Greg Turchetta: Winning at School Communications
Greg Turchetta, the Senior Chief Communications Officer for the Richland Two School District in South Carolina talks with us about branding, storytelling, and transparency.
In this episode of SchoolCEO Conversations, we speak with Greg Turchetta, the Senior Chief Communications Officer for the Richland Two School District in South Carolina. In this conversation, we discuss the importance of storytelling, how every school staff member can contribute to your district’s story, and the power of transparency in schools.
Greg and his team are responsible for district-wide communication, marketing, media relations, and strategic partnership management for the 29,000 student school district. Before he began his K-12 career, Greg spent 4 years as Executive Director of Marketing and Media for Florida SouthWestern State College in Fort Myers, Florida were he executed a half million dollar brand campaign. Then, before even that, Greg had an award-winning 21-year television news career where he spent 12 of those years managing newsgathering efforts in some of the most prestigious newsrooms across the country including in Fort Myers, Atlanta, Orlando, Seattle, and Austin.
Main Discussion Points:
- How every school staff member can contribute to storytelling and branding [00:31:54]
- Using social media and websites to share the "extraordinary" stories happening daily in schools that the public doesn't see [00:41:34]
- De-escalation training for teachers as a teacher retention strategy to deal with difficult parent confrontations [00:51:23]
- Creating an "environment that's more Ritz Carlton than it is DMV" for families [00:42:18]
“Our job is to move the needle and to move it fast, because honestly, in the education space, there's no time to waste.” [05:38]
“Transparency has to be your calling card. You have to do it at all cost. You cannot no comment things. The public takes that as an implied guilt.” [13:20]
“If parents are that fickle, that means we're doing a horrible job of proving the quality of what we do every day.” [41:37]
“Deescalation training is probably one of the best things you can do for teachers right now to keep them in your building.” [51:30]
“Urgency and quality. You have to use urgency to prove the quality of your district. You don't have time anymore.” [52:25]
Tyler Vawser (Host): Well, Greg Turchetta, thank you so much for joining SchoolCEO Conversations.
Greg Turchetta (Guest): Thank you for having me.
Tyler Vawser: I'm excited to chat with you. You're very passionate, you know your stuff. And so I'd love for you to start with your background. Can you talk about your background in communications and marketing and how you went from a career in tv and media into education, both K12 and at the college level?
Greg Turchetta: I'm a journalist or a storyteller by trade. Right. So that skill set, that way of thinking does translate and permeate through all these jobs. So I started out in television news. I was a photographer. I moved into a special projects unit. I was doing investigations and consumer news and fighting for the little guy and trying to shine the light on bad deeds. And so that theme kind of transitioned into, well, I want to do something that impacts children in a more positive way. And that led me to K12 education, which was phenomenal because there's so many stories that need to be told in K12. Right. And after about four years in K12, I had an opportunity to go to college, and it was like, well, that's really interesting too, because that's still storytelling, but it's really more recruitment and branding.
K12 district sometimes is more firefighting, but university community college level is really about recruitment and image. And that was fun. But then my heart drew me back to K12, especially after everything that's been going on. And I felt that I could contribute. But journalism, people often mistake communications, PR and journalism, right. But they're kind of interrelated. Communications and marketing is storytelling with a purpose. Journalism is just the facts holding people accountable through transparency. But pr is that sweet spot of telling stories. Right. You got multiple layers, you got takeaways. You want to peel the onion back as you're telling the story and leave people with a bunch of different things that feel great about the product and the people. But the thread that ties it all together, to me, it's all about making people feel something. Right. Great storytelling is always about leaving you with the feels and then hopefully compelling you to action. And I think whether you're in K twelve college or news, you try to do that.
Tyler Vawser: Absolutely. And how often does your work as a senior chief communications officer in K12 feel proactive versus reactive?
Greg Turchetta: Yeah. Now, the interesting thing about this is I think we have more control over that very question than most people realize. If you feel like you're in reactive mode all the time, you don't have a plan. And what I mean by that is our number one skill of a communicator is the ability to anticipate and look over the horizon at what's possibly brewing and hopefully neutralize it as it starts to percolate. Right. So at the same time, though, you have to have a communication strategy that works when you're not in crisis.
So if you're out telling your story and you're using transparency and you're showing the decision making and engaging families in the positivity that's going on in your school district ahead of time, that capital really pays off when the crisis hits. So reactive should be reserved for school based crisis or employees and students, as I like to say, that behave badly. Right. There's always going to be those stories that come along, but really, I think 75% of your time needs to be in the proactive, building the reputation and the brand that could withstand the reactive crisis that comes.
Tyler Vawser: What do you think stands in the way? So you've got a communications team or a communications director. They feel like they're reactive. How would you advise them to move towards being more proactive? Like what are those steps to get them there?
Greg Turchetta: I've actually had this conversation at the national level, at our national conference with people who ask that very question. When you make the statement I just made, and to me you said, I have a lot of opinions. Right. That's born from this. Our job is to move the needle and to move it fast, because honestly, in the education space, there's no time to waste. Many people in education are slow to evolve. It's like plate tectonics slow. It's sundial slow. And we have to have an urgency to what we do. So you got to coach people forward and have a plan. Right?
When I go to into a district and I'm new and I've moved around a lot, I come with a plan. I come with a plan that's going to change the image of the district, that's going to reposition the work we do. That's going to create an internal culture of pride in the product, which hopefully turns into a retention strategy down the road. But all of that is the work you have to do on the outside while you're still doing the other things that have to get done. So sticking to the big rocks, right? We always talk about do the big rocks, move the big rocks first. But too often you hear people, we're working on a newsletter or we're doing this annual report, and those things can be done, but the leader of the department needs to be working on the big brain stuff, not the mundane tasks.
Tyler Vawser: Absolutely. It's interesting that you brought up culture because culture is critically important in this season of SchoolCEO. It's come up probably more than any other topic, and we've had some real experts on that join the show. But I think in a school it can be a little bit tricky because HR kind of imagines like, well, you've got the communications team. They're supposed to be thinking about how we promote our image out there, communications thinking HR is going to take care of the culture, or that's a supernatural. Everybody's kind of pointing at each other. And I would argue culture really requires everybody.
Greg Turchetta: And you're right.
Tyler Vawser: So how do you think about that in your role being in communications? And what part of culture do you own?
Greg Turchetta: Well, we're all going through a reckoning right now, which is the teacher recruitment crisis. Right. Teachers are vacating classrooms at a record pace because the culture stinks. Right. If you look at any national data on why teachers are leaving, lack of morale, overworked, lack of time, then you get to pay. Right. So I'm actually having this conversation in our school district. We're building a marketing campaign for this spring to go after certified teachers. I can only do so much, and so I'm going to the academic side of the house.
I'm going to the operations side of the house and saying, what are our points of difference? What are we doing to take on these big issues that teachers are running from and to say, it's going to be different in our district? And then how do I enroll my HR and recruitment specialist to get the message that I want them to take out and actually cut through this negativity? So no culture is, and I actually had this conversation with a principal last week as well, internal and external culture overlap. And principals are really good about creating festive environments in their building, but they're not good at pushing that out so that the public can see it and then they're not good at pulling it back into what matters to the teachers, which is recognizing their efforts. So everybody's going to have a piece of culture and those who don't are going to struggle.
Tyler Vawser: Absolutely. Actually, the second episode of this second season was with a superintendent, the HR director and the communication director all talking about how they're working together to solve for recruitment and specifically for teachers. So, yeah, that's really well said.
You've been in different schools in communication roles. How do you think the role of a school communications professional has changed? Like, what's changed in the last few years? And what do you predict is going to change in the next five.
Greg Turchetta: The biggest thing that, honestly, Tyler, that's changed is we live in a right now world. Right? It used to be, well, we could deal with this tomorrow, or the school can send something home at the end of the day. The end of the day is now. Right now, as the clock ticks, your integrity and your trust is dropping. If you're not responding as fast as parents in the community want to know. And I think that's the biggest thing is getting people, because think about the mechanics of getting a statement out, right. When I go into a district, I sat with all of my superintendents, and I've had a lot of them in a couple of years and said, we can't wordsmith something for 3 hours. Right. You have to trust me as the expert that I'm going to get it close to where it needs to be. Somebody's going to look at it for the accuracy in another set of eyes, and then it's got to get out the door. That's just how our way of work has to change, because when a school threat is going on, there's no time to be wordsmithing with $100 words.
And then there's this other piece to it. Right. And they're interrelated. Our parents are currently at a boiling point. This could go back as far as the first school shootings, and it hasn't come down since. And if you work in a district that's somewhere near where a mass shooting has been, your parents are even higher temperature. But when they sit at that boiling point, it makes every issue bigger. And so we have to be able to have that quick strike ability now to get to the truth, get to it fast, and get people internally in the district uncomfortable at moving at a better, quicker pace. If we don't, credibility trust goes out the window. The other piece of this is from a technical side. You have got to tell your own stories. We've been saying for years, if you don't tell your story, somebody else will. Well, with all of this going on and with all the political turbulence that's going on and all the turnover in school districts, if you personally and myself included, if you're not able to use social media, create video and create graphics of some type and do professional storytelling, you're behind. And the new world is going to, you're not going to survive in it. You have to have those skill sets, not even a team of people to do them, but your own ability to do it everywhere you go.
Tyler Vawser: Absolutely. And I want to dig into that more because I think you've made it clear that that's important, but it's also not as hard as we sometimes imagine it to be.
Greg Turchetta: Not at all. Yeah, we can get into that later.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah. Well, you have a presentation that you've delivered before about thriving within chaos, and I think that's maybe a good, what you just mentioned is a good segue into that. So I'm curious to hear from you. When there is chaos, how do you thrive? How can school leaders, and so we're thinking about superintendents here and also their communications directors that support them. How can they really thrive when things do feel chaotic and you feel like there are fires to be put out every single day, sometimes every single hour?
Greg Turchetta: First of all, you probably don't know you're in chaos until it's already on fire, which is always the challenge. And one of the things I've seen at the national level again, through our conferences is different states are at very different places in this chaos. Right. I mean, I'm in South Carolina and Florida, which are two of the frontrunners when it comes to political upheaval. So we've seen a lot, but it really comes back to, and this is the center of my presentation, which is you can thrive in chaos if you stick to the core business. And what I mean by that is a lot of the ancillary projects or somebody wants this marketed or that marketed, that's going to have to wait. We're doing five things and we're going to do them really well because these are the things that are being measured currently.
Student achievement, fiscal accountability, teacher retention and recruitment, safety and security. Right. These are things that brand new school board members who have maybe been voted onto a new board or brand new superintendent has come in, have to master hiring practices. All of this recruitment and retention of everything. If you can do those things, you have a start. Now, transparency is, I'm going to say transparency and trust until I'm blue in the face. Because if anybody takes anything from me today, it's that transparency has to be your calling card. You have to do it at all cost. You cannot no comment things. Right. The public takes that as an implied guilt. There's no more beautifully written statements that say nothing.
You have to be transparent and clear. People don't need to know what the decision is made, but they need to know the reasoning behind it. Right. They need to understand the why of where you got there. They have a right to know that. You have to go on camera and explain and defend your positions. You can't just slip statements out to the media and hope the public gets it. And probably the hardest one is whether you're the superintendent or the comms director. Sometimes you got to fall on the grenade. Sometimes we used to just look the other way and say, well, we can survive that. No, you're going to have to come out and say, we messed up, and here's what we're doing to make sure it doesn't happen again.
Tyler Vawser: What do you think keeps people from that? Transparency? Is it the fear that being transparent will increase the chaos?
Greg Turchetta: Well, it's twofold. I have a term I coined called educational arrogance, and that people that have phds have been the experts for so long that we've got this, we've got education. We'll engage you parents where we need you, we'll ask you in more of a push out of information than a true conversation. But we got it. And no, we don't have it because the parents have pushed, and this is the undercurrent to a lot of things that have gone on. The parents have pushed for a seat at the table and they're demanding it, and they're going to be actively engaged in the conversation.
That's an uncomfortable place for educators. It's never been there before, but you have to be okay with that. And, yeah, you have to be okay to say, we don't have it all figured out. Education has moved so fast. We were okay with that during COVID We were okay with saying, we're reinventing this thing as we go. I honestly think during COVID K twelve, education did some of its best work it's ever done. It was agile, it was nimble. It was forced to evolve. Now, how many of these school districts have regressed back to what they were doing prior to Covid? That's the disappointing part. You can't. You got to keep pushing. You got to keep doing things that are better for students. America is not number one in education, so what we're doing isn't working.
Tyler Vawser: I'm curious, in your role, how often are you interacting with parents to better understand what they're looking for, what they want, everything from communication preferences to those more political conversations about the big values that they're wanting to see or changes that they're wanting to have. Is that something that you're getting into with parents, or are you leaving that to others within the district, like a superintendent?
Greg Turchetta: No, I would say it's daily. Okay, so one thing. I have a new superintendent has been here since July, so we've been out touring schools, we've been doing listening tours, we've been having meet and greets. I've gone to every one of them. I've attended at her shoulder as often as I can. Why? Because if I'm going to be her trusted communication advisor, I need to know the temperature and the layout of the room. I need to know where the pinch points are, and I need to know where the next crisis is coming. Same thing as far as conversations I'm having. How can I strategize moving forward without knowing how it's being received? Right. It's real time.
I said earlier it's about being able to work in real time. Well, working in real time requires real time evaluation, too, and so that you can adjust and you can say, no, we're going to pivot to that because this isn't getting there. So it's crucial, I think it's crucial for everybody in a school district to have their ear to the ground and being, having conversations because at the end of the day, and my superintendent is fantastic at this, she gets the idea it's a relationship business.
Right back to that. Trust and transparency. How do you build trust, conversation, understanding, listening. And for too long education hasn't listened and it has to right now.
Tyler Vawser: So you clearly have a seat at the table. And so I'm curious if you can give some words of wisdom to a superintendent who has a communications director that doesn't have full access yet or for whatever reason they don't have a seat at the table. What would you tell the superintendent to help their communications director get that seat at the table, or at least to build that trust between those two people to make that happen?
Greg Turchetta: Well, I'll challenge the premise of the question and that this– the superintendent shouldn't be asking that question because the superintendent, if they are asking that question, is in peril because the superintendent has to understand. I'll tell you this, in the next three years, I think the chief communications officer is going to have the equal seat to the chief academic officer, and here's why. It has to do with everything you just stated. A superintendent needs help navigating the issues that are going on, and I'll get through those issues in a second. But to get to that seat, the superintendent has to know the value of communications. I'm a senior chief in my district. I'm one of the top five people in my district because they know that the communication piece impacts everything. How you get there is you prove your value, right? I mean, you think I'm passionate about what I say I'm also kind of mouthy, right. I will say what that person needs to hear, and sometimes it's unvarnished because after you try to get it through a couple of times and somebody may not be hearing you like, no, I need you to hear this because if you don't hear this, we're going to end up in a firestorm. You have to be relentless. You have to be relentless about the truth and the transparency. I am the advocate for transparency. At every turn. Sometimes people go, well, we couldn't say that. Well, why couldn't we?
Let's talk about it. That's how you get the seat at the table. You prove yourself in those crisis positions that you need to be there. You also have to, to my previous statement about the value between myself and a chief academic officer, what are the things to get superintendents fired right now? Number one is politics. If you can't read what's going on in the community, you need as many eyes as you can on that issue. That's where communications person comes in. Number two, communicating like with a school board in the community, transparency of the superintendent. If the superintendent isn't seen and engaging with the community or its school board, people will start asking the question, well, what are they really doing? Now you're in trouble. And that last part is, what are you doing? Are you out there proving through social media, through your communication strategies, all the changes that you're putting, in fact, into a district that proves that this superintendent is getting something done in the public's eyes? I have not said test scores or academic achievement yet, have I?
Tyler Vawser: That's right. Yeah. You answered my follow up question, which was, how can communication directors get a seat at the table? But I think you answered that well. You have to prove yourself. And you mentioned something earlier, which is when you come into a district as a communications director, you need to have a plan, you need to have an opinion, and you need to know what is most important and put all of your energy behind those things. And I think if you have that, you're more likely to have a seat at the table if it aligns with what the superintendent and the district is doing.
Greg Turchetta: Well. And I start here and I ask this question to as many people as I can, what are we great at? And then what are we good at? Because that's where the brand has to hang its hat. If you're a struggling district or your district that's going through transition, sometimes that question is hard to answer. Our students didn't do well on test scores last year. Okay. Now, what, what programs are really working? What's really aligning with the job market? I'll tell you. Give an example.
We have a high school that's putting a cybersecurity program in. That's a great idea. Right? I mean, everybody knows that's going to create jobs. Let's sell that. Let's tell the community what we're doing besides just getting students college ready to get them into careers that pay a lot of money. The brand piece is so important because, and, Tyler, I'll make this assumption. The general public doesn't. Probably half of them don't think public education does a great job anymore. Right. Charter schools are coming out of the ground here, there, and everywhere because parents think they can do it better on their own. That goes back to that educational arrogance piece. Do they really think that running a school is that easy? Many of them are finding out it's really hard. But if people don't think you're good at what you do, you have to relentlessly prove it every day. And guess what? When you do, that makes it easier to recruit teachers because the more great that you're showing.
Let me give you a great example. I have bus drivers who, between routes in the morning and the afternoon, come into school and work in the cafeteria. Some of them are actually reading tutors for students. I had principals tell me about this. I'm like, that's amazing. I don't think the average person knows a bus driver A, does that or B, is capable of being a reading coach. So the superintendent and I were touring a school two weeks ago. I've been looking for that story for months. I had heard about it, but I hadn't seen it. And there it was.
The principal goes, here's one of our bus drivers going in. Let's go get video of it. Brought the superintendent in. She interviewed the bus driver. Congratulate her and thanked her for what an amazing job. Talked to the student about how awesome it was that this bus driver was helping him learn to read better. I mean, that's the kind of stuff that makes the hair on your arm stand up and makes everybody feel great, but it also positions your district as you're finding innovative ways to help students achieve.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I think that's really well said. And one thing you said was like, there's things you're good at. There's things you're great at, but you're going to have to focus on the things that you're great at. And some advice that I often give in the marketing world, right, is like, if you want to have a big brand, you have to keep your identity very small. You're going to need to be known for two, maybe three things, but four and five is too much, right. You really need to keep that small. And then, yeah, I think you just said was kind of.
My next question is, I can imagine a superintendent saying, I know communication is important, I know branding matters, but can we just focus on student learning and improving outcomes? Like, won't that be enough to change public opinion?
Greg Turchetta: How's that working for you? Let's go to Florida. In four years, 61 of 67 superintendents in the state of Florida were replaced. That's scary math. Now we're also talking superintendents from top five districts in the state. Their academics are pristine. They still got fired. In fact, my former boss in Florida was a national superintendent of the year finalist and was fired two months later as a top five school district in the state. Can we get back to academics or is there something bigger at play?
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's a well made point. You seem to lay more responsibility at the feet of the school leaders than I think we often hear when we're talking about the changes that need to be made in education. And so, yeah, I'd love for you to keep talking about that. Like you mentioned educational arrogance a couple of times. Walk us through that a little bit more and what can we learn from that? Right. I think there's definitely a point there that we need to be more introspective. We need to be thinking about what are the things that we can change? What do we own? And I'm curious if you feel like that's mainly because we need to own the narrative and if we don't take it responsibility, nothing's going to change. Tell me more about that.
Greg Turchetta: Yeah, let me start with a disclaimer. I think principals have the hardest job in America. I was a news director of a tv station. It's the closest I've ever gotten unparalleled to being a principal. All the burdens fall at the principal's feet. They can't possibly get all the work done. Now, having said that, there is a responsibility that falls at the feet of the principal, and the great ones do it beautifully. And the people that leave don't even see the image. And it's this. In my former district, I went to my superintendent and I said, we know the old adage, what gets measured gets done. She said, yeah. I said, I would like for you to add marketing and public relations to the principal reviews, their annual reviews. And she goes, it's a good idea. I said, I'd also like it to have it included in the hiring committee, and I'd like to be on the hiring committee, and I'd like to ask the questions about what their views are on social media, marketing, public relations, and how they communicate.
Won't you believe that by year two, across the board, when it was being mentioned on hiring panels, when it was being mentioned in their annual reviews, all of a sudden, people were very open to the idea that they had to make time for that. Now, I do lay the burden at them, but I also have trained hundreds of teachers and probably a couple hundred principals personally, and I tell them this. The gold standard for storytelling is five minutes a day. If you can create five minutes to drop into a classroom, walk down a hallway, hell, you don't even have to create it. You're already going to these places doing evaluations and meetings, pull out your cell phone, grab a little video or a picture of something that really strikes you, and then sit on it for a few hours. Carry on with your day. Find another couple of minutes later in the day, maybe at the end of your day, to actually post it to social media and to do something with it. I've had principals come back to me later on and tell me those five minutes are their favorite five minutes of the day.
Why it connects them back to their. Why they get to author something that shows greatness every day about their school, which is what they're all about. They just never have found the time to do it until you put it into little bite sized pieces like that. And then new principals that are coming in are digital natives already. They already understand the technology. It's the older principals that are a little more old guard that have had a harder transition to this. But once you see the power of the parents coming in and asking to be in certain classrooms, because they've seen them on social media, they've seen how cool it is there, and they're asking for teachers by name. You understand the power that phone has, that those social media channels have to change a narrative and to change people's perspective of what goes on in your building.
Tyler Vawser: Absolutely. Our fall 2023 issue really dug into this. Right? Like, how can superintendents use principles to affect branding and communications? And exactly what you just said, which is most principals in our research said that they didn't think marketing is part of their job, when in fact, they're actually some of the best marketers. One, they're the most visible. They're the closest to the stories. Right. They're seeing the day to day things. That example earlier, you have these moments that are happening in schools, but nobody's talking about them. Part of the reason is you're one person. But there are, in your district, there's probably 10, 20, 30 plus principals, 50 principals.
Greg Turchetta: Right.
Tyler Vawser: So you have all these people that are on the ground, like in my case, right. My kids, when I'm dropping them off at school every morning, the principal is the one that's opening the car door.
Greg Turchetta: Right.
Tyler Vawser: And they're taking the bus home. And so I see the principal. I don't see the superintendent every day. No, because he can't be at every school every morning. That would be impossible. So seeing principals as marketers that are close to the stories and have a higher degree of trust with families, and then on top of it, they're actually like experiential marketers.
Greg Turchetta: Right. They're creating brand ambassadors.
Tyler Vawser: They're brand ambassadors. They're really thinking about that in real life experience. When somebody walks through the front door of our school, what does it sound like? What's that experience? Right. And I think that is such a big part of the marketing. And that's the reason, when you get people into your schools, their opinion of your schoolceo change.
Greg Turchetta: Yes. And so here's how you do it, right? The superintendent's listening. This is the most effective thing I've ever done, and I'm currently in the middle of it. And it's producing magic on a weekly basis. I call a school that I think is kind of in the witness protection plan, meaning I'm not seeing their stuff. Right. I'm not seeing greatness coming out of them. They're not calling me going, oh, we got this amazing story to tell. So I contact the principal and I go ahead. How about I come by Tuesday morning at 09:00 a.m. Is that a good time for you? Okay, great.
It'll only be about a half hour, really? Half hour? Yeah. We're going to walk your school. Where are we going? I don't know, but when we get there, will do it. The honest truth is they don't know what the stories are because they look at them every day. Sometimes a clean set of eyes of somebody from the outside, and it doesn't have to be a communications person. Let me tell you, when you bring the superintendent in on a tour, I do the same thing. We tell the principal, take us and show us something. What do you want to brag about? Anything.
So, example two weeks ago, I was at a school. We have three schools that have just been labeled underperforming due to academic performance. So I went to one of them right away and I said, I've got to get more positive out here because the story inside the building isn't reflected in the test score. She's got a great culture building. She's really got movement going. But the test scores have lagged a bit. So she goes, well, where do you want to go? I said, you pick. Show me. Amazing. I said, the story is that this school is underperforming. Show me an example of it actually performing. She goes, oh, we're going to visit this teacher. We walk into this first grade classroom. This teacher is talking, and she's reading a story, and now she's got about 15 1st graders in front of her, maybe 20. She's talking to him in English. Then she's turning to a student and speaking to him in Spanish, and then she's assigning to another student. And I looked up and I went, wow. And I looked at the principal and she goes, isn't she amazing? She goes, yeah, she was our teacher of the month. And I said, she doesn't know how to sign. She said, no, she learned it for that student. What an amazing story. Right? No one has told this story yet.
The first classroom she walked me into, in less than a half hour, I had a story shot on an iPhone with microphones professionally, ready to go. I was in her building for 29 minutes. It took me 15 minutes to edit it by 10:30. That day, greatness was published about a school that's allegedly underperforming. It is that simple. Sometimes you just have to show them the way. But my bigger purpose is to have this in my pocket, because underperforming schools have to submit reports to the state. Right? They're being monitored now. What a great video to be able to submit to. Whatever state regulator is going to look at this school as an example of powerful practice.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's really incredible, Tyler.
Greg Turchetta: Every school I go to, we went through 40 plus schools this semester, and the content is just amazing. It's really people overthinking it. Now, again, I'm a former videographer, professionally trained. I have some skills. But you know what? I have a social media coordinator who I have taught to do all of this in less than two months.
Tyler Vawser: Right?
Greg Turchetta: And she's out now creating that content. Because at the end of the day, you alluded to this earlier, one person can't change the brand. Ten people can't change the brand. The entire school district has to be collecting these moments and publishing them so that it is a tidal wave of positivity, because I promise you, the undercurrent of negativity when it comes is strong. But if your brand is built strong enough, you can withstand the trouble. If it's not, you're going to crumble.
Tyler Vawser: Absolutely. In February, I'm speaking with Dr. Jeffrey Collier at AASA's NCE conference, the national conference. And we're talking about collective authorship, which is what you just said. Right? It's not one or ten people. Right? It's not even the people in the central office. It's the whole district. And it goes right back to what you said about culture and trust and transparency, because it's so much more transparent to have someone that was there firsthand and experienced it, and they're telling their version, not a filtered down version that's gone through six different people and then was eventually edited for social media.
Greg Turchetta: And in our district, one of our four core values is joy. And at first, I thought, that doesn't seem like one of the four biggest things we need to be working on. But at the end of the day, doing this kind of storytelling, even if it's just a picture on X or a video on Instagram, it brings joy to the people involved. Right. For teachers that feel like they're overwhelmed if they get to have this moment just the way I described the principal has it, it changes things. And that, to me, is the bigger piece. My old district I've looked back on now and watched some of what I laid from 2014 to 2017 really paid off in the last couple of years. Right? They've withstood wave after wave of issues and are thriving. And the positivity that comes from that is just when you look back at it, it's humbling. It's humbling to say I had a small part of that.
Tyler Vawser: Well, and I would say we're also telling stories to each other, right. With that culture piece we're telling stories from teacher to teacher, teacher to staff member, staff to administration, that it's not just this communication strategy to push narratives and stories outside. It's also to remind ourselves of what we're doing, why this matters, why we're here.
Greg Turchetta: Well, let me give you one more quick example. I was in a grocery store one day, and a woman came up to me and said, you're the communications guy, right? And said, yeah. She goes, I'm a brand new elementary school teacher. First year, I was like, awesome. How are you liking it. How's it going? She said, I have to thank you for what you've done on social media. And I said, why? And she said, because as a brand new teacher, I can look into classrooms all across the district and see their pacing, see the examples of the lesson they're doing.
She's using it as professional development. That was never an intended consequence of this. Right. It wasn't an outcome we were looking for. But, man, does it make you feel great that teachers are using these tools to make their instruction stronger.
Tyler Vawser: Absolutely. Well, and then think about the recruitment aspect of that. If you're a prospective teacher, you're looking at a district and you see those moments just like that other elementary school teacher did. I want to know more about this, or I can already tell this is the place I want to be, or I recognize a face there, right. I'm going talk to them and maybe they can tell me more about what it's like to work their day to day.
Greg Turchetta: I had a principal tell me that a parent moved from New York to Florida, came in and said, I want to be in Mr. Merrill's class. And the principal looked up and said, do you know Mr. Merrill? And he said, no, I've seen his social media, and that's a learning environment I want my child got. It got so powerful, though, Tyler, that the principal then had to make sure that that class of first graders, when they went to second grade, had another teacher that did the same thing because the parents now had an expectation of transparency.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's so fascinating. That is interesting. I think that's the double edged sword a bit, right? Where you are successful, the expectations keep rising. But that's great.
So let's keep talking about this a little bit, because I do think this idea of not just having one storyteller or a handful of storytellers, but collectively doing that across a district is so important. How else are you working with staff and teachers and principals to find the stories? Because I would imagine they're going to say they're busy, they don't have time. How are you empowering them to be able to tell the stories that they're experiencing firsthand?
Greg Turchetta: So twofold. One, I personally go into the schools three days a week minimum, right? I can sit in my office and I can tell people to do things. But what does it say about my commitment to telling stories, finding great stories, and executing on them if I'm not there on the ground? Right. When I walk into a building, no matter what job I've been in, they go, oh, here comes. Greg, we got to have a story. Oh, yeah. I've been meaning to call you. I got this story right. I used to train my tv reporters the same way sources don't call you. You have to go out and find the news. And it's the same way in schools. So, so much training happens within that. And having a superintendent now who's out touring who, if you have a superintendent who understands the power of great storytelling, and my superintendent does, and she's incredible at engaging people, and it just creates its own moments, which is great for her brand, great for the district brand, and great for the school brand because it just creates so much more content.
But here's the other thing. The power of exclusion is powerful. Schools that are doing really well in this will get showcased. Schools that aren't all of a sudden will feel neglected and they'll get angry. I've had them actually lash out at me and go, why aren't you showcasing my school? And I'll say, because you haven't told me anything great going on in your building. And that's tragic. And then all of a sudden we have a list of things. But I'm also in buildings as a consultant, and the consultant piece is just, I'm going to a school Friday. We're going to rehaul the brand. But I told the principal, I said, we're going to walk this halls and we're going to find your points of greatness because they need to be clear. And then we're going to build a plan around it to execute it. To do this, you need something I like to call the coalition of the willing.
So this is usually the principal. Right? Get those people to buy into what you're trying to do and put them on your content team. So in the schools, I build content teams, and they're all in charge of going and getting the content, and we give them the power to use the school's social media channels. And I love these people. In 2016, I started this. I called it tweeters, giving teachers their own Twitter handles back then and turning them loose and the amount of fear that was attached to that. With people going, you're going to let teachers do their own social media? Yeah, I let them handle your children all day. They handle code reds. They are allowed to use the phone and do all these other things. Social media is not that scary, but it's powerful. So it's training, it's overcoming the fear. It's having procedures and policies in place to make sure that nothing goes wrong. But here's the really interesting one. Opt outs, right? Everybody's like, oh, what about opt outs in class? And you're swinging cameras around and getting video of all these students. Very few parents in years of doing this, I mean, on one hand, I can count them, have called the complaint and said, how dare you? How dare you take that picture of my child succeeding in math and put it on social media? What were you thinking? That's not what they're worried about. Parents don't want the news showing their children walking down the street when they're talking about a child molester story. Right?
Every parent wants their students to succeed, and they want to see it now we celebrate the high achieving students all the time. What about the other students that struggle? What about the students that come up a level that are coming out of remedial and into, like, satisfactory, showcase them? Those parents, I mean, those students sometimes have never been showcased. They're not the star athlete. They're not the class president. They're not in the gifted program. All those stories matter. Tell them all.
Tyler Vawser: In what other ways are we complicating storytelling?
Greg Turchetta: Well, this idea that you can't show faces, that somebody's going to get upset, it's all fear based. The only place that I'm remotely careful is in a special needs classroom because I would want to have the conversation with those parents prior to putting it out. Right. But outside of that, I'm going here, there, and there, and I'm recording everything. Everything I can get my hands on, I'm recording. Why? Because I'm not afraid of it. I'm not afraid of it. There's only a couple of cases where people complain.
One, there's a protective order on somebody that's in a custody dispute and they don't want to know where the child is. That's one complaint I've heard. Another singular complaint I've heard is my religion doesn't allow me to be my children, to be photographed. Understood. Understood. Outside of that, just go tell great stories, do the work, get to the ground floor and find it. I can't tell you how many stories I've just tripped over, and I mean literally tripped over by walking through a school. And I tell people, I'm the senior chief communications officer, but I'm the chief storyteller. And I have to be there because my marketing strategy is literally built in real time. What I see, what I hear when I'm in a moment and I'm in a school and I say, this will showcase this school. I have the background and the knowledge to do that. The principal has it, the AP has it. They're trying to frame the narrative.
Right. And framing narrative sounds dangerous because it sounds like, oh, we're spinning something. No. What do you want people to know and believe about your school? What do you want them to know that is not true about your school? And how much time do we spend talking about the stuff that isn't true instead of talking about the stuff that's great?
Tyler Vawser: Absolutely. One thing that you told me in preparation for this call was that you often call building leaders and say, hey, I'm going to be there. Don't worry, it's not going to take long because there's so many great things that are happening in your schools. And like you said, they are sort of blind to it. Right. They have too much context. They're not thinking about how these everyday incredible moments are not just every day, they're actually inspirational. They need to be told. They need to be shared with people that don't get the opportunity to be in the schools each day.
Greg Turchetta: Yeah. Because extraordinary becomes ordinary when you see it every day, but the public doesn't. And parents, here's the chilling part of this, and this is another reason for my urgency and my passionate about this. I was in Florida where charter schools really have made a run, right? And I love competition. Don't get me wrong, I think competition is fantastic because many of the qualitative things that have been done in public education in the last five to ten years have only been done under fire. And so they're forced to evolve. Right? That's business in general. You will force, when your competition forces you to move, you'll move. But let's get after that, right? Let's get after that greatness and let's move on it. And that's the power, because parents will pull their kids out of a school and put them in another school with less information that I would use to buy a car, get a mortgage or even adopt a dog, to be honest. Oh, flashy penny. Let's try that school. They have classic values and they're doing literature. Go. And they've disenrolled their kid and they go over the story that public ed doesn't tell enough is how many of those students actually come back when they realize that wasn't what we thought it was going to be. But if parents are that fickle, that means we're doing a horrible job of proving the quality of what we do every day.
I actually told the principal the other day, I said, you cannot be the DMV. Right. There's no positive connotation to going to the DMV for anything. Their customer service is usually atrocious. It's not something you look forward to. It's right there with probably a colonoscopy. But public education going into a school always feels good. I always feel great when I come through a school. Parents feel great when they go to an event. Sometimes there's issues, but overall, create an environment that's more Ritz Carlton than it is DMV.
Tyler Vawser: Absolutely. How are you thinking about student enrollment when it comes to storytelling? Are you specifically thinking about that family that's looking at coming to the school? Walk me through a little bit of that, because I think a lot of times we think about storytelling. It's just generally we need to do it for the brand, and it has some impact on recruitment, some on enrollment. But do you have a specific enrollment strategy that you're working on?
Greg Turchetta: No, because it comes back to the word quality. No matter what story I'm telling, whether it's an individual student or it's about the program, or it's about a magnet program, or it's about an incredible teacher. It was what I alluded to earlier about public relations. If the story is layered, like layers of an onion, and as you start telling the story, you keep peeling back another layer that by the end of it, the parent looks at it and goes, oh my God, my child needs to be in that class. My child needs to get into that program. That's the goal. So our stories often are long, and social media will do some shorter versions, but our other stuff will be longer because it's multilayered in coming through. But all of that should be baked into any story you tell. If it's about quality, then it should make me feel like I need to own it. I need to be a part of it. I need to be a member of whatever that is. And if you can do that, it's just that simple. Yeah. I'll do some more subtle nuances, like in recruiting teachers. I'm going to go talk to veteran teachers about why they want to work here. Like, one of the ideas was content wise I'm doing is Adam Wright. Why do I choose to work at Richland too? And the responses we're getting are amazing. They're just amazing. We went to our teachers of the year and said, tell me why you choose to work here. Peer to peer marketing is one of the more powerful storytelling techniques there are. Right. Let them sell it. They can sell it better than HR. And same thing with students. Let great students tell you why they love this class. That will make other students want to come.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah. That's fantastic. Well, you're walking us through your strategy to build the brand, build the narrative, and really show the great things that are happening. But there is kind of a more nefarious side of this, and I think you've been in those states where there are people that have a strategy to undermine public education. I think it might be helpful to talk about what that is and how we can combat it in addition to what we've already discussed.
Greg Turchetta: Yeah. If you're in a state that hasn't been through curriculum challenges, book challenges, you haven't had questions about your DEI policies, then you're lucky, right? You haven't dealt with any of that. And by lucky, I mean those are tough conversations, because what does that say? It says that somewhere along the line, the schools have gotten out of line with their voters. Not their parents, their voters, because we're out of alignment. We're doing what we think is the moral high ground, and the community is saying, no, that's my job. I do that. So I put all this under what I would call a book of parents rights. If you're not listening to what parents are saying, or voters in some cases, because voters, many of these elections, are less than 10% of the population, what are your voters saying? What are your parents saying? Where are you falling? And that moral high ground has eroded. And it is something to watch when it goes on.
But this is where communications people and superintendents need to be very careful, because a simple decision, whether it's signage, whether it's bathrooms, that you would think is just not the biggest decision I'm going to make today all of a sudden ends up in a big deal. I've been in book challenges where all of a sudden the National Library Association called me and was offering support. I didn't know there was a National Library Association until the phone call came through. Right. But people are passionate about this, this idea that public schools are being accused of indoctrinating students. You're hearing it in the national presidential debates. Indoctrination of students. That's strong, right? Whether you believe it or not, that's strong language. I've seen it on signs where parents have been protesting. We are disconnected in a way that we have got to reconnect to where everybody feels represented and valued. And how do we do that in certain states, I think Texas, South Carolina, Florida, you can see a lot of news coming out of that. At my national conference this summer, I heard from other states. They're like, no, we have the same thing going on. Thank you for letting us know. It's not just us that everybody's dealing with it because sometimes in your little school district you don't. Lies. These are national issues, right? These things are flaring up everywhere. But how we deal with it is going to be critical. And I've seen so many people like, well, why won't this just stop? And it's like, no, you're missing the point. Especially if somebody used to run newsrooms.
I used to answer the phone when angry viewers would call and it was the same kind of thing. Don't get caught up in the emotion and the vitrol of what's going on. Get to really what their issue is. What is their issue? We had a public speaker at our board meeting last night who said we sent an opt in or opt out form for a health lesson and it had terms in it that he didn't want to have to explain to his fourth grader yet, like menstruation, which, okay, that's a science term, but he was very angry and he stood up at a school board meeting and said, why don't you send that letter to me instead of giving it to the child to come home? I want to be able to make the choice of when we have these conversations. That's it in a nutshell, right? The method of delivery, if it violates what a parent's rights, they're going to call you on it. And that's our new reality.
Tyler Vawser: How do we build transparency and trust when there's just so much animosity and there's not enough time and the stakes feel high and you've got news media telling one story in a lot of cases and the first hand experience is different in the school, at least the intent is very different. Right. Teachers and administrators, school leaders care so much, but then they're being told that they're indoctrinating. So how do we create that trust and transparency in this kind of environment?
Greg Turchetta: I'll answer your question in a second. But if we don't, we're going to have two education systems, right? That's where we're headed is the have and the have not. And what that looks like is to be determined. But the answer to that question really comes back to listening. I was at a state conference a couple of weeks ago of the South Carolina school Board association and one of the board chairs got up and said, book challenges, right. Library book challenges for content. They're hot right now. And he said, we've had four parents in the last year file 96 book challenges. Every time a book is challenged, the school district has to create a committee to evaluate the book. Everybody has to read the book. He said, do you realize how much time goes into that, that we can't be doing our job? Now, there were people that believe that this is all orchestrated to do just that, take everybody's eye off the ball, let public education fail and rebuild it.
Or on the other side of it is when legislators make rules, then you need to be their advocating, right? They need to know this information before a new bill goes through and says, yeah, that's a great idea. Unintended consequences and unfunded mandates are two terms I hear all the time, and they're huge. But that's the reality of where public Ed is. And people are going to have to listen. I think the presidential election we're about to go through is a microcosm of where public ed is. We have very divided country on a lot of issues, and this country has to have a reckoning of where it wants to go. And public education is going through the exact same thing at the exact same time, and it's going to be costly.
Tyler Vawser: Greg, it's interesting because I interviewed Julie Sweetland of Frameworks Institute. She was just on the podcast not too long before you, and she talked a little bit about this question of polarization. I asked her, how do we help with that? And one of her practical suggestions was, don't start by talking about how we're polarized, because in a lot of cases, we actually have so many similarities. But just like there's great things happening in schools every day and we're not talking about it, we're also not talking about what we have in common. And I thought that was a really practical suggestion. And then, like you said, about explaining the why and giving context the same thing there, instead of using shorthand terms that indicate if you're team red or team blue, explaining what it is.
Greg Turchetta: Right.
Tyler Vawser: And I think things like social emotional learning is a good example of this, where that's become a hot topic, that word incites people to divide. Right. But if you talk about, hey, you know what? We want to create kids that have great social skills. They understand how to empathize with others, and you walk them through that. Most everybody goes, that makes perfect sense. Like, I want my kids to have great soft skills. I want to hire kids in the future that have great soft skills and understand they can read a room. These kinds of things that we take for granted as adults, and then suddenly people get it because we're not using a shorthand term. We're actually talking about the why.
Greg Turchetta: So let me give you this one. This was an aha for me last week. I was talking to a principal again, doing research on teacher recruitment and retention while at the same time helping her figure out her brand. And she said to me, she said, we're losing a lot of teachers because of the conflict peace with parents. And I said, what do you mean? She said, our parents come in hot and parents these days are buying into a narrative that, well, you're the teacher and you should be doing this and it's all your responsibility. And the teacher is like, well, we're a shared responsibility and I need you to support this. And it just gets combative. Right. And so my aha was this, superintendents, if you're listening, the police figured this out in the last few years. Deescalation training is probably one of the best things you can do for teachers right now to keep them in your building. Think about it. The police do it so they don't pull out a gun and lead to bullets being fired, that they can talk down a hot situation with calm and reason. Teachers are in the same boat, and I don't think we realize that is that it's so divisive, it's so charged, and that teachers finally throw their hands up and go, I'm not going to call a parent conference because I know what I'm going to get. I mean, that's tough. Right. So when we talk about working conditions, that's one of them. But again, to your original question, the dynamics of how do we get to commonality is really hard if even teachers and parents are having trouble coming together.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, I don't think it's just on education. Right. It's a community, it's a social thing. It's a national problem that we have to solve, and we can't put that all at the feet of the school building to figure that out for us. Greg, I'm curious, as we're in 2024, if you could tell superintendents, communication directors one thing to focus on this year, what would that be?
Greg Turchetta: Urgency and quality. You have to use urgency to prove the quality of your district. You don't have time anymore. Right. One of the best examples I've seen is here in South Carolina. We had a superintendent in Charleston who was hired from up north took the job July 1. By the end of October, he was gone. And when I talked to the people in that district that do what I do, they said we had the best academic year we've had in the last year. So it wasn't about test scores. It was just a decision that was made. And more turbulence comes. School districts cannot keep surviving the turbulence that's going on. Right.
So brand and quality are the pathway back. Let the community know that this isn't a failure factory, that this isn't a place to where things constantly keep going wrong. And we just need to keep changing coaches like NFL teams to come through and try to win. What if you're already winning? You're just not telling people. There's no scorecard, there's no record to show you're actually winning. And that's what we do best. We have to prove we're winning.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's really well said. Well, Greg Turketta, thank you so much for joining SchoolCEO Conversations.
Greg Turchetta: Thank you for the opportunity. Thanks for the great conversation.
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