are also efficient ways to keep up with the latest news on any topic you are interested in.
Tips for Better Writing
- Write the way you speak. Use a conversational tone.
- Avoid jargon.
- Keep it simple. Readers tend to be turned off by long, complicated text.
- Include only one idea per paragraph.
- Be selective about what you print. You don’t have to include all the background details.
- Don’t assume your readers have the same knowledge as you.
- Be careful not to break copyright laws when reproducing materials.
- Be positive. Present the school board in the best light.
- Include a “call to action”. Make it clear why you are writing and what you want from your reader.
- Have several people proofread your material to be sure it is understandable and free from distracting errors.
- Use handwritten notes to thank people or to encourage their participation.
- Reply promptly to concerns and requests for information.
Working with the Media
Most people learn most of what they know about schools through the media. Therefore, school boards need to ensure that their local media have the information they need to present a balanced picture to their communities. This is an achievable goal. In spite of what many people think, the media generally try to present a fair picture of a situation or event.
Taking a Story to the Media
While parents are interested in a great deal of information, reporters are interested in news. News is judged by assessing the impact of the story on a reader or viewer.
The following questions can help you decide whether the story or event you want covered will be of interest to a reporter:
- Is it new? Does it highlight new people, new programs, new ideas, or new ways of teaching and learning?
- Is it current? Stories about technology, for example, may be in vogue this year but less so next year.
- Is it superlative? Does your story illustrate the fastest, highest, smallest, or biggest of something? If so, what credible, third-party evidence exists to back up your claims?
- How is your event tied to a major news story? The media are constantly looking for ways to bring a local perspective to major national or international news stories.
- Are there interesting visuals? What visual appeal does your story offer – for example, students being active at something – that lends itself to a compelling photograph for the newspaper’s print or digital versions, or for television footage?
Making the Reporter’s Job Easier
Most reporters are dedicated, well-meaning individuals who are usually facing time pressures. They may well be pursuing several stories in a single day, against the clock – with hourly or daily deadlines.
The reporter assigned to cover your event is likely a general reporter, who deals with a different topic in every story. This is especially true in radio and television. It is primarily newspapers (and only some of them) that have reporters assigned to cover education, although a small number of television stations do have education reporters. As a general rule, most reporters have limited knowledge of schools and how they operate.
Accordingly, it is essential for you to make it as easy as possible to tell your story. Provide written fact sheets about your school, contact numbers for parents, and suggestions for lively pictures to accompany your story. In short, you need to think of ways to help the media do the best job they can within their time constraints.
Responding to the Media
If a reporter comes to you with questions about a current issue or event, don’t panic. Follow the tips discussed in this chapter. Be ready.
Each board’s policy on media contact will differ because of varying needs and resources. Some boards have a communications practitioner on staff and others flow media calls through the office of the director of education. Many boards use the chair as the key spokesperson for the board. Use the protocol that works best for your board. The key is to remember that the media require a consistent and available spokesperson. The board must be able to present its side of the story within media deadlines. A reporter covering a contentious issue at the board or an incident at one of your schools has probably been sent there by an assignment editor. The reporter has only a few hours to turn in the finished story.
Never turn down a reporter’s request for an interview, especially when it involves what you perceive to be bad news. If you won’t cooperate, the reporter will inevitably get information from other sources, including those with less knowledge or an axe to grind.
Make sure you understand what the reporter wants and how the material is to be used. For example, it could be a 30-second clip on the nightly news, a feature radio documentary, or an analysis piece for his or her newspaper.
It’s not difficult to anticipate what a reporter’s questions will be if he or she is calling about a specific issue. But if you receive a call unexpectedly, you have the right to ask for a reasonable amount of time to gather information and prepare your thoughts.
Make sure you agree in advance about the conditions of an interview. The most satisfactory condition for both parties is “on the record”. This means that the reporter can use and quote anything that you say. If you are acting in your official capacity as a board trustee, it is expected that you will speak openly and on the record, particularly in a crisis situation.
Maintaining a Working Relationship
The best way to develop a working relationship with the media is to be an accurate source of information. This does not mean that you must tell reporters everything you know or answer all their questions. It simply means that the easier you make their job, the more likely they are to return to you for information, quotes, and your opinion on issues. Every time you speak to the media, it’s an opportunity to communicate your message on the issue of the day.
Complaining About Media Coverage
There are occasions when trustees feel unhappy about the outcome of their dealings with a reporter in a newspaper story or television broadcast. Before voicing your unhappiness, ask yourself whether you have a genuine grievance. Reporters, who are trained to take notes, tape their interviews, and accurately report what the interview subject said do not want to develop a reputation for sloppy work. If you overreact, you could damage your relationship with the reporter, who may well write about you or your school at some future point.
If your problem is with the story’s headline, bear in mind that a newspaper headline is not written by the reporter but by a copy editor who has to distill the essence of the story into a few words. Often complaints are registered against reporters about headlines they did not write.
Reporters do sometimes make mistakes. If the error is minor, forget it. However, tell the reporter about important mistakes. He or she can write a correction for the next day’s paper. For many news outlets, the correction is made to the online version of the story and subsequent searches of the outlet’s database will turn up this corrected version. If you are still not satisfied with the reporter’s response, talk to the reporter’s editor. If that doesn’t work, send a letter to the editor or director of the news outlet. If the problem is with a newspaper, you can also contact the Ontario Press Council (890 Yonge Street, Suite 200, Toronto ON M4W 3P4; telephone 416-340-1981; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.ontpress.com). Keep notes of your interview with the media so that third parties can judge the facts for themselves.
Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest, Tumblr – social media feeds are everywhere. Some people may not use the tools themselves, but no one can deny their potential communicative power. They offer the capacity to have an informative and interesting Twitter debate, discuss local issues directly with constituents on Facebook, or participate in a successful YouTube video campaign.
Printed school newsletters may be going the way of the typewriter. Twitter, classroom and school blogs, website and Facebookpages are changing the way families get news from their local community school. Trustees across Canada are turning toTwitter and Facebook to reach their constituents and build support for issues affecting students, staff and local communities. If you haven’t considered using an online social media platform to communicate with your community, it may be time to evaluate the pros and cons.
You will probably find that your school board has staff expertise in the areas of social media and digital communications. You might ask for a training session before signing up or you could just sit down with staff in an informal Q&A meeting to get their advice on the practices that would be best for you in engaging with your unique local audience.
Before launching into social media, users with public profiles should write down their objectives, which may include:
- Being accountable and transparent to the ward community.
- Extending the reach of strategic messaging by building relationships with relevant social media users including school board stakeholders, other trustees, journalists, bloggers and the wider education community.
- Providing leadership and credibility in the education field by increasing visibility in online communication channels.
- Monitoring Twitter for mentions of yourself and your ward, while engaging with critics and key influencers to address potential issues and correct factual inaccuracies.
- Providing a low-barrier method for constituent feedback and interaction.
- Giving live coverage of school board events for those who cannot attend.
Your Social Media Presence
Just as with planning other forms of communications, there are no rigid rules for getting your message out through social media, but always keep in mind the following pieces of advice:
- Engaging on social media can show that you demonstrate a genuine interest in reaching out to and engaging your constituents. Twitter is one of the best ways for you to engage one-on-one with community members, staff and students. It is a great way to foster positive relationships with constituents – some of whom you may never meet in person.
- Social media can be used to anticipate future policy minefields and ask constituents for their views in advance of boardroom debate. Constituents willoften appreciate the added opportunity to provide their views on the issues that impact their community.
- Don’t let your social media accounts go stale. Send out a tweet (or two or three) at least every day. You won’t gain a large following if you tweet once every few days or less. Be engaging, punchy, succinct and humorous when appropriate to make your tweets, and therefore the information you’re conveying, stand out.
These are the qualities that will keep your content interesting:
- Varied – Cover a broad base of content types – pictures, text, audio – and sources to keep your followers interested.
- Lively – Don’t just regurgitate press release headlines. Your posts should be written in conversational English.
- Timely – Posts should be about issues of immediate relevancy or upcoming events/opportunities.
- Credible – Posts can occasionally have a funny hook but their connection back to your priorities and objectives should always be defensible. If possible, there should be hyperlinks to related content or a call to action.
- Inclusive – In keeping with the knowledge-sharing culture of social media, you should often take the opportunity to link to relevant content from a diverse range of sources other than your own school board or website.
Often, the hardest part of maintaining social media accounts is coming up with great content every day. It is quite likely that you already stumbleon plenty of interesting and educational pieces to link to in your everyday life. These can include: news releases, official school board letters and statements, new board campaigns and initiatives, great YouTube or other web videos you’ve come across, or sharing of your followers’ content and live tweeting at events.
Aim to establish yourself as a “thought leader” in your community – sharing relevant research, events, awards and news from elsewhere can position you as a trusted source and a reliable filter of high quality, relevant information.
Once you’ve decided what your objectives are, who and how you’d like to engage, and what you’re going to be posting, the final piece in your social media planning process should be promotion. Your constituents need to know you’re on Twitter, Facebook or YouTube. Here are some ways to grow your audience:
- Post a prominent link on your personal website, Facebook page or blog.
- Ask your friends, coworkers and other trusted connections to promote you proactively from their social media accounts.
- Add a link to your social media account in your email signature.
- Add the link to all newsletters, statements and news releases sent to your community and the media.
- Email or call key stakeholders in your ward letting them know you’re now on social media.
Finally, don’t worry if your audience doesn’t grow as quickly as you thought it would. Social media audience growth takes time. It’s an organic process that builds as you earn the trust of those in your field. Remember – your followers should be judged by quality, not quantity. Having 25 local leaders reading your tweets every day can be far more effective than having 2,000 followers spread out across the globe, the majority of whom you will never meet or engage with professionally.