Building a school district communication plan?

Building a school district communication plan takes time. Here are some shortcuts to help you work smarter, not harder.

By Corey Whaley Last Updated: April 23, 2024

Originally published as "Communications Shortcuts" in the Spring 2024 issue of SchoolCEO Magazine.

Whether you’re a one-person shop or have a fully fledged team, school communications is often demanding and unpredictable. The day-to-day work of telling your district’s story while maintaining clear and consistent communication with all of your stakeholders requires efficiency, flexibility, and real-time decision-making. Whether you’re a communications lead or a superintendent doing the work of a school communicator, you don’t have the time or capacity to do it all. 

In fact, our recent survey of school comms professionals indicates that many school communicators are stretched too thin to focus on the elements of their role that they deem most important. Building a school district communication plan takes time, so we reached out to a few experts to see what advice they might have for working smarter, not harder. With their guidance, we’ve gathered some field-tested shortcuts to help any school communicator save time and stress.

Use Templates in
Your School
Communications Plan

Posting on social media can be a bit overwhelming when there’s a lot going on in your schools. From weather updates to crisis communications, you often need to create and share content quickly while also maintaining the brand and voice your stakeholders recognize. Using templates that are already aligned to your brand—with your logo, school colors, fonts, etc.—can save you a lot of headaches and promote brand consistency across social media platforms. 

Holly McCaw, APR, director of communications at Michigan’s Otsego Public Schools, uses templates in a variety of ways. “I have templates for snow days, half days, vacation weeks, etc.,” she tells us. McCaw even keeps a contact on each school sports team so that, using her templates, she can craft and share congratulations posts as soon as results and highlights come in from a game. 

In Oregon’s Reynolds Public School District, Director of Communications Steve Padilla uses templates to help district leaders respond to crises in a timely fashion. “I have templates of letters for all of our principals to use in case there’s some kind of community incident,” Padilla tells us. No matter the potential situation—a power outage, a weather event, or something more serious—Padilla knows a principal can’t stop and write a letter to the community when their top priority is everyone’s safety. Having this bank of templates ready to go saves everyone time and ensures that families get the information they need as quickly as possible. 

When it comes to actually creating templates, most of our experts mentioned using Canva. The user-friendly online graphic design tool is free to use or has a paid subscription option if you’re looking for extra design features. “I use Canva for a large portion of my work and keep a template for all of our social media post announcements,” says Meagan Dorsey, public relations officer at Dothan City Schools in Alabama. 

Plan Ahead with
Evergreen Content 

Sometimes there’s so much going on in your schools that sharing every story seems impossible. And if you’re trying to get vital information out to your community, it may not be the right time to post about the quiz bowl team’s big win—even if that victory just happened. 

Many of the communications directors we’ve spoken to over the years have mentioned that part of their school district communication plan includes saving up content for later use. When times get hectic or your comms team is stretched too thin, having a bank of positive, evergreen stories to share can help keep your district’s inspiring work from getting lost in the shuffle. 

“As a part of our social media strategy, we are intentional about highlighting all of our buildings each week,” McCaw says. “But there are times when we have more items from one building than another, so I’ll schedule them out for the following week or save them for another time. Or, if we have a really busy week with tons of things going on from multiple buildings, I’ll choose a few evergreen stories to save for a later time as well.” 

Curating a bank of positive stories ensures McCaw always has content to share, even when there’s a holiday break or a slower week in the district. “Since I already have the content, it’s also easy to write up a caption and schedule the post in advance,” she says.  

Leverage Online Tools in
Your School Communications Plan

If your district uses a custom app to keep school families updated, you already know the convenience of having one digital space where your stakeholders can find information about your schools. Keeping your app up to date is key for building trust within your community. 

Betsy Bailey, director of communications and community relations for Arkansas’ Searcy School District, has found Thrillshare Mobile* to be a great tool for keeping her community informed and telling Searcy’s story. “We use Thrillshare Mobile because it goes to three social media channels at the same time,” says Bailey. “And you only have to type your message in once—that saves me a lot of work.” 

Thrillshare Mobile allows multiple users to keep your website and custom app updated. You can post on your Live Feed, share content on multiple social media platforms, and even send notifications, text, and voice alerts to your stakeholders—all from one app on your phone. 

Recruit and
Train Media Reps 

As a school communicator, you can’t be everywhere at once, especially if you’re the only member of your team. That’s why many communications directors rely on a districtwide network of media reps to help find stories, generate content, and share site-specific updates. “It really does come down to building relationships with key communicators in your buildings and making sure people understand the why of a school communicator’s job,” McCaw says.

Jessica Jernegan, director of community engagement for Oklahoma’s Bixby Public Schools, certainly doesn’t let being a “one-woman shop” keep her from telling her district’s collective story. Inspired by a conference session she attended, Jernegan created what she calls Bixby’s “Comms Cadre” this past school year. “I developed a role description of sorts and talked with my district about paying stipends to existing employees,” Jernegan tells us. “Then I created a little mini-comms director at each of our 12 school sites.” 

Jernegan spends a full day training Bixby’s media reps, explaining how everything they post should align to the district’s strategic plan and going over tools like ChatGPT and Canva. In addition to quarterly meetups, they share a planning calendar to keep things organized and on track. Having this Comms Cadre allows Jernegan to focus on district-level communications while dedicated reps tell their schools’ respective stories. “I think our community can feel a stronger connection to their children’s classrooms because of these efforts,” she says. 

Use Shared Online Spaces
in Your School Communications Plan

Keeping communications top of mind for leaders across a district can be difficult and time-consuming. Fortunately, utilizing online spaces can keep you connected to leaders and other designated communicators in your district. 

“I have a shared public relations Google Drive that principals and school directors have access to,” says Dorsey. “It houses things I often receive requests for, including our official school logos and instructions on things like how to make an email signature or use mass notifications.” Having these resources in one easy-to-find place saves valuable time both for principals and for Dorsey herself. School leaders don’t have to go on a wild goose chase to find what they need, and Dorsey doesn’t have to field as many requests for information. 

In Bixby, Jernegan uses online spaces to keep the district’s site-specific communicators connected and collaborating. “I have a shared online workspace where we can all chat and share ideas,” she tells us. “When we have something going on districtwide, like a bond issue or Homecoming Week, one of our cadre will make a Canva graphic and share it for everyone to use. So instead of 12 people making 12 different graphics, one of them gets it done, and we’re good. It’s a shortcut that creates more shortcuts.” 

Incorporating spaces like these into your school district communication plan will help when it comes to sharing templates, accessing brand toolkits, and even answering questions about what to post and when. The key is having a place where all your district’s storytellers can easily find information and collaborate.

Get Support from the
School Comms Community  

Though the role of a school communications professional can be overwhelming and isolating, you’re not alone; there are many others walking in your shoes. As we’ve spoken to school comms pros over the years, the vast majority have mentioned how important it is to form community with others in the field.

We’re never surprised when a school communicator mentions how valuable the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) has been to them. With over 2,800 members, the organization has been fostering a supportive community of school comms professionals for nearly a century. Needless to say, tapping into NSPRA’s resources is a great way to gain insights, inspiration, and support. They offer everything from professional development webinars and monthly chats to an impressive bank of resources and research tools. The organization also has 30 state and regional chapters across the U.S. that provide networking and local professional development opportunities. 

As current president of ArkaNSPRA, Arkansas’ state NSPRA chapter, Bailey knows a thing or two about staying connected to her local school comms community. “Very few districts have a whole team of communicators,” she says, “but ArkaNSPRA is a great way for fellow communicators to share information with one another.” 

With just over 60 members statewide, ArkaNSPRA has quarterly, in-person meetings at different district and school sites. “And we’re on a closed Facebook group, so if we have an issue that someone else has dealt with, we’ll just throw a question out there and ask what we should do,” Bailey says. “We try to stay in constant contact.” On the last Friday of every month, ArkaNSPRA members participate in what they call “FriYay!”—a Zoom meeting where they can collaborate, troubleshoot, and share ideas. “We are such a close-knit group, and we are always welcoming to anyone who wants to join,” says Bailey. 

*Thrillshare is a product of our parent company, Apptegy.

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