A Seat at the Table

Research on the Relationship Between Superintendents and School Communicators

By Brittany Edwardes Keil, Barrett Goodwin, Abigale Franco Last Updated: April 24, 2024

A Seat at the Table

Research on the Relationship
Between Superintendents and School Communicators

schoolceo x nspra logo

This might not come as a surprise, but the SchoolCEO staff has a favorite team. It’s not the Bengals, and it’s not the Seattle Storm. It’s the team that develops when a superintendent and their district’s communications professionals work together hand-in-hand to build their district’s brand.  

In the world of K-12 education, school communications professionals inhabit a uniquely challenging—and uniquely rewarding—role. And while the work of a comms professional can look wildly different from one district to another, its importance is only growing as we adapt to a changing educational landscape. Now more than ever, schools are competing on every front. Where once a district’s continued existence was determined mostly by the ebb and flow of their local population, districts of all sizes must now fight to thrive or even to survive. 

Schools have not been immune to the global decrease in institutional trust, and with education becoming increasingly politicized, schools have had to work particularly hard to retain positive brands in their communities. When districts have successfully maintained strong brands, it has often been a testament to the hard work of their communications teams. 

Communications professionals play a critical role in a district’s ability to rise to current challenges and to build a memorable brand. They can head off public relations concerns with dexterity and help executives on their teams communicate clearly both internally and externally. For districts who are able to employ them, communications pros are nothing less than a godsend.  But what do communications professionals need to thrive?  

Despite the fact that communications professionals have been a fixture in many school districts for decades, their work is surprisingly under-studied. Beyond the thoughtful and thorough work of NSPRA, the National School Public Relations Association, there is very little research into a field that is both well established and only growing in importance.  

At SchoolCEO, we have spent years researching elements of school communications, marketing, and culture, mainly as they relate to superintendents and teachers. But here, we are going all in on the study of communications professionals, especially with regard to the following questions:

Which communications professionals have  a “seat at the table,” or access to executive decision-making?
Do communications professionals have adequate and productive access to their superintendents?
How does a communications professional’s executive access (or lack thereof) impact their work for their district?

With these questions, we are striving both to build upon what we know best—the superintendent’s part in school communications and marketing—and also to shine some light on the school communicator’s pivotal role in a district’s ability to thrive.

Here, we’ll dig into how our respondents see themselves, their work, and their goals. We’ll unpack how superintendents can support their communications directors. And we’ll offer recommendations for you to take the work already happening in your district to the next level.

About Our Survey

Our anonymous survey was distributed via email to our own lists of communications professionals and to NSPRA’s member network. It was open for about three weeks and, coincidentally, we had received exactly 600 responses upon its scheduled closure.

Lime Green Chair Drawn in Marker

Our sample population included communications professionals from 47 states and all major geographic regions of the United States. About 37% of our respondents hailed from the Midwest, 13% were from the Northeast, 27% were from the South, and about 19% were from the West. Our sample included respondents in their early 20s who were in their first year on the job—and professionals nearing retirement after decades in the field. 

The “Typical” Communications Team

Almost half of all communications directors work as a team of one. As our team combed through data from 600 communications professionals across the country, we were struck by how much a single statistic can convey. After all, communications workers are tasked not only with telling the stories of a multitude, but also with communicating internally to staff, managing website and social media updates, and interfacing with the press. To think that all this work is—47% of the time—done by a single person is astounding.

Who are America's Communications Professionals?

Our survey received 600 responses from 47 states. Seventy-six percent of our respondents identified themselves as women, 22% identified as men, 1% preferred not to respond, and about half of one percent identified themselves as nonbinary. Our respondents varied in age from 23 to 76, with the average age being about 43 years old.

Race and Ethnicity

Career Experience

Even teams with more than one person were still likely to be small, with 32% of comms professionals reporting being on teams of only two or three people. Communications pros working on teams with more than five people accounted for less than 15% of our respondents (Figure 1)

Do communications professionals have executive access?

Despite interfacing regularly with other administrators—including the superintendent and school board—not all communications roles are considered cabinet-level positions. Depending on the size and nature of the district, school communicators may spend their time completing tasks assigned to them by cabinet-level administrators rather than contributing to district strategy themselves. However, a communications professional can also serve as a partner to the superintendent and other high-level administrators, and may be tasked with developing strategic communications initiatives for the entire district. 

When we designed this study, we first wanted to understand what factors make it more likely for communications professionals to have a seat at the table—regular access to the spaces and conversations where decisions are made. Then, we wanted to find out how different levels of access are related to various work outcomes. From our years of conversations with comms workers, we know that having a seat at the table is a critical component of proactively orchestrating strategic communications.

Turquoise Chair Drawn in Marker

If a communications worker isn’t part of the executive decision-making about an initiative or incident, they often complain that they are responsible for cleaning up a mess they could potentially have helped prevent. As one respondent put it, “I need to be in the senior leadership meetings to hear the discussion taking place.  I pride myself on preventing us from pitfalls, so it is extremely frustrating when I’m called upon to bail us out of something when I was never included prior.”

We asked our respondents, “On a scale from 1-5, to what degree do you feel your district’s executive team gives you a ‘seat at the table’ when important strategic decisions are made for the district?” Because this is such a common concern among communications professionals, we assumed that most respondents would report that they generally didn’t have access or input when it came to strategic decision-making. But to our pleasant surprise, this wasn’t the case. About 64% of our participants responded that they “always” or “often” received a seat at the table, and 20% said that they “sometimes” did. Only 16% said that they “rarely have” or “do not have” a seat at the table (Figure 2).

Despite our expectation that most respondents would indicate a lack of access to the executive suite, it seems comms professionals across the board are quite positive about the level of access they’re afforded. But while the majority of comms directors have a seat at the table at least sometimes, those who don’t often have a few things in common. First, school communicators from districts with fewer than 1,000 students were less likely to be afforded access to leadership circles. Furthermore, communications professionals with more time in the field—those with 10-15 years of experience—were more likely to have a seat at the table than those with less experience. 

In considering these results, it’s important to think about which professionals aren’t given executive access. Small districts seem like a natural place for a communications professional—who should have more easy face time with their leadership team—to have a seat at the table. But that isn’t true, perhaps because superintendents and other executives are accustomed to doing the work themselves. And while it may not be surprising at the surface level for comms pros with less experience to be excluded from leadership decision-making, it’s important to consider what perspectives they could bring if they did have a seat at the table. 

Finally, survey participants generally responded positively when asked about their role in building their district’s communications strategy. When presented with the statement, “My superintendent and other executives look to me to help build our communications strategy,” a solid 48% of respondents selected “strongly agree.” Just under 13% of participants either disagreed or strongly disagreed that their executive team looks to them to build their district’s communications strategy. 

How accessible are superintendents?

Regular face time with their superintendent is critical to a comms professional’s ability to align communication strategy to the broader district strategy. We asked a couple of questions to help us understand the nuances of school communicators’ working relationships with their superintendents:

“On a scale from 1-5, how well do you feel your superintendent understands the work you do in your role?”
“On a scale from 1-5, how accessible is your superintendent to you on a typical workday?”

In keeping with our respondents’ generally positive feelings about their superintendents, most participants felt that their superintendent understood their roles. About 38% of respondents believed their superintendent understood their role “very well,” and 31% selected “fairly well” (Figure 4).

Comms professionals who reported that their superintendents understood their roles were also more likely to have a seat at the table. In other words, superintendents who understand what school communicators do are more likely to show that they value the work by including their comms professionals in executive decision-making. Superintendents should pay special attention to this correlation. If no one on your district’s communications team is included in executive decision-making or cabinet-level meetings, how well do you understand what they do—or what they could do given the chance?

When it comes to a superintendent’s accessibility to their communications professionals, the numbers remained generally positive across the board. Nearly 77% of respondents indicated that their superintendents were either “extremely” or “very” accessible to them on a typical workday. Less than 10% of participants responded negatively—saying that their superintendents were either “not at all” or only “slightly” accessible to them (Figure 3)

When it comes to the various nuances around executive access, communications professionals are positive on all accounts. A large number of school communicators have a seat at the decision-making table, and the bulk of our respondents feel that their superintendents do, in fact, understand their roles well. But a communications professional’s relationship with their superintendent is only one factor in their ability to thrive in their district. We also need to understand how they interact with other staff.

How well connected are communications professionals to
other staff members?

We began this report by exploring the concept of the single-person communications team. And while communications professionals generally feel supported and included by their superintendents, their relationships with the rest of their schools—including both leaders such as principals and individual contributors like teachers—look quite different. These relationships with school staff speak much more to the isolation that comms pros can feel in their work. One respondent explains: “It is very hard to tell the positive stories of our schools, teachers, and students when I am distanced from all of that in my district office.”

Red Chair Drawn in Marker

As we noted above, there’s a positive correlation between superintendents who understand comms professionals’ roles and those who include their comms workers in executive decision-making. This correlation could suggest a pretty logical conclusion—those who understand a role are more likely to value it. But how well do school staff besides the superintendent understand what comms workers do? The answers are a bit surprising.

First, let’s talk about principals and other leaders. Our participants were asked, “On a scale from 1-5, how well do you feel principals and other leaders in your district understand what you do?” Compared to how comms professionals feel about their superintendents’ understanding of their roles, the results here are pretty mixed. The most common response was “somewhat,” chosen by nearly 37% of our respondents. Only 13% of respondents selected “very well” (Figure 4)

We also wanted to gauge how well staff members who aren’t in leadership roles understand comms professionals’ work. We asked respondents, “On a scale from 1-5, how well do you feel teachers and other staff not in administration understand what you do?” The answers to this question trended even more negatively, with only 3% of respondents choosing “very well.” Nearly 36% of respondents chose either “not at all” or “slightly,” suggesting that non-leadership staff don’t truly understand what communications professionals do—or what all they can offer (Figure 4)

Think back to the isolation that’s inherent on a team of one. How much more isolated would someone feel surrounded by colleagues who don’t understand—and therefore likely don’t value—what they do?

Orange Chairs Stacked up, Drawn in Marker

This is a place where superintendents can really shine. Many of our open responses mentioned that while community surveys or strategic plans often indicate a need for “increased communication,” not many leaders publicly cite this need as the rationale for investing in school comms. When a superintendent speaks to internal stakeholders, they should make it clear that the key to stronger communication and an improved district brand is a trusted and empowered comms team. After all, communicators are the people who can make it happen.

Many school comms pros also shared that their effectiveness was hindered by the lack of a line-item budget they could direct strategically. One respondent made this crystal clear: “First and foremost, I need an actual budget. For equipment, for professional development, for publications, for advertising. … I try to save the district money whenever possible. I don’t spend frivolously. I understand that we are using taxpayer funding. But those taxpayers WANT better communication.”

How do communications professionals spend their time—and how do they feel about it?

We also wanted to understand how executive access impacted comms pros’ work priorities, as well as the relative proactivity or reactivity of their work. To address this, we consulted NSPRA’s results from their annual use of time survey. According to that survey, comms directors spend most of their time on tasks that fall into the following categories:

  • Crisis communications
  • External communications
  • Social media management
  • Internal communications
  • Building long-term strategy
  • Website management

We then asked respondents to rank these tasks based on two different scenarios:

“Which of the following tasks take up the most of your time in a typical day?”
“Which of the following tasks do you believe are most important to being effective in your role?”

Participants’ responses appear in Figure 5, with the tasks that ranked highest at the top. The juxtaposition between these columns is fascinating; it doesn’t seem that communications professionals’ priorities line up with how they spend their time. For example, our respondents ranked social media management as one of the most time-consuming tasks on their list, but also rated it as one of the least important. 

As you can imagine, our analysis revealed a lot of relationships between district size and how communications directors spend their time. Comms workers for larger districts were more likely than their peers at smaller districts to deprioritize social media and website management. This changes based on the size of the team as well. Comms workers from larger teams were more likely to spend their time working on crisis communications or building long-term strategy. They were also more likely to spend less time on social media and website management. On the other hand, comms professionals who work solo were more likely to spend their time working on social media management and website management. Solo respondents were also more likely to spend less time on external communications, internal communications, and building long-term strategy. 

Which of the following tasks takes up the most of your time in a typical day? Which of the following tasks do you believe are most important to being effective in your role?
External communications Building long-term strategy
Social media management External communications
Internal communications Crisis communications
Website management Internal communications
Crisis communications Social media management
Building long-term strategy Website management

In their open responses, many participants lamented that too much of their time was spent either managing social media or “putting out fires,” and that they wished they had more time for strategic, long-term planning. “I wish I had more time to do strategy!” one respondent said. “As a one-man band, that is often an item that gets pushed to the end of the list even though I am most passionate about it.” Another respondent explained: “Social media takes much more time to create and manage than I believe it is worth in 2024. Gathering all the pieces (researching content, getting photos, checking names, cross-checking image releases, learning and dealing with the latest Facebook/Instagram update) takes as much time as creating a quality email. I believe other forms of communication and marketing are currently more valuable.”

Open responses also revealed that social media wasn’t the only tedious task that ate into comms directors’ time. In many districts, a proliferation of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests has fallen to communications personnel, to the detriment of their other tasks. “I am currently spending most of my time split between a bond referendum and FOIA requests,” one respondent explained. “The bond falls into the strategic planning category, but I wish I could spend less time on FOIA requests. It has taken over my job, and I am not able to be in the schools as much telling the stories of the amazing things happening in our classrooms.” 

It’s no surprise, then, that over half (54%) of the respondents disagreed with the statement, “You spend the majority of your time focusing on what you consider to the be the most important elements of your role” (Figure 6).

Many of our respondents described spending far more time on day-to-day reactive tasks than on proactive, strategic tasks. As one participant put it, “I wish I could spend more time being creative and overseeing fun video projects to help tell our story. Instead, I’m constantly dealing with students or staff getting in some sort of legal trouble, legislative affairs trying to destroy public education, parents going to the media about stupid things that should be handled internally, etc.”

Still, when it comes to proactivity or reactivity, the good news is this—56% of our respondents feel that their work involves an equal mix of proactivity and reactivity. Less than 2% of our respondents felt that their work was “almost always reactive,” and a similar number found themselves on the other side of the spectrum (Figure 7).

It’s safe to assume school leaders want their districts’ communications to be proactive just as much as comms directors do. So what can your district do? Comms pros who believed their districts had clearer brands were more likely to describe themselves as engaging in more proactive work. This sentiment was echoed in the open responses. As one participant succinctly stated, “Your brand is your message. Clear, consistent, connected messaging and image are key to engagement and trust in your school.”

How does this impact burnout?

In a post-pandemic world, workplaces are rife with burnout. This isn’t unique to schools, of course, but if your communications team is experiencing burnout, their potential will be limited. 

To understand how burnout impacts school communications professionals, we provided our respondents with the following prompt: 

According to the National Institute of Health, burnout is “a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job. The three key dimensions of this response are an overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.” Based on the above definition, how frequently do you feel “burned out”?

Participants were asked to rank themselves on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being “always burned out.” An alarming 77% responded that they were at least “sometimes” burned out, with 37% answering that they were “always” or “often” burned out. 

Burnout can be especially detrimental given the isolation inherent to being on a team of one. When asked about their plans to continue in the field for the next five years, 40% of respondents said that they did not plan to remain in school communications. Because of the isolation of the position, some school communicators felt that they were overlooked when it came to the broader conversation around burnout in education. One participant explained: “We hear a lot about teacher burnout, but I also know many school communicators who are burned out. The constant barrage of criticism, unkind comments on social media, and the ever-increasing demands of the job in a 24/7 news cycle all contribute to some school communications professionals leaving. I believe that school districts must address staff members’ mental health issues in a systematic way.”

Orange Chairs Stacked up, Drawn in Marker

But despite their workload and burnout, many communications professionals told us that they loved their jobs, especially when they could regularly connect with other school communicators about their ever-changing field. One respondent explains: “I still love my job and never dread going to my office, being at one of our schools, or spending time with a community group. My communications toolbox is much larger and changing regularly, but as long as I have access to colleagues in similar roles and professional organizations, I remain enthusiastic about serving in my role even on the most stressful day.”

Why does this matter?

Most school leaders don’t become superintendents without distinguishing themselves as adept managers of people and purpose. But when it comes to the superintendent-communications professional relationship, there are a lot of steps you can take to center your district’s brand and mission more strongly. 

The first thing you should know is this: No single person can be responsible for telling a brand’s complete story. Everyone who takes part in your brand—teachers, staff, students and even community members—plays some role in how it grows in your community. 

A few years ago, we conducted a study called “Who Speaks for Your Brand?” in which we discovered that teachers looked to their superintendents and communications directors to serve as their district’s primary spokespeople. However, 72% of teachers also felt it was their own responsibility to improve their district’s reputation when speaking to others about their schools. 

In other words, teachers (and other staff) already have a sense of responsibility when it comes to supporting your district brand—and even consider it a regular part of their job. They already intend to contribute to your district’s positive story; they just need some direction to get it right.

Orange Chair Drawn in Marker

Remember: When asked whether they believed teachers or staff members understand their role, 40% of our respondents said “not at all” or “slightly.” It can be challenging for communications directors to work with educators if those educators don’t understand the purpose and authority of the district’s communications department. Many of our respondents commented that they often feel nervous working with building-level leaders on communications strategy, fearing that because they lack an education background, they might not be taken seriously. 

Other communications pros mentioned how time-consuming it can be to source stories, especially when there are no systems or relationships to make the process easier. One respondent explained: “I need teachers and staff to better understand my role. We have not had a comms director before, so people don’t always understand why I am here.”

While it may be daunting to involve others in your district’s storytelling process, know that this happens best when a communications professional can play the role of coach and consultant. When collective authorship works well, your district’s brand will be supported by dozens—or even hundreds—of smaller stories.

But what’s next?

This is a SchoolCEO research publication, and truthfully, we wouldn’t be satisfied without providing some clear, succinct, research-backed takeaways for superintendents and comms professionals alike. Here are just a few points to take forward with you. 

Takeaways for Superintendents

  1. Give your communications professional(s) a seat at the table.

The research is clear: Communications professionals with access to executive decision-making can focus on more strategic, proactive work and are generally less burned out. This access is critical, even if you have a novice school communicator. Giving your comms person access early on in their career will level up their expertise much more quickly—which will only make them even more valuable in their role.

  1. Focus on systems and relationships to build mutual trust between your staff and your communications workers.

Given our research, we hope you’re one of the majority of superintendents who value school communications. But for your comms professional, having a great relationship with you isn’t enough to feel connected to your school community. Work intentionally with your comms professionals to build the kinds of relationships—and systems—that will help them keep up with what’s happening in every building throughout your district. Whatever system you decide upon, you must start by giving your district staff an understanding of who your communications pro is and how they help the district. 

  1. Be thoughtful about how your comms professionals spends their time.

Next time you want to ask your comms pro to take on a new initiative, look back at Figure 5. If a project doesn’t either align with your plans for your district brand or fall into the “most important” category, think carefully about how much time and stress it may put on your comms team. As a superintendent, you’re likely always considering the cost-benefit ratios of different initiatives and are probably  familiar with action-priority matrices. This is a great time to use them. 

Takeaways for Communications Professionals

  1. Use our data to advocate for a seat at the table.

You already know this: Having a seat at the table means being able to focus on more, proactive work and generally getting less burned out. While a lot of this is understandably in the superintendent’s court, we invite you to use our research as a tool to help leaders in your district understand just how critical it is to include you in the conversation from the beginning. Furthermore, if you’re one of the 47% of school communications professionals working solo, your district can’t afford not to have you there. 

  1. Get involved with communities of support.

Building a strong, proactive, strategic school communications program is incredibly difficult, but doing it without a roadmap is nearly impossible. Luckily, NSPRA has lots of resources and tools to help you and your superintendent get your district on track. Their rubrics and programs are full of actionable strategies and mentorship opportunities from the best professionals in the business. For example, their Rubrics of Practice offer an in-depth standard of success for almost any type of school communications program. Getting your superintendent on board with supporting you as an NSPRA member—or even joining their superintendent-communications team cohort—is a great way to understand the how of school communications and build the mutual respect that is a core part of a strong school PR program. 

  1. Help your superintendent build storytelling systems.

When it comes to district communications, you’re the professional—and sometimes, being the professional means coaching others. One person alone can’t hold up the story of an entire district, so you need to recruit others to join a narrative that aligns to the brand that you and your superintendent have designed. This means empowering lots of storytellers and building systems that make collective authorship work. In our open responses, many communications pros lauded the effectiveness of creating incentivized Google Forms for teachers to submit photos, having assigned communicators on each school campus, and conducting regular trainings with building-level staff on the elements of good storytelling. 

Learn how one district built storytelling systems in our podcast episode “Jeffrey Collier & Coty Kuschinsky: Collective Authorship.” 

We want to extend our deepest gratitude to the 600 school communicators who took our survey and the many who shared it with their networks. Thank you also to NSPRA, both for their partnership with us and for their continued support of excellence in school communications. 

In today’s educational world, the importance of school communication is here to stay. We hope this research will play a part in supporting communicators who are doing the work—day in and day out. It’s clear to us that for districts to thrive, school communicators need a seat at the table. What’s more, they need to be as intertwined as possible in the vibrant fabric of their schools.

Subscribe below to stay connected with SchoolCEO!

SchoolCEO logo