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Five Solid Communication Practices for Superintendents

As a communications professional for public education, I am always interested to see how leaders in other fields handle their public relations and communications efforts. Sometimes things are handled very adeptly; other times it’s a train wreck. In the world of school communications, it’s no different, but there are a few things we can do straight out of the box to avoid the misadventures suffered by others.

Following are my top 5 communications tips for superintendents:

Develop a communications plan. Regardless of the size of your school district, you need to know who your primary audiences are and how they receive information. Put together an advisory team of staff, parents and community members, do your research, and determine your key messages. Once you have your plan, don’t put it on a shelf. Refer to it often and improve upon it whenever you can.

Communicate from the inside out. Have you ever heard the line, “When the house is on fire, tell those inside first”? It’s a good practice to tell your staff about the important things going on in the district before they hear it from others. Don’t rely on a single email to do the trick – use multiple methods to keep people in the know. Take time to get out to your buildings and talk to staff. A well-informed staff will help knock down rumors and can be a powerful public relations force. (A poorly informed staff can be equally dangerous... when staff doesn’t know what the truth is, they will create their own.)

Build relationships and listen. I often tell young communications professionals they should spend their first year on the job doing a lot of listening and very little talking. We learn more with our mouths closed than we do when they’re open. The same is true for superintendents. Take time to build relationships with your staff, parents and community leaders, and be a good listener. The credibility you build through these relationships will be invaluable when the inevitable unpopular or unpleasant thing happens in your schools.

Develop your district’s message and support it at every turn. Public education is often a target for criticism. So, define yourself, or someone will do it for you.
What do you want people to think when they are on the topic of your schools? As you build your communications plan, articulate what your district stands for: “Quality education in a safe environment for all students” is a good starting point.

Be transparent and deal with the tough issues NOW. Jody Powell, President Carter’s press secretary, once said, “Bad news is a lot like fish – it doesn’t get better with age.” Especially in this day and age, school officials need to let their communities know the hard truths, even when they are painful. Further, we must address tough issues quickly and honestly. At the same time, use these moments to “bridge” from the potentially negative story to the positive one. If a mistake is made, talk about what happened, but be sure to also talk about the positives that will be part of righting the situation.

A wise, retired school administrator once told me, “A superintendent can deal with a curriculum mix-up; an error in the budget can be corrected; even a little botulism in the school cafeteria, while not pretty, can be fixed; but if a superintendent can’t effectively communicate, then he better start preparing his résumé.” We all can’t be great public speakers, but with planning and forethought, we can help our schools communicate the important work taking place each day on behalf of our students.

David Luther is the Director of Communications for the Missouri Association of School Administrators and the Executive Director of the Missouri School Public Relations Association. David has worked in public education for 31 years.