Internal Communication Matters for Your Strategic Plan
To be successful, your strategic plan needs districtwide buy-in. Here’s how internal communications can help.
The strategic planning process is a great opportunity to get your whole staff on the same page and excited about the future. Whether you just finished developing your strategic plan, you’re only beginning the process, or you inherited a plan from your predecessor—the success of your district’s strategic plan hinges on how it’s shared with your staff.
Annie Giattina is an internal communications specialist. She works at Arkansas Children’s Hospital as their brand engagement and internal communications director. “Internal communications is often neglected in the communications world,” she tells us, “but it can drive your culture. If you create an environment where people feel like they have a voice, where they feel like they’re going to be heard, the culture begins to shift.”
It might be tempting to just send out a mass email telling your staff members where to find information about the district’s new strategic plan. But while it may seem easiest right now, that tactic will likely cause problems down the road. If you don’t think carefully about how to communicate your strategic plan to your staff in a way that brings them on board, your new plan might be met with internal resistance or—maybe worse—indifference.
Here, we’ll unpack Giattina’s best practices for internal communications. Then, with the help of three school communications professionals, we’ll show you how those best practices can help districts build internal buy-in for their new strategic plans.
Build buy-in with two-way communication.
As an internal communications specialist, Giattina has seen both what does and what doesn’t work when it comes to building staff buy-in. “In my experience,” she says, “people will resist change if they feel like they don’t have a way to respond or voice their opinions. You have to enable two-way communication. That’s the biggest key.”
It’s best to develop a system for two-way communication as early on in the strategic planning process as possible. Just ask Stephanie Smith, APR, the public relations director for Fort Osage R-1 School District in Missouri. Smith tells us one mistake she’s seen districts make in the strategic planning process is developing their plans in a silo. “When you don’t have a nice, diverse group to help you put your plan together, then you don’t get to see all perspectives,” she says. “You’re not getting input. You’re not taking the time to do the research. And when you don’t do that research, you don’t get buy-in.”
There are several ways to approach the kind of research Smith is talking about. Maybe your district conducts a series of surveys. Maybe, like Fort Osage, you put together an advisory panel to help guide the plan’s development. The idea is to open avenues for two-way communication early on in order to build the kind of ownership that will lead to buy-in down the road. That said, two-way communication isn’t just something to focus on in the earliest stages of your plan’s lifecycle. It’s essential to keep these channels open no matter what stage of the strategic planning process your district is in.
This is something Missouri’s Affton School District has focused on, according to Director of Communications Erica Chandler, APR. They’ve done “gallery walks” to get live, in-person feedback from teachers on how they expect to implement the district’s strategic plan day-to-day in their classrooms. As part of this practice, large posters with specific questions or tasks are put up all around the meeting room. Teachers form small groups and rotate between the posters, writing responses on them as they go. Then, the whole group comes back together to discuss major takeaways, ideas, and concerns in real-time.
“The best tool you can have in your toolbox is the ability to be receptive, even if it’s not something that you want to hear,” Chandler tells us. “Just knowing what’s being felt and what people are seeing—that’s the first step.”
Identify your key message(s).
“Simplicity is crucial,” says Giattina. “You want to keep the message simple and relevant, to think through what’s in it for your staff members. What do you want people to think? What do you want them to feel? And what do you want them to do?”
Chandler says that when it comes to condensing something as big and complicated as a strategic plan down to key messages, “it can help if you think through what the most important things are. What are the takeaways you’re going to be carrying forward?” Jill Filer, the director of communications and community relations at Missouri’s Harrisonville Schools, agrees. “If you have those key messages you continue to refer back to, that will help your staff recall information, so that it’s not all new each time,” she says.
Once you have your key messages identified, a great way to help make them memorable is to tie them all together with a common theme. “Let’s say you have three to five goals, and everybody can talk about what those goals are,” Smith begins. “When you look at those goals, is there a theme? Is there something that runs through everything, that touches on all of it, that people can get behind and understand easily?”
In the past, Fort Osage used Believe to Achieve as the theme for their strategic plan. “So even if someone couldn’t tell me the three main goals of the strategic plan,” Smith says, “they knew Believe to Achieve.” Having a common theme to return to makes it easier for staff at all levels to look for and share moments that align with your strategic plan. Not only does this build buy-in by making space for everyone to be involved, but it’s a great way to build consistency in your communications.
As Chandler says, “It’s all about capitalizing on moments when we can say: This is our vision living in real life. It’s about taking that big picture and making it about small moments.”
Keep your strategic plan front and center.
Another tip from Giattina is to communicate consistently—both at a regular frequency and through familiar channels. “Even if you don’t have a lot of time or resources, commit to communicating at a regular cadence,” she advises. “You can do internal communications effectively by just dedicating a little bit of headspace and time.”
It’s important to know which tools and platforms work best for communicating with your staff. If they check their emails consistently, why not schedule regular emails? If they’re more likely to use their phones throughout the day, could you plan to send text messages? Whatever channel you choose, make sure to keep the content of your message focused and your timing consistent. The last thing you want is for your strategic plan to fall off everyone’s radars during the busiest parts of the school year.
Of course, it may not be realistic to send out an email devoted entirely to the strategic plan every day at 10 a.m. sharp. So set a goal for yourself and your leadership team to send out a focused message once a week, once a month, or whatever frequency works best for you. The idea is to prevent communications from becoming overly sporadic—or worse, dropping off entirely.
As for the content of these communications, Filer believes you shouldn’t be afraid to reiterate key messages over and over. “Not everybody is going to read the staff newsletter, right?” she says. “We know they don’t read every email. So making sure you are reemphasizing and repeating yourself is important. It may feel like you’ve said the same thing 20 times, but a new staff member in the district may only hear it for the first time at a staff meeting. You need to repeat yourself.”
When it comes to consistent communication, it’s important to recognize that you can’t be the only one leading the conversation. If you want to keep your strategic plan front and center, then conversations need to be happening at all levels of the district. “You can be the manager and the organizer of the strategic plan’s rollout, and you can check on people to make sure they’re repeating your key messages, but the idea is for your strategic plan to trickle down to your schools,” Filer says. The more you can do to support your building-level leaders as they identify how their work relates to and furthers the goals of the district’s strategic plan, the better. That way, they can help keep conversations on track.
Of course, as the district leader, you are best positioned to ensure the strategic plan never moves to the back burner. So why not start each staff meeting by connecting the agenda’s objectives back to the strategic plan? Or include a link to the plan in your email signature? Consistently keeping your strategic plan’s core takeaways front and center is essential. “The more those takeaways become commonplace,” Chandler says, “the more that they’re heard over and over—that’s when it starts to resonate.”
Have a plan for your school communications.
“From a communications perspective, it’s so important that you plan things out,” Filer says. “Internal communication about your strategic plan isn’t just going to happen. It has to be intentional. You have to create a plan to continue the conversation; otherwise, it will just end up on the shelf with no one talking about it.”
According to Filer, an effective communication plan means identifying what you need to say (which should be easy if you’ve identified your key messages), how you want to say it, who’s going to say it, and when they’re going to say it.
As you’re considering these questions, look for opportunities to incorporate your internal communications plan into your district’s broader communications strategy. For example, one of Harrisonville School District’s key messages from their strategic plan was “life-ready graduates.” Sharing stories about students working toward life preparedness became a throughline for both Filer’s internal and external communications.
You’ve heard it before: Work smarter, not harder. As you’re developing your approach for communicating your strategic plan internally, look for places where that plan and your district’s overall communications plan might overlap.
Get started with internal communication.
If you haven’t yet spent much time thinking about your organization’s approach to internal communications, don’t worry. You aren’t alone. “Don’t be disheartened if internal communications hasn’t been on your radar,” Giattina says. “Starting is better than doing nothing. Just start somewhere.”
Developing an approach for internally communicating your strategic plan may feel like a daunting task, but many pieces of the puzzle will fall into place once you get started. If you identify your key messages, then you’ll know what to talk about consistently—and if you talk consistently, there will be more opportunities for feedback. More opportunities for feedback will lead to greater buy-in, which will lead to more conversations about your key takeaways—especially if you make a plan. Every piece works together.
It’s true: This work will take time and effort. But it’s so worth it. “Your employees are your number-one ambassadors in everything you do,” Chandler says. “So making sure they understand your district’s strategic plan, your vision, your mission, your core values, who you are—that is hugely important.”
Originally published as "Big Picture Buy-In" in the Fall 2023 issue of SchoolCEO Magazine.
Marie Kressin is a writer at SchoolCEO and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Subscribe below to stay connected with SchoolCEO!