Hiring the Right Communications Director for Your School District

How to find the perfect school PR professional

By Corey Whaley Last Updated: April 23, 2024

Originally published as "The Perfect Fit" in the Spring 2024 issue of SchoolCEO Magazine.

According to data from the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA), school communicator roles have been steadily on the rise in recent years. In fact, in 2023, membership in the organization topped 2,800 for the first time in decades. Why the increase? Well, with school choice and negative sentiment around public institutions both sweeping the country, it’s no surprise that school systems are putting a higher premium on messaging and communication. 

If your district has been making due without a communications director, we’re betting you’ve at least considered hiring someone to lead your communications full time. Maybe you’ve started chatting with your board about the position or are already in the process of creating a job description. Either way, we can help. 

Do You Need a School Communications Director? 

In short, the answer is yes. No matter the size, makeup, or location of your district, it’s imperative that someone is responsible for updating your stakeholders, telling your schools’ stories, and communicating with the public in times of celebration or emergency. If you’ve been operating without a communications team, then you know all too well how much work goes into keeping your community informed. 

“Our community’s need, desire, and demand for communication has grown to almost an overwhelming level,” says Dr. Dan Cox, superintendent of Rochester CUSD 3A in Illinois. That’s why he decided to hire his small suburban district’s first director of communications and engagement in late 2023. In his two previous districts—both small and rural—Cox covered communications himself while also serving as superintendent. But after moving to Rochester, Cox noticed how much the pandemic had impacted the public’s need for communication. Leading a district and being a one-person comms team was no longer feasible. 

“I saw clearly that I needed help,” Cox tells us. “To be an effective superintendent, I needed to be able to delegate and have resources and supports. I am still that chief storytelling officer of our district, but now I have a thought partner. I have somebody who can take what I do and make it even better.”

(For more on why you need a school communications professional, check out"The Case for Comms Directors.")

This element has some extra space below it.
Salazar-Zamora with a student during a 4H event.

Writing the Job Description  

Before hiring for a communications role, you’ve got to establish exactly what you’re looking for—and make sure this is clear to your applicants. This process is also about letting your school community know exactly what the role entails, what should be expected of your new hire, and how their work relates to that of the district. 

Be specific about the responsibilities of the role. 

Duties and expectations for a school communicator can vary depending on the strategic approach of your district and the needs of your school community. So a good job description should both attract the right candidates and directly outline the responsibilities of the role. The more specific you are about who you’re looking for and what you expect from them, the easier and more efficient the hiring process will be.

In your job description, you should be direct about the vital role this position will play in the daily workings of your schools. Obviously, no two school districts are the same, but there are consistent standards for what constitutes good school communications, as well as what the relationship between a school communicator and their community should look like. 

For the role of a communications lead, you’ll want to guarantee your new hire can collaborate well, communicate effectively, and handle times of crisis. They should be able to keep sensitive information confidential, take part in executive-level meetings, translate “eduspeak” to the broader community, and make judgment calls on when and how to disseminate important information. 

Salazar-Zamora with a student during a 4H event.

It’s also important to note that comms directors are responsible for sharing information on behalf of the district and its leadership. Some superintendents want a comms person to be an extension of themselves—someone who replicates their voice in district communications. Others want their comms director to establish their own voice in the community. Either way, your applicants should know exactly what you’re expecting of them.

Learn from stakeholders and other leaders. 

Before hiring a school communications director, you’ll want to be sure the role will meet your school community’s needs. Let’s say that in a recent survey, parents and families in your area listed high-quality teachers as the number-one thing they’re looking for. You might include something in your job description about the importance of identifying everyday successes and curating stories that celebrate the district’s staff members. By listening to your stakeholders, you can ensure that this role will benefit both the district and the community. 

Educators know there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel. Do you know other leaders who’ve already written a job description for a comms role? What could you learn from them? In Rochester, Cox says it took him three years to research and determine exactly what the district needed in terms of a communications director. He attended professional development sessions, got involved with NSPRA and INSPRA (Illinois’ NSPRA chapter), and even consulted with communicators whose work he admired. “I just learned,” Cox says. “And then I started asking school districts all over Illinois to show me their job descriptions for communications roles.” 

Clay Corley, superintendent of DeSoto Parish Schools in Louisiana, recently hired the district’s first communications and family engagement coordinator, but not before honing in on a job description that was informed by the other leaders in his district. “Ultimately what I did was sit with our district directors and with other school leaders to hear from them,” Corley explains. “Then I compiled all that feedback to develop a job description.” 

Align the role with your district’s mission and values. 

As we mentioned above, your job description should not only attract good candidates, but also speak to the importance of this new role in your district. Your schools likely have a mission statement or set of values that guide their work. If you want your board, staff, and school families to believe in and support the investment of hiring a school communications director, you’ve got to justify the role’s place in the overall mission of your schools.

“Over the last few years, I’ve been envisioning what this role would become,” Corley explains. “We launched our new brand at the beginning of this school year, and with that came a lot of surveying and stakeholder input. We really got a good sense of what people thought about us. That helped to shape this role’s specific responsibilities and connect them with our mission statement and values.”    

By outlining exactly how your comms director will support the district’s overall mission, you’ll reassure your community and board that the district is in good hands. “It takes years to build trust and credibility with your community, and it takes seconds to destroy it,” Corley adds. “Your communications coordinator is the gatekeeper of that trust, so you’ve got to have somebody who understands your district’s mission.” 

Conducting the Interview 

The interview process isn’t just for learning more about your candidates’ qualifications—it’s also a chance to dig deeper. Who aligns with your district’s goals, needs, and culture? If you’ve described the role with thoughtfulness and precision, then the candidates you interview will have already proven worthy on paper. But asking the right questions will help you gain a greater sense of how well this person could represent, speak for, and advocate on behalf of your schools. 

Learn how they perform under pressure. 

Oftentimes, the job of a communications director is making sure the school community is informed quickly, accurately, and with care. Whether it’s responding to a full-blown crisis or announcing a snow day, you need your comms lead to be adept at working under time constraints and pressure. 

Megan Renihan, communications coordinator for Batesville School District in Arkansas, has some insider advice. “You want to ask something like, How would you navigate multiple projects at a time while also maintaining good relationships with people?” she offers. “And you want to ask questions that reveal how savvy your candidates are, like, Have you ever worked in a position where you’ve had to manage crisis response?

Renihan also says it’s important to determine how well a candidate understands the way information should be released to the public. “As a communications person, we’re aware of things that happen before they’re finalized by the board,” she adds. “It’s our job to make the decision about whether or not information is released.” 

Make sure they align with your district’s values. 

Since a school communications director plays a crucial role in shaping your district’s image, reputation, and trustworthiness, you’ve got to make sure the person you’re hiring buys into the values of your schools. Let’s say your district promotes values like a growth mindset, a focus on equity, and a commitment to fostering relationships. If that’s the case, it’s vital to find out if a candidate will push themselves, devote themselves to including all district voices, and maintain healthy relationships with students and staff. 

One of DeSoto Parish’s values is “providing a positive and collaborative culture”—so Corley and his team used the interview to gauge each candidate’s collaboration skills. “We asked questions like, How do you exemplify the values we believe in?” Corley explains. “If they can get behind our values, it’s an easy fit.”

Assess their skills. 

Of course, any comms role boils down to having exceptional communication skills. A lot of things can be learned on the job, but a communications director needs to approach the role with a built-in ability to communicate in nearly any circumstance. 

Salazar-Zamora with a student during a 4H event.

Another round of interviews in DeSoto Parish was designed to test candidates on their ability to communicate effectively in various situations. According to Corley, each candidate was given four potential scenarios and asked to respond to three of them. One of the three had to be a crisis scenario. “We wanted to see how they would act and perform under pressure, but we were also assessing their writing skills because that’s a big part of this job,” Corley says.  “We didn’t care what tools they used—we only cared what the work looked like when it was turned in.” 

Ultimately, Corley was most impressed by Peyton Dufour—who was already a teacher in DeSoto. So he hired him as the district’s new communications and family engagement coordinator. “Peyton was a strong candidate,” Corley explains. “He checked a lot of the boxes, but mostly we chose him because he’s a learner. He is well equipped, sure, but he’s also interested in learning and growing professionally. That’s huge for this kind of role.” 

In Rochester CUSD 3A, Cox and his team conducted two rounds of interviews that were broken down into five categories—strategic communication planning; stakeholder engagement and community relations; communications goals and strategies; working with the superintendent; and handling confidential information. Within these categories, they asked questions like, What strategies will you utilize to engage with the various stakeholders within the school district? How does collaboration play a role in your approach to crisis communication planning and response? “Let me tell you this,” Cox says, “our responses from applicants were the best we’ve ever had for any position.” 

This helped Cox and his team find the perfect fit for Rochester’s new director of communications and engagement role: former news anchor John Hansen. “John’s rich background in communications immediately impacted our school district positively,” Cox tells us. “He has remarkable enthusiasm and an innovative approach to storytelling through social media, imagery, and video. His creative flair vividly portrays the essence of our Rochester Rocket community, elevating our narrative with energy and vision.”

Onboarding Your New School Communications Director  

Once you’ve filled your new position, you’ll want to start integrating your new school communicator into your district’s day-to-day work as soon as possible. This could certainly look different depending on the needs of your school community, but the following approaches will help you welcome your new hire and ensure they feel supported and informed. 

Keep them close. 

Both Cox and Corley recognize how closely they need to work with their communications leads. That’s why they each immediately moved their new hires into the offices next to them and began inviting them to executive-level meetings. “Peyton has an honorary seat at every table,” Corley says. “He’s involved in all of our leadership meetings and our department team meetings. He’s got to be privy to everything we’re talking about and planning so that he knows how and when to communicate those things to the public.” 

In Rochester, Cox feels the same way. “John has to be in the know,” he says. “We have to collaborate so much that our communication is informal and often.” In fact, Cox says much of the relationship between him and Hansen is quite direct—and has to be. “I need him to be confident enough to critique me and push back,” he says. “The best onboarding is having frank and intentional conversations.” 

Connect them to communities of support. 

It’s hard to say enough about communities like AASA and NSPRA when it comes to providing support and resources to both school leaders and communicators. Cox and Corley have both encouraged their new hires to join NSPRA and their state chapters of the national school communications community. 

But that’s just the start. Both supers have also signed up to participate alongside their new communications directors in the Leadership in School Communication Program facilitated by AASA and NSPRA. “It’s important that we’ll be in this cohort side-by-side,” Cox says. 

Salazar-Zamora with a student during a 4H event.

The program is a hybrid course where superintendents and their communications leads participate in two in-person sessions and four virtual ones. During these sessions, they learn together about effective strategies and best practices for school communications; identify areas for growth and improvement; and create roadmaps for their districts’ respective approaches to communications. 

“It’s exciting to do this together. I want to be able to get into the weeds with him,” Corley adds. “Professional development is something we’re committed to, and making sure he’s connected is a big part of that.” 

In Good Hands

The process of hiring a school communications director is a critical step for strengthening your relationship with your school community. And, in today’s world of rapid news and social media mayhem, the need for a dedicated school communicator is undeniable. 

There are certainly varied approaches to this process—and every community’s needs are different. But by crafting a detailed job description, approaching your interview process strategically, and providing your new hire with a thoughtful onboarding process, you can ensure that your district’s story will always be in good hands.