Ambassadors in Action

Four school leaders share how they empower staff members at every level to be strong brand advocates.

By Marie Kressin Last Updated: February 07, 2022

In our recent survey, we asked 1,600 school employees to answer a simple question: Who speaks for your district brand? Our research showed how undervalued teachers and non-certified staff are when it comes to brand promotion. As we dug into the data, we found that the majority of lower-level school employees already see the importance of branding and care about improving their districts’ reputations. The key is to provide them with the tools they need to be effective brand ambassadors.

But you may be thinking: What does that look like in the real world? Well, we were wondering the same thing. So we found a few districts that have successfully equipped their staff members to be strong brand ambassadors—from teaching them to use hashtags to creating an environment where positive conversations can thrive.

The examples here are by no means exhaustive—but if you’re interested in empowering the brand advocates you already have on your payroll, this is a great place to start.

Offer optional social media training.

Social media is an essential tool for school districts—and Andy Almos knows it. As superintendent of East Central Public Schools in Minnesota, Almos recruited staff volunteers for a communications committee that now has an agenda-led meeting every month. Their aim is to improve the district’s communication efforts and online presence. “If we’re not telling our story,” Almos says, “somebody else is telling our story for us.”

It was important to Almos that only interested staff members were brought into the fold. “We want to work with the living,” Almos says, “those who are really passionate about this. Let’s build them up as resident experts.”

Of course, one of the hallmarks of an educator is the desire to be, well, educated. And as East Central developed a stronger online presence, staff members without social media found they were lagging behind. “Many of our staff members felt left out,” Almos says. “Without Twitter or Facebook, you have no idea what’s going on half the time.”

But if Almos’ staff was interested in joining the online conversation, why weren’t they doing so? East Central isn’t the only district asking this question. According to our survey data, half of public school teachers say they never engage with their districts’ content on social media (see page 20).

The East Central communications committee brought it to Almos’ attention that the largest barrier for most of his staff was a long-harbored distrust of social media. For so long, they’d seen social media as nothing more than a way for professionals to get into hot water. To mitigate this fear, the district began hosting informal social media training sessions.

As with committee participation, social media training was voluntary. During the sessions, attendees learned how to create a Twitter account and use basic functions like retweeting.

For Almos, it was key to teach staff how to share content. East Central follows what they refer to as their COPE strategy: Create Once; Post Everywhere. “So when the superintendent creates a message, we don’t want a first grade teacher, for example, to put their own twist on it,” Almos says. Instead, team members retweet or share the exact messages that come out at the district level.

At one training, Almos and his committee even included some real-time practice by posting a photo of the session online, giving attendees a chance to try retweeting, using hashtags, and tagging one another. This was also Almos’ way of telling the East Central community: “We believe in social media, and these are the people who are going to be our communication channels.”

Make brand guidelines accessible.

Previously employed by a marketing agency, Jessica Duff was perfectly suited to the challenge faced by Arkansas’ Pulaski County Special School District (PCSSD) when she came on as their Executive Director of Communications. At PCSSD, each school has its own specific branding in addition to the district brand. When Duff started, there were branding inconsistencies at the district level and at each of the schools. She put in the work on the front end, sifting through a mountain of different logos, fonts, and colors until she and her department developed branding guides for every single school—all 26 of them.

Now, thanks to Duff and her team, any PCSSD employee can access the district’s branding guides via a Google site. From the homepage of the site, users can view each organization’s approved logos, fonts, and colors as well as tips for effective use and what to avoid. They can also access templates for branded Google Slides and letterheads, download logo files, and copy and paste branded email signatures. PCSSD even provides video tutorials on updating signatures in Gmail.

But while making your brand standards digitally accessible is a great move, it won’t be nearly as effective without proper training. And, according to our survey, one in five teachers has never had any brand or messaging training. For non-teaching staff, the number is even higher (see page 16).

Duff and her team recognize the importance of making themselves as accessible as their brand guidelines. During orientation, every employee learns how to navigate the PCSSD Brand Standards site. Duff is also available to work with staff one-on-one. Anytime a staff member fails to comply with PCSSD’s brand guidelines, she is quick to reach out to help correct their mistake.

Just as teachers have clear expectations for their students, it’s imperative to set high expectations and hold your staff consistently accountable when it comes to branding. Like Duff says: “When you’re consistent, clean, and look sharp—that’s when you’re going to be taken seriously.”

Stay connected to your team.

The staff of Oregon’s Salem-Keizer School District describes Superintendent Christy Perry not only as a strong leader, but as a leader they want to follow. “She is a relationship-oriented person to her core,” one staff member says.

And the importance of connecting with your staff cannot be overstated—especially when it comes to branding. After all, what your staff members have to say about your district matters. Our research found that approximately three out of four teachers and non-teaching staff would recommend their districts (see page 20)—but staff sentiment is best understood on a case-by-case basis. So how can you know what sentiment looks like in your schools?

Despite the size of her 42,000-student district, Perry has managed never to fall out of touch with her staff—even during the pandemic. For her, it’s about having meaningful conversations and building intentional relationships.

To do that kind of work successfully, Perry believes in modeling vulnerability and creating safe spaces for others to be vulnerable, too. The pandemic is forcing her, like so many others, to have difficult conversations with her staff—but it’s not just about starting those conversations. “It’s also about being present enough as a learner to hear what someone is teaching you,” Perry says. That means a good portion of her leadership boils down to setting her ego aside.

Perry sees her staff as a resource; she doesn’t hesitate to tap into their knowledge base, experiences, and expertise. Recently, in an effort to boost staff morale, Perry went directly to other leaders in the district and asked them what three things could be done to improve sentiment. “Don’t pretend you know the answers,” she says. “Figure out ways to lean into the conversation, and try to get others to be part of your thinking.”

Perry consistently keeps a finger on the pulse of her district by providing those around her with a seat at the table. “I come with an open heart,” she says. “I’m not the smartest person in every room. I can’t do this work alone. Systems and schools are so complex, and the needs of kids evolve. You have to have a variety of strengths on your team in order to do the work this right way.”

Thank and celebrate your staff.

After the last two years, it might seem like there’s not much worth celebrating. But for Dr. Nathan McCann and his staff in Washington’s Ridgefield School District, everything deserves a celebration. They aren’t naive; COVID has colored every aspect of their community. But if one good thing came out of the pandemic, it’s an increased desire for strong relationships. “I’ve never seen school spirit like this,” McCann tells us. “When you go without something for so long, you start to realize what you’ve missed: the magic of human connection.”

Capitalizing on this need for interpersonal relationships bolsters Ridgefield’s staff morale. “It’s about maintaining a sense of humanity,” McCann says. “There’s not a day in the district we won’t celebrate.” Sadly, our research shows that this practice isn’t universal; a third of the school employees we surveyed don’t believe those above them value their work (see page 20).

As McCann puts it, “School superintendents need to be cheerleaders in chief.” In Ridgefield, this looks like a lot of tiny celebrations. Whether it’s a handwritten note, passing out gift cards to Ridgefield’s student-run coffee shop, or holding an ice cream social in recognition of National Custodian Appreciation Day, McCann jumps at every opportunity to show appreciation to those around him.

A true culture of celebration, though, goes beyond the superintendent. As a leader, you can empower your staff to take ownership of that culture by trusting them and championing their skills—including those that fall outside their job descriptions. McCann shares an example: One staff member, an avid baker, made sweets to pass out during National School Psychology Week. “You push people to see talent in themselves,” McCann says, “and then you unleash them and support the heck out of them.” Celebration is a full team effort. If you start pouring from the top, every cup beneath you will overflow.

So it comes down to this: If you want your staff to talk positively about your district, you have to give them something good to talk about. “Thank and celebrate your staff every day,” McCann tells us. “They will become happier, and that positivity will overwhelm the negativity.”


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