SchoolCEO speaks with those in communications roles in four districts across the country. They explore what others might misunderstand about communication roles.
In this episode, SchoolCEO speaks with those in communications roles in four districts across the country. The conversation explores what others might misunderstand about communication roles, where time is spent, and advice for those in, working with or supporting the role of communications.
SchoolCEO has written about the role of communications director throughout our issues for a simple reason: the role is critical to the success of superintendents and the district. In articles like Championing Your Comms Director and Super Team we make the case for how the role brings schools closer to their communities and how it supports the larger efforts of the school district in significant ways. In past SchoolCEO podcast episodes like Marketing Your Employer Brand we’ve discussed how the role can even influence recruitment and student engagement
Listen in as we speak together with:
- Erica Chandler at Affton School District in Missouri ( @ericajchandler and @AfftonSchools )
- Christy McGee at Fountain Fort Carson School District in Colorado ( @christy_mcgee and @FFC8schools )
- Meagan Dorsey at Dothan City Schools in Alabama ( @MeaganDorsey17 and @DCSdothan )
- Andrew Robinson at Arlington Public Schools in Virginia ( @RobinsonReports and @APSVirginia )
Intro Quote: Christy McGee (Guest): Reaching that community and looking outside, we need to let them in and get them a picture of what's happening inside of our four walls. And I think that's so valuable, 'cause education has changed, right? It's evolving. It looks a lot different than even when we were in school and when, and then the parents that we have who are younger than us, we're in school, you know?
It's just constantly changing. And I even tell, I mean, the minute teachers retire, it's gonna change. The next year something's gonna be different, right? If we can let people in those four walls and use our social media, use our newsletters, use our tools to give people that glimpse so that's how I frame it, is just, you know, think about this, what's going on in your classroom.
But even coworkers across the district are, you know, are not, don't know that. So how do we let them in and give them a glimpse?
Tyler Vawser (Host): In this episode of SchoolCEO Conversations, I speak with public information officers and communication directors from across the country. Erica Chandler from Afton School District in Missouri, Christie McGee at Fountain Fort Carson School District in Colorado, Megan Dorsey at Dolphin City Schools in Alabama, and Andrew Robinson at Arlington Public Schools in Virginia. We all know that communications is critically important to running a school district. SchoolCEO Magazine has written about how superintendents can help support and champion the communication directors better.
And so with this conversation, we wanted to have them talk about what their role is, what's going well, what the challenges are, and that my hope is that this will provide you as a superintendent, the opportunity to hear from other people in their districts about how they're thinking about communications.
And if you're someone that's in communications and we're talking to your colleagues and you can get ideas and understand how someone in your same role is thinking on the other side of the country.
We will start the conversation in a moment, but first I wanna tell you about SchoolCEO Conference. We're bringing speakers that you normally don't have access to. You're gonna hear ideas, research and presentation that's usually reserved for corporate audiences. And if you've ever wondered how do you build a strong employee culture, how do you motivate your team? How do you work better across different generational lines? And ultimately, how do you create a district that actually has a brand that enables you to reach your goals? This is the conference for all of those things combined into one experience. It's one day, or actually technically it's one and a half days, and it's a really efficient conference where there's only keynote speakers, there are no breakout sessions, everything's plenary.
You get access to some of the best minds on topics like brand and culture and influence right in front of you. Past guests have told us that they learn more in one day of school c e O Conference than any other conference that they've attended. Others have said that they are excited and they feel empowered to actually go back and implement what they heard, not just enjoy the ideas. And one superintendent even told us that it was hands down the best conference that they've ever been to. Seriously.
Powered by Apptegy, SchoolCEO Conference is one you will not want to miss. Just as SchoolCEO Magazine has been the go-to place for school marketing for nearly five years, this conference is the conference for understanding how to create high performing cultures, understanding generational differences, and how to build a strong district brand even if you don't have the ideal location or all the resources you wish you had.Learn more at schoolceo.com/conference or follow the link in the show notes.
Tyler Vawser (Host): Thank you all so much for joining SchoolCEO Conversations. Really excited to talk to you. Usually on SchoolCEO Conversations, we're talking to superintendents and private sector leaders, but we know the role that school communications plays in running a school and helping superintendents. And more than that, in the last few years, communication has just become incredibly critical and I'd love to dig in and make this a really useful resource, not just for superintendents who are gonna listen to this, but also your fellow communication directors. Your fellow PIOs and those that are serving in those positions in different districts.
And so a lot of representation here from across the country, different size districts you all have a lot of experience. And would love just to jump in and as we talk, I want you to ask each other questions and share your experience, what you've learned, maybe where you've made some mistakes and even what's going well too, right?
I know there's a lot of great things happening in schools and sometimes we forget to tell each other those stories as well. Just to kick things off, Erica, because you and I have chatted before, I'm curious just to hear from you in your role. How is it different than those in your community might think it is?
Erica Chandler (Guest): Hi! I’m Erica Chandler. I'm the director of Communications for a School District in St. Louis, Missouri. I have been here for 11 years. Over 11 years in communications prior to that outside of education and also the president of the Missouri School PR Association. So go MOSPRA! I think people outside of school communications might be surprised about how many things fall onto your plate that aren't necessarily communications.
So in my role, I am directly involved in school safety when things come up and not just writing the letter or the script or making the phone calls but behind the scenes trying to help make decisions and also ensuring that we are doing tabletop exercises and doing drills and all the things that schools need to do.
While you don't necessarily think safety might fall under communications, at least in our district, which is a little smaller, we all share a lot of roles. So that is one of mine, so it's not just playing on social media and having fun and taking pictures. There's a lot behind the scenes that you don't know, and I really think there's a lot of strategy people don't realize either.
Even when you see the fun things on social media or the website, there's strategy behind it and a reason you're telling that story. Not just because it's a cute picture.
Tyler Vawser (Host): Yeah. That's interesting. Does your superintendent understand all those different parts, or how has that relationship between you and your superintendent maybe shifted over the last few years?
Erica Chandler (Guest): My superintendent absolutely does understand. I'm very lucky to have someone who values and relies on open, transparent communication. That's not a conversation or a fight we have to have. It just is how we do things in our district. But he and I, we’ve worked together all 11 years. Since I've been in the district. He started as assistant superintendent the year I started as director of communication. So I think we've had a lot of time to know each other and the way that we work but also share a lot of the same values, so I'm lucky.
Tyler Vawser: Very cool. Christie McGee, I want to get your take on something. So I'm curious, like what parts of your day to day responsibilities take up most of your time and effort?
Just like Erica was saying, it's not just communications, right? You're not just. Typing emails all day. You know, if you wanna break that down, like 30% goes to this, 20% goes to that. What does that look like for you?
Christy McGee (Guest): My name is Christie McGee. I'm the communications director for Fountain Fort Carson School, District Eight.
We're a small-ish suburban school district in Colorado, just south of Colorado Springs. And we, yeah, we serve quite a big military population here. And I've also been involved in the CORA board and currently am the a PR committee chair for NSRA. I think the bulk, although it does feel like emails are the, a big bulk of it, but it's like the responding, it's the, I got this question or this I need you to do this, or can we talk about this?
You know, just a lot of the conversation about the work happens over email. So even if it's not prepping the formal communications, there is a lot of email. I think that takes up a bulk of my day. I wish that was one thing I was better at was managing that window and maybe you know, minimizing it or dedicating some time.
But I definitely wanna be responsive via email. So I think that's it. Gosh, if I could break it down, I mean, it seems, and I think one of the, you know, one of the things that I was thinking about was how much of our job is that other duties as assigned? Kinda like Erica said, like just some random stuff of, you know, for example, I have a team of web admins.
We just launched a new website. I wanna say thank you. You know, I got this idea from kind of Andrea Gribble and some other people in our world of having kind of a comms team shirt. Those just came in this morning. Now I'm making postcards that say thank you and I wanna get those out before the break.
So that's this oh, and it's self-inflicted, but that's a new project that came up and I, you know, need to get that done. So it's just juggling all of those kind of, they're smaller balls maybe, right? They're not the big balls, but there's a lot of them.
Tyler Vawser: Very cool.
Megan Dorsey, I'm curious, like over the last, I think you said you've been in this position for four years, right? How have things changed? Obviously there was a global pandemic in the middle of that, right? So I'm sure things have changed, but I'm curious, you know, from your, say your first six months to the last six months, right now, what's different about your position?\
Meagan Dorsey (Guest): Hi, I'm Megan Dorsey. I am the Public Relations slash information Officer for Dothan City Schools here in Dothan, Alabama. We're about a district of about 8,000 students, about 19 campuses, and we are very excited to have someone in the communications role for the first time ever. I've been here for about four years and we are learning every day.
I am also the vice president of professional development for the Alabama School PR Association, as well as the President elect for this upcoming year. I started in the fall of 2019. I started about less than a week before the first day of school. And this was right with a former superintendent who had just restructured our school system.
So we had consolidated two high schools into one, four middle schools into one. And so we had closed a lot of our school buildings in our district, so that required me to come in and be making sure we got the information out. Again, it was five days before the first day of school.
They had never had a media person there, so I had to establish rules and, you know, protocol with our media that they were not very happy about. And that was the fall of 2019, getting a lot of people, you know, that were upset about the consolidation, getting them on board, getting them into the positivity of what was going on and why it was happening.
And then about February. You know, we all heard about this little thing called coronavirus. And I remember going to my superintendent at the time and saying, you know, hey we might wanna look into communications. I had already started to build an urgent center on our website that wasn't live.
I had everything ready to go, and when they were ready to start meeting, I said, okay, here's some letters. Here's a press release and here's a website. You just let me know when you're ready to cut it on. So that was just something then that was completely different when I first started, but now I feel a little bit more confident.
I feel a little bit more comfortable. I have a brand new superintendent. He was actually here when I was here. And we have a great working relationship. I think I feel a little bit more confident too because a lot of people now understand what my role is. I literally had a conversation about two weeks ago with the news director of our local news station here, and me and him were laughing because it was my first day of school and now we were screaming at each other on the first day of school because he wanted to show up to one of my campuses.
And I said, you're not doing that. And he did not like that because they used to do whatever they wanted to do and he was talking about moving jobs. I said you cannot leave me. You're my favorite news director here. He was like, you know, that's completely different from when you first started. So I have a great relationship with the media here.
They, we taught the same language and were able to streamline a lot of things that has taken a long time to get going. So I'm very happy that it's a lot of hard work that has been accomplished.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah. That's great. I wanna come back in a minute to a couple of things you said, which is like establishing protocols and best practices, especially where there aren't any.
And then the other part was about that relationship with the media, right? I think if there's a silver lining, there might be one there with Covid is that there was just much more communication and relationship building.
Before we get back to that, I do wanna ask Andrew, right? If you could go back to the beginning and start over, what advice would you give to yourself or to someone like yourself that's at the beginning of their journey?
Andrew Robinson (Guest): Hi, I'm Andrew Robinson. I'm the communications coordinator for media Relations and online strategies at Arlington Public Schools in Virginia. I am going on my 7th year in school communications before that working for both print media and the news media electronic media TV station.
And I'm involved in the National School Public Relations Association. I received the 35 under 35 award, and I'm currently the Vice President of Public Relations for the Chesapeake Chapter of the School Public Relations Association. I started my career in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, working as a one person PR shop. And it was like three years before I realized there was this network of people out there through NSPRA.
And I remember my first year of going to that was in 2019. In Washington DC and I attended Erica's pre-session on one person workshops, and I learned so much from that workshop, I was able to come back and actually write a full strategic communications plan that I had, would not have been able to do, had not been for that pre-session workshop.
But beyond that, having those resources and connections, everyone is different, I think, than any other communications, you know, area or background out there. I mean, you can be in healthcare communications or an array of different communications, but the way we communicate in schools is so different. And to have this backing and to have people that are so willing to share information, I mean, what we're doing right now is the prime example of sharing our knowledge and sharing our expertise with a wider audience.
And folks in school PR are so willing to do that. So get involved, reach out. Even if, you know, NSPRA is a little out of your league, there are regional chapters. If there's not a regional chapter in your state or area, find the next one over. And, you know, I'm sure they'll be happy to work with you.
There's, you know, Facebook pages and Twitter chats and there's just so much out there that I wish I had known right from the start because I would've I think been a lot more well off and a lot more prepared because I came from the news industry. Where I was like, oh yeah, I can do this. You know, I can communicate, but the way we communicate in television news is obviously very different than the way we communicate in school communications.
Tyler Vawser: Well, communications definitely has a feedback loop, right? So maybe that's a little one of the differences. Yeah. Many differences. There's a couple things you said there that relate to that question about like standards or best practices. And I see this in the conversations with communication directors. This comes up a lot, right?
In the Facebook groups that you're all in frequently there's a question like, Hey we have this situation. Does anybody have a protocol or has anyone had this happen before? Where's the template basically is the question, right? Christie, do you wanna tackle that first and then we'll have some others answer as well?
Christy McGee: I think to Andrew's point, there is such a wealth of knowledge across the country that if I haven't been through an issue, there is somebody who has and who has a letter for it, and then I can just reach out and ask. I think that's, you know, that's that valuable, right? Just even connecting with those people and knowing who they are and knowing what their expertise is.
Somebody is really good at internal communications, somebody's really good at social media and that's the value of some of those kind of free areas, like the Twitter chats and the Facebook is that you can just go ask because it's emergent for you right now, right? I mean, maybe you didn't get to prepare for something.
And this issue is emergent right now and I need to send something tonight because it happened today, right? And and so you're gonna, you know, of the, you know, thousand of us hopefully get a couple of letters. And I think if that's what, you know, just knowing who to tap into and getting that response is really valuable.
Yeah, I mean, I've been doing this job for about 17 years and it feels like sometimes you've seen it all but also to Andrew's point, it changes every day and every year is different and something new like a pandemic comes up and never dealt with that. You know, even if you're a veteran a little bit more like Erica and I, like you're, there's still something new.
That's what I love about this industry. Like you're always. It changes every back to school, every graduation is different in some way. And even those things are consistent.
Tyler Vawser: So I was talking to Dr. Bob Hunt who's a superintendent in Illinois, and he brought up this concept of post-traumatic growth, as a result of challenges.
He was speaking more specifically about like true crises, but because of those difficult things, you are capable and able to do things that you wouldn't have been able to do otherwise. And when he said it, I thought immediately of those in the communications roles, right? You probably have never faced this before.
You probably might never face it again, but you'll be a little bit more prepared for the next unknown thing, right? I think that goes right to what you're saying. Any other thoughts on this? Anyone else wanna share?
Erica Chandler: I think Andrew and Christie really did a good job of summarizing, but I think one of the phrases we like to use in school PR is admire and acquire.
And when you see something, I know I've stolen something from each one of these people here. I'm sorry. I've admire and acquire at least one thing from each of the people on this call. And that's what's amazing about the school PR community is that's okay. No one is really proprietary because at some point we probably will all face the same thing.
So I think one of my toxic traits is being a hoarder of all the letters and templates. When I see someone going through something and I like their letter, I'll squirrel it away for later. Certainly even superintendents, if you don't have a communications person, there is this depth of talent and expertise across the country.
And even if you don't have a communications person, please reach out. Someone will be very willing to help whenever you need it.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah. That's awesome. I am curious around protocols for internal communication. You know, a lot of times what the public sees and the other stakeholders that are part of a school community see are like outward facing communications, but with staff, with teachers how are you thinking about that and what are some protocols or best practices that you would give to other communication directors about how to kind of market to their own people, how to communicate to their own staff?
Meagan Dorsey (Guest): I would like to say in our district our instructional team came up with the idea of doing leadership academies, which was for our aspiring principals, our brand new principals assistant principals anyone that wanted to be in a leadership role one day come over to central office and be a director, assistant superintendent, and they wanted to put different components in there.
And one of the major components that they wanted was communications. So they had me do a presentation to all of these different cohorts, I guess you can call 'em, leaders, coming into the district. And my communications presentation may have seemed very simple to them but I felt like it really nailed some things that they never really thought to think of, like their body language using educational terms.
One thing I joked about with them was, I'm not from the education world, so my first two months and they were saying, you know, 504, IEPs and I just shook my head and nodded like I knew what they were talking about. But if they're talking to their parents or talking to someone else in the community, you know, and you expect for these people to automatically know that's when you create this barrier and you need to build a bridge with these parents.
How to just talk to your parents. You're not talking to them like you're a teacher, talk to them like they're a human. You know, simple things that they never think about. We even did facial expressions and they really started to identify, Ooh, I have that look on my face. You know, I'm from the south. We all have the open face. We're like, oh, hi, how you doing? You know, but a lot of people never thought about, you know, when you're just introduced to yourself, you could have a facial expression that could put off the wrong vibe.
So we thought that was very valuable. We did that in a leadership academy and did that with a component of customer service with our secretaries at the beginning of the year.
And then the next day after that for our institute, what we call our institute here, which is like sometime your opening day convocation our superintendent wanted us to do our own mini conference. So one of the conference topics or one of the rooms you can go to was about communications, and I did that presentation again to those who had heard it, who are more on the teacher level.
So just hammering in these presentations and making it a lot of fun and making them dig in and look at some things that they really never thought about.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's really good. We actually have an article, we'll put in the show notes about exactly what you said around like IEPs, right? Sometimes we're throwing around jargon, almost like it's the military, but we're talking to civilians.
What are you talking about? How do you make that more accessible and help with engaging families? One of the big questions that I hear over and over again from communications directors and asking advice from each other is, how does everybody find news to write about? What are the things you're sharing about?
And basically like, where do you get that information, right? You have a lot going on. There's a lot on your plate. So how are you collecting that? Where are you finding it? Who are you trusting to get it from? Andrew, do you want to speak to that and then open it up to anybody else?
Andrew Robinson (Guest): Yeah, absolutely. I think it's really important that, you know, we understand how we break down our communication.
So of course we have the mundane things that we've gotta communicate, right? You know, that could be like weekly updates or just things that, you know, people might not necessarily care as much about but is also extremely important. And then we have what I like to call the fun stuff. You know, like we have to communicate the positive stories that are happening within our schools, right?
Because if we don't do it, we're gonna get drowned out by the negativity. And I know each one of us in this room has dealt with that. And for me, when I was in Gettysburg, I really had to think of an innovative way because I was a one person shop of how to get these positive news stories. So I ended up creating a channel for our staff to be able to share the positive things that were happening within their schools.
So I set up a Google form and I had them submit a caption. It didn't have to be elaborate, I said, bullet points. But they send it a different way. Sometimes it would go on social media, sometimes it would go in a weekly newsletter. Sometimes it would go out to the media, you know, so that they could use it maybe in a newspaper article or in a photo on, you know, the second page or something like that.
So I think giving staff a way to easily submit information to you so that you can turn it into a shareable story is something that, you know, all of us can do, no matter the department size, because I did that. Now in Arlington where I work now we have 42 schools, so it's difficult for me to get out to each one. So luckily I have a network of public relations liaisons in every building, and I manage that program here. So basically it's the same thing, just on a larger scale.
So they all are required to send me stories to our office. Twice, at least twice. We take information and our superintendents updates and we'll use bright spots, superintendent meeting superintendents to showcase one.
And during every presentation at the board meeting, sometimes we'll use it on social share with the media, put it in our Friday five newsletter that we have. I think that, you know, again, creating ways so that staff understand you just provide the basics. We don't need you to be expert writers.
We'll take it from there. That's what we do, that's our job, but let's get those positive stories out there. So I think that's a great way to source news.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah that's great. Is the criteria just that it's positive or is there more to it? Are you trying to connect it to say your cultural values or your kind of yearly slogan?
I'm just curious. Is it more specific or is it still pretty high level?
Andrew Robinson: So I do try to provide examples because that's a great question. A lot of times that is the number one question that I get from staff. They're like what's positive? And I think, you know, you have to be able to provide them with some examples so that they know that they in turn have the tools to provide that to you.
I'll sometimes start with a prompt. Like when they ask me that question, I'll say what do you think? And you know, a lot of times they'll say a student won an award for being, you know, the best writer in this. Blah, blah, blah. And I'm like, oh, that's great. That's something we wanna get out there.
We want the public to see that these are the things happening in our schools. Or, you know, if a student wins a competition, maybe it's not necessarily even at school, but again, there are student and it took the education that they're getting from us to be able to make that achievement. So again, that's something that we share with our community.
So a lot of times it is, you know, those achievements and those highlights and things that tend to, even for staff, of course, you know, now more than ever, we need to highlight how great our staff are. You know, if a staff member wins an award or if they go to this conference and they're a presenter and they've done this and that, those, again, are positive things that we like to highlight.
And then beyond that too, of course we wanna recognize all of our staff members and students in the building. So we do have a recognition calendar that I put together for us and we follow that. So sometimes I'll ask the staff. Okay. Today is, you know, National Education Support Professionals Day, so can you send me some pictures of your instructional assistants in your classrooms?
And then we'll go ahead and put like a gallery together on our website. And I just need the pictures from you. I don't need anything else. Or for Native American Heritage Month or something like that. You know, again we're sourcing information from them to put out there, but a lot of times I'll give them the prompts for those types of recognitions.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that makes sense.
Erica Chandler: I have absolutely admired and acquired some of the tools that Andrew talked about. But I talk in my district a lot to our teachers and our staff about small moments that it's the small moments that really build the understanding and the trust and the relationships with our community.
So even if it's just a photo that makes you smile or makes you feel something, those are great photos to share as well. Even if it's just as an example I use is like a kindergartner writing on a little whiteboard in their lap, practicing their letters. That still evokes a memory for their family and for our community of when.
Either they were in school or their kids were in school too. So it doesn't necessarily have to be the award-winning kids. It can be all the small moments that make up the day. And one thing we're doing in our district this year is different. So I'm also a one person department here, and this year we added a stipend position at each school as a digital media coordinator.
So it's an idea that I know a lot of districts use. So if there's a district out there that has a one person shop or even doesn't have anyone in communications, it's pretty simple to put in place if you have one person at each school. In our district, the way it's set up, they're responsible for updating their school website or helping their principal update their school website.
And then also keeping up with social media and submitting at least one to two ideas, either photos or story ideas to myself and their principal. We try to say once a week, sometimes it's once every other week or so, but it's really up to the game. Especially in our school platforms. We're seeing a lot more from our schools by having someone there rather than trying to have one person run around to each place.
Tyler Vawser: I love that. That's great. There's a couple things you said there about, like you said, feel evoke emotion, remember recalling those memories of what it was like. And I think that's such an important distinction to make. So sometimes to Andrew's point, there is mundane information that has to be shared, right?
Kind of neutral information. Occasionally there's negative information, but when there is that positive information, It should be more than just facts or figures or data, right? It has to be more grounded in changing the way someone feels or helping them recall the way they used to feel about something.
So yeah. Erica, do you wanna dive into that anymore? 'cause I love how you're thinking about that.
Erica Chandler: Yeah. I mean, I think even when you have not so great news or bad news or a crisis, if you have built, it's silly. I always talk about this bucket of trust, right? All those small moments build your bucket of trust because your community comes to know who you are, that you're not just this logo or score test scores or snow days.
Your people, that's who your district is, who your schools are. So if you're continually feeding that good news in and filling your bucket, that when something not so great happens either small during the day or a pandemic, they know that they know who you are. They know to trust you. And sometimes it could still get sticky, but at the end of the day they do have an understanding that.
It's the people in your schools that are making the decisions and not just these big scary ideas they hear about all the time.
Meagan Dorsey: What Erica said, like recently, you probably heard about us in national news about two weeks ago. And just put all of that to the side and just focus on the people and the positive things that are going on in our schools.
Let's put it out, you know, it's principal's month. Let's highlight the positive because we need these people to know that, you know, these are actual human beings that are inside of our schools that are actually impacting our students' lives. The grown folks let the grown folks handle the grown folks business, but let's focus on what's going on with our kids and the positivity and the bright things that are happening.
So I totally agree with that. I just wanted to say that.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah. I think the first rule of media training, right? This is separate from communications in a way, but like the first rule of media communication or media training is you don't have to answer the question that was asked. I think sometimes for communication professionals it's let's keep telling our story regardless of the questions that are being asked.
And of course there is a place to answer those questions. I'm not suggesting otherwise, but you have to keep telling your story because there's always gonna be questions or negativity being asked that you'll never be able to fully answer, right? So part of it is just continuing to tell your story.
Christie, I wanna get your thoughts on this as well.
Christy McGee: I was just gonna add, one of the ways I frame it that's similar but different is letting the community inside our four walls. I just like to let people know, you know, that's what our communications tools and goals are. We can't, you know, and especially during Covid, couldn't have anybody in our buildings, but you know, you can only have so many volunteers.
Only so many parents are gonna come visit or come. But, you know, reaching that community and looking outside, we need to let them in and get them a picture of what's happening inside of our four walls. And I think that's so valuable. 'cause education has changed, right? It's evolving. It looks a lot different than even when we were in school and when, and then.
The parents that we have who are younger than us, we're in school. You know? It's just constantly changing. And I even tell, I mean, the minute teachers retire, it's gonna change. The next year something's gonna be different, right? The, you know, if we can let people in those four walls and use our social media, use our newsletters, use our tools to give people that glimpse so that's how I frame just, you know, think about this, what's going on in your classroom.
But even coworkers across the district are, you know, are not, don't know that. So how do we let them in and give them a glimpse?
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's a really good point, right? We use this phrase a lot at school co. Like, how do you make the invisible visible? There are always things happening that no one else is gonna see unless someone lifts them up and other people can see that.
Well, a more practical question for Christie, and then we'll keep going here as we go throughout the hour, but Christie, one of the questions I saw recently in a Facebook group for communications professionals was, what's the best way to track all the requests you have? You're being asked about an event or you're being told about an event.
There's press releases. Someone's asking for social media for this, social media for that. There's just a lot of requests happening, so what's the best way to process and track all of those things?
Christy McGee: Yes, we do. We admire, inquire about the Google form idea honestly, in my district. So we have two Google forms that are our live you know, ride or die tools.
One is for events and then one is for stories. And if you want to have a board member, an executive team member you know, me come, you know, and my team come to an event to cover it. If it's one of those events that's a little more public, right? You know, we want that in, and then we kick that out to everybody's calendar and make sure it's there.
And then and then me, I have a communication specialist I just hired this year, so I'm not a one person shop anymore, which is very exciting. And we just look at that. Then we look at the calendar and we prioritize. So everything's on the calendar. It looks a little crazy, but we go through and prioritize what's newsworthy, what's a little, you know, what's a little bit more elevated.
I think the value then of having some of those webmasters and social media masters in schools is they can control their own social media and they can tell their own story. So the Thanksgiving lunches this week I'm not gonna go to those. They can post some pictures. To your question earlier, it doesn't really meet the mission.
I'm glad you're all having Thanksgiving lunch, but it's not, there's not a kind of a mission value there, so it doesn't raise to the level of the district necessarily for coverage. So that's how we evaluate. And then same with stories. I mean, we get all the stories and then my specialist and I meet twice weekly and just look at, okay, what's been submitted?
What is worth more of a story that we need to flush out, maybe hand over to the media, what's just a quick social post. So I think you can evaluate your tools there. And Erica talked about the strategy behind that, right? Like those, that's where that comes in. Okay, what, you know, what am I gonna develop more because it meets the strategy, meets the mission, versus what can just be a quick celebration, social post and move on.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah. I think that's a really useful exercise. And maybe you do this informally or formally, but like kind of what are the stories we, that are positive that we would say no to? Thanksgiving meal. And then what are the positive stories that are branded or on mission, on value, on culture that we are willing to share?
I think that's a really good exercise.
Christy McGee: You know, I'm sure all of you guys do this, right? Like I will take that quick tidbit from a teacher and then I can turn it into something, right? I can find the mission, I can find the nugget that and maybe it's just a quick, if I add the hashtag that lets people know this is part of what it's like to be FFC family or whatever that may be, right?
This is today's mission is our other hashtag, so we can take that story and get it, you know, get it across the finish line.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's a good point, right? Part of your job is to yeah, polish it up, make it ready, get it across the finish line, depending, whatever analogy fits best. But yeah, that's a really.
Important part of the role. Andrew how, what about you, how do you think about this? How do you track the different requests and needs that are happening across the district?
Andrew Robinson: Yeah, I mean, it's challenging because, you know, again, with the larger school system, we're inundated with things in our communications office.
Even though, you know, I think having a team of 15 for our school size is probably pretty large, and we're, compared to a lot of school divisions with similar sizes you know, we still have to prioritize, right? And you know, I get requests pretty regularly to come out to events and if I'm free and I don't have anything going on already on my calendar, I'll try to get out to those and help cover them.
But again, that's when we rely on our public relations liaison network. Whenever one of us can't be there. I mean, that's why they're in the building. They're already there. They know what's happening. So if they've got the opportunity to cover something for us, you know, we certainly will use it. And something that I tell all of my liaisons is, you know, unless it's You know, someone's saying, oh, my dog got a haircut today and that's what they're sending us.
I'm probably gonna use it. I mean, something like that, of course, it, as cute as it might be it's not entirely school related. Even though it might tug on the emotions of people, it's not something that, that we can necessarily use. So if it's something beyond that, you know, we will find a use for it.
So I don't try to turn anything away that I get unless, you know, obviously it's really bad, but I've never had anything like that come in. So I think people have sound judgment when it comes to what, what could be important to share. And you know, obviously being in our region right outside of the nation's capital, we get inundated with media requests too.
So sometimes we have to prioritize, you know, if something happens nationally, they sometimes like to localize it to our area. Or, you know, because, let's see, you know, the name Arlington and people know it from the cemetery or from the Pentagon, you know, they will reach out to us for our comment, even if it might not necessarily be a local organization and some of our, you know, outlets nearby have national reach.
You know, CNN is here in DC they've had and the Washington Post. You know, we also have to be able to track all of those requests and make sure that we get out accurate and, you know, timely information to them. What I do in my position and what I do with our director of communications, you know, we work hand in hand on a lot of these things, so it makes it you know, challenging some days when you're getting inundated, but, you know, just take a deep breath and work together and get out that, that information the best that we can.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, I think curating content can be challenging, right? You want people to be excited, going back to internal communications. You want them to send you content, but if you say no too much, then they'll stop sending it. If you say yes to everything, then you're off brand or you've lost the through line in your messaging and communications.
Meagan Dorsey: I’ll say, I'm learning a lot from everybody because I'm still trying to create that buzz of, Hey, send me stuff. At the same time, I'm trying to make it equitable across the board because when you have 18 to 19 campuses it's hard to be as a one person shop everywhere. So they'll send me stuff and I'll make sure that, you know, I try to say, okay we'll I'll send this out to the media.
I have a great relationship, my media person, me and her text like every morning. So I try to be equitable, but you know, sometimes I'm like, oh you know, one school had this exact same thing going on, so I don't know if we'll be able to get something for this. But you know what, I'll share it. You know, I'll try to be there, but I have to be equitable and I have to set the same rules.
One thing I did last year that helped me out a lot because. Again, following all these schools on social media is where I get a lot of stories too, is what I did was I put a hashtag around d c s and I'll share their posts. So they still, we still get an ownership of it from the districtwide, but I'm not having to share every school's post.
I remember my first two or three months in this position, I was like, oh, I have to share every single school, you know, and I realized trying to share every single school in one day was my entire day. I just try to be fair and be equitable because, you know, you don't wanna show favoritism.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah. That's important.
Megan, I wonder if I can continue the questions with you just for a moment. I'm curious, what are the best wins you've had in the last couple of years? It sounds like that's one of them, but what else would you share as far as like a win or something that you're gonna look back on a few years from now and say like that was a really great moment or great achievement.
Meagan Dorsey: I think recently I mentioned earlier, our institute, our convocation that we had at the beginning of the school year. We have about 1200 employees in our school district. So recently, last year you know, I brought up the idea to our superintendent. You know, why don't we do, like we can always do, everybody does the big grand speaker, you know, that motivates your crowd.
And then they go and they, you know, go eat lunch and then go back to their schools. Everybody does that. So I threw out the idea of why don't we give them a little bit more professional development during that day so they could start earning these, you know, these units. So what I, me and my superintendent discussed is we created an.
You know, some teachers are, they're a little resistant against it, but I actually had a lot of positive feedback at the end of the day. So what we did was we had our speaker in the morning and it didn't hurt that our speaker was Ron Clark, if you know who that is, who's fabulous. So we had Ron Clark in the morning after 12pm.
We went, let them go get lunch. Then they came back. It was a mandatory thing for all teachers, all certified teachers. In the afternoon. We had two one hour sessions, but during those one hour sessions, you could pick from six different topics and we made them engaging. It was fabulous. We're doing it again this year.
And it's just, it's a lot of fun to help our teachers grow their professional development in one day.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, I like that you brought the whole community into that. That's really neat. Erica, what's something that you're working on right now that you're really excited about? It's going and you're excited to see how it comes to fruition soon.
Erica Chandler: You know, I really feel like what I'm most excited about this year is that it feels so much more normal than the past several years of sustained crisis and pandemic were. So this year I'm really celebrating not that we have any new initiatives necessarily, but like our staff recognition program and our student recognition program that we established several years ago, we tied it to our mission, vision, and core values, and that's living on and sustaining.
And so I'm really celebrating the long game this year, the things we've done in the past strategically to make sure that when we're telling our story, it's tied to mission, vision, values, all the time. That those things are happening regularly and without much thought.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's really cool.
We were joking about this in the office today, that when you start talking about mission and values and brand, the temptation is like to post it on a poster board and put it up and it's everywhere. And it's like actually so much more meaningful and it's just part of every conversation.
And you don't need the poster board because it's on the tip of your tongue anyway. So it sounds like you've achieved that, which is really exciting and not an easy thing to accomplish. It takes time. Christie, what about you? What's something that you're really proud of that's happened recently?
Christy McGee: I launched a website, so launching a new website. We had the, it's a treat, not a trick, Halloween day launch for our website. So it's been live for 16 days now. And congrats. That's awesome. You know, proud of it. Because we spent some time to really do some research about what people liked and didn't like and what information was valuable.
And it's, I mean, we know this as strategists, that kind of stuff pays off, but it's fun to watch it pay off when you come back now at the end. And why is this designed this way? You, this group and, you know, you guys, there was input and you know, we're not gonna, we're not gonna tweak that, right?
This was designed strategically and you know, where can I put this information or where and you just can point to people and go, this is what people need. And then to build off of that, we're moving way more into understanding the Google analytics behind it that just didn't, wasn't really embedded in the old site.
And so definitely looking at that data, to continue that strategy behind it. That was a huge lift, a huge part of what my communication specialist did in her first few months, which was nice. I don't think it would've happened if I was a one person shop or I would've paid for help. But that was our big win and just to continue to focus on the research and the strategy behind it and the data is exciting.
Tyler Vawser: Really cool. Andrew, for you, a similar question, but a little bit of different angle. What's the most positive feedback you're hearing from your stakeholders? That could be parents and students, the larger community, or maybe in some examples like this you know, teachers and staff. What are you hearing back about communications from your district?
Andrew Robinson: You know, we communicate very regularly with our staff, and when I started in my current position you know, just about a year and a half ago, one thing that staff were really telling us is that we communicate too much, right? And we could have all been on the receiving end of that feedback before.
So what we did as a department of, in our school and community relations department is really sat down and think you know, we started to think about some areas where we could maybe scale back on some communications, because what we were finding out is that, you know, it's correct. We were setting out almost something to our entire community five almost every day, almost five times a week.
And of course, when you send that much information out, people tend just to back away and not read it. And sometimes it's very important information, you know, that we're sharing. It's not only that fun stuff, right? But it's also the important thing. Okay, you've gotta get these vaccines and you've gotta do this and that's required, right?
So whenever we did that and we scaled back, the feedback became more positive. And because those communications became more meaningful for people, they said, okay, I'm only getting something maybe twice or three times a week now from the whole, you know, from the district level, from our level.
And they, you know, were able to find it much more meaningful, which is great. Another thing that I started in my past two school divisions that Erica will do something that I admired and acquired from her. And it's the same program that she was just talking about what do you call it, Erica?
What's it called in Afton? Is it Who compliments. That's right. So in my previous district in Gettysburg, we called it GDI Lows, Gettysburg Area School District Lows. But I'm actually so happy that during my interview with Arlington Night, I explained the program that I started in Gettysburg and they really enjoyed it so much that when I started in Arlington, they were like, can you create something here that's exactly like that, but maybe even better?
So I created AP s Arlington Public Schools All stars that we have now. And actually today we just surprised our next five All Stars. So it's five teachers that go above and beyond the mission, vision, and values of Arlington Public Schools. And whenever I was researching to start this program here, I didn't realize, you know, that and I should have right, that the Arlington community was obviously very different than the Gettysburg community.
And I'm not saying that in a nefarious way because each community is different. Each of our school’s communities are different too. So doing this research, I really had to find out what our staff wanted and what meant the most to them. You know, we were able to put this program together that I'm so happy that to see the progress that we've made with it.
You know, we have sponsorships now with Amazon and with a local massage place that gives all massages you.
And positive things for our staff really go a long way and we're so lucky to have the backing member superintendent with us. He is there shaking hands with every single winner and telling them exactly why they're an Allstar. So I think having developed that connection too, has made a difference, especially in this time that we're in right now, you know, where we're losing staff and we're losing teachers specifically because, you know, there's more lucrative fields out there.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's really important. One thing we've done here is it used to be quarterly and we would actually give out an award either for thoughtfulness or high performance, but the person that won it previously would pick the next person. You have to be careful with that, right? Because you can't be like give it to your best friend.
No, you can't do that. But you have to tell us why this person, and you know, ideally it's not the person you work with every day, but someone that you've noticed across the company or in a different department. And so that's maybe a different award, but an idea to try out. Any other questions that you have for each other?
I really like that you jumped in and asked that, Christie. So what else do you wanna know from each other? And just unmute and we'll go at it.
Andrew Robinson: I have a question that I haven't really been able to correct the code yet on. I feel like all of us in communications don't necessarily spend enough time communicating with all of our stakeholders. And what I mean by that is specifically with our students, right? You know, we've talked about this before, during this communication.
In your school division, but I find that, you know, something that, that we hardly ever do in Arlington we hardly ever did in my previous district, was communicating with students. Of course the schools are doing that and they're doing that in their classrooms. Obviously that's what makes it, you know, function so well.
But as division level folks who work in communications, do any of you communicate with your students? How do you do that? Is there any way that, you know, you share that information or is it something that we need to have a discussion as is a, as a broader school community because, you know, they are really our biggest stakeholder, right?
And they're the reason why we come to work every day. And because school choice is becoming such a big thing, you know, in, in the country where you're able to really choose where you wanna go. How do we market ourselves using our students as those schools of choice?
Meagan Dorsey: I just wanna say I, I would love to know more on that too and have a broader discussion on that because I just recently left the classroom for the brief time that I was a teacher, and I think our students do want to know more information and they're actually, you know, very interested in what's going on and making sure that they feel part of the conversation.
A lot of my students like the fact that I kept it real with them, and sometimes they don't feel like a lot of people could be real with them, especially adults. So how can we come on their level and still get the information out? One thing that I would love to play with the idea of, and I don't know if you guys have it in your district, we do have career tech and production, process, renovating their classroom where they.
So I wonder if that is, and that has been the conversation I've had with the principal, is using that as a catalyst for getting information out as well as utilizing the students as those little influencers or journalists. Because I'll also use those videos or where those news stories when we have our jumbotron at our football games.
And there was a format that a university that I graduated from used where they would have these quick little, you know, snippets in between the plays that say, Hey, I'm Megan Dorsey at Troy University and this is what's going on over here in the, you know, athletics department. And it'll be a quick way for everybody in the community as well as our students knowing what's going on in the district.
So that's my idea that I'm playing with. I'm gonna have to wait till next year when I have a full year here. But that's my idea I'm playing with.
Tyler Vawser: So one thing that it's a different Arlington Community Schools also Arlington similar to Andrew, but in outside of Memphis we were talking about this and it, they have a really great Instagram account.
The photos are great, the stories are great, like it just looks fantastic. And I dug in on it a little bit with them and they were saying, you know, for us, we have all these different channels of communication, but there's not one dedicated to students. And so when they decided to really start investing in Instagram, they just decided this is gonna be for the students.
Now, of course, parents can look at it, community members can look at it, the public can look at it, but they really started with a central focus on the students. And I think the result of that is, one, it looks fantastic. It is reaching the students, but it's even better to those other stakeholders that are not students because it has such a focused lens and such, like a narrow like message.
And it really puts the students to Andrew's point, like at the center, which they should be. And that's why everybody's waking up in the morning. And so I thought that was really interesting to hear them talk about it, right? A lot of times when we think about let's reach everybody, it's let's lose everything to everyone. And sometimes that's the fastest way to reach no one, right?
And so they created this really dedicated channel. And yeah, curious if any of you have had that experience where maybe one channel is for one main group of stakeholders and a different channels for a different group of stakeholders.
Christy McGee: So we're trying to reach more people, although I say through our deck you know, district accountability process that students we got students involved last year a little bit more and heard that they wanted to get some more communication from the district which was a nice catalyst.
You know, now that I think about it, this is a great conversation and reminder that I need to revisit that concept. We're gonna try and try harder to collect student contact information for that 13 over like per but they wanted to get the communications from me. They wanna hear directly from me when there's a snow day.
They wanna hear from me when there's, you know, the same issues we're telling their parents. The older kids want to get that. So that was really good feedback and now I'm reminding and making a note of for myself that I need to revisit that with my boss. But one of the other things I've seen Andrew in other districts that I would love to bring here and just haven't had the conversation yet, It's a student superintendent council.
I'd love to get kids in front of, you know, with my superintendent in an intentional meeting that's like that, right? He's out in schools. But I'd love to have just a little bit more of an intentional meeting. And then the other thing I've al I've seen that I've loved and have always wanted to implement is maybe a student seat on the board.
So I would love to have a kid, you know, even in the boardroom I think a lot of you, and we talked about kind of stories too. There's so much you know, value in the board and it's undervalued, right? And I think there's just a lot that you can share and that they could take back and just learn how a district works and that decisions that have to be made.
And so it's gotta be the right kids, you know? And that's all. Same with that meeting. I mean, all of that's pending who you get in the room to make it the most efficient. But but those are a couple of things that I've wanted to admire and acquire.
Meagan Dorsey: And I have a great model for a superintendent, student advisory council, if you ever want me to share that with you.
We started ours a year ago, or a year or two ago. We have about 16 delegates. They're grades five and above. They have to turn in an application with an essay and references, and they have to do interviews at their school with their principal. And then the principal submits a name to my office and those delegates sits on, they sit on this council and we actually have a meeting with the superintendent in the middle.
They sit in the boardroom chairs. We elect a vice chair and a chairman that bangs the gavel and goes into the meeting. We have an agenda that we go through. I don't say anything. I just sit on the side and moderate while the superintendent runs it and he will tell everybody in this city it's his favorite thing.
And the kids will sit there and give the highlights or their, the things they would like to change. And every single year, the superintendent has made changes based on that. And then they report it back to the, they go to the board meetings and they report that back.
Tyler Vawser: As the outsider. I wanna say something that might come across as really strange, which is if the students are saying like, Hey, we want more information.
We feel like we're not being included in a way that's a good problem, right? Like one you're hearing about it, and two, like they're saying, we do want more information. Right now the challenge is how do you actually meet that need? But if they're not asking for it, right? Maybe they actually aren't that engaged or they're not that curious.
And so I think that there's definitely a silver lining there if students or any stakeholders saying Hey, we want more information, and be like, oh, fantastic. Let's do this. Help me help you and we'll make this happen. Thank you everyone. Thank you Erica and Christie, Megan and Andrew.
Really enjoyed the conversation. Excited to share it out and have your colleagues and other districts listen to it as well as superintendents!
Tyler Vawser: SchoolCEO Magazine publishes original research interviews and more in our quarterly magazine that's read by more than 15,000 school leaders. If you work in k-12 leadership, administration, or in communications, we'd love to start mailing the magazine to you. Go to schoolceo.com. Click subscribe now and check the box to receive the print edition of the magazine.
SchoolCEO Conversations is produced by the SchoolCEO magazine team and is powered by Apptegy. I'd love to get your advice to make sure this is the most actionable and insightful podcast you listen to. Email me at Tyler@schoolceo.com with thoughts and advice, and can you do me a small favor? Go online and share this episode with one friend or a colleague that you think would enjoy it.
Thanks for joining the conversation and take care until the next one.
Learn more about SchoolCEO Conference on March 6 & 7, 2023 here: https://schoolceo.com/conference
Subscribe to SchoolCEO Newsletter at https://www.schoolceo.com/subscribe-now/ for more strategies on leadership, influence, and marketing.
Follow SchoolCEO on Twitter: https://twitter.com/school_ceo