Superintendent Q&A: Rick Cobb

How Dr. Rick Cobb is using marketing to transform his 14,000-student district

Dr. Rick Cobb kicked off his very first meeting at Mid-Del Public Schools by posting an all-staff selfie to his Twitter feed. Since that moment, he’s spent his superintendency building the district’s story around his staff and students through videos, social media, and good old-fashioned conversation.

It’s paying off. In October 2017, Mid-Del’s social media campaigns influenced the success of a major bond issue, which gave the school district $130.6 million for facility improvements. Dr. Cobb told SchoolCEO how Mid-Del’s marketing strategy recruits teachers, wins elections, and engages the community.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Why is marketing so important to your district?

In terms of student population, we're pretty well set. We have a lot of students who transfer in because their parents see us as a good alternative to where they live.

But more than that, we really have to market to recruit teachers. We want people who work in the education profession, in whatever capacity, to see Mid-Del as a desirable destination. We want them to see that this is a place with great kids, great support for the classroom, and great activities. We also partner with the Chambers of Commerce in our area and other entities to make sure that our employees also see this as a good option for where they live. Since our employees aren’t required to live in Mid-Del, we want to make sure that as many of them as possible feel like they should live here, that there is something for them and their families. We do everything we can to make this community a destination, whether for enrollment or employees or families.

So how do you market Mid-Del?

We’ve really stepped up social media as a point of emphasis over the last several years. Since before I even came to Mid-Del, I’ve been involved in state-wide education Twitter chats every Sunday night. Now more and more of our Mid-Del teachers and administrators have gotten involved in those chats as well. It’s really done a good job of branding our district as a progressive place for educators, where people with fresh ideas are welcomed and encouraged. We don’t try to put all of our employees in a box, or make them carbon copies of each other—we really try to bring out the best in what makes people unique and showcase that.

I’m also not afraid to let TV stations call us. When something newsworthy happens, even if we don’t like it, we give the story to the press and tell them exactly what’s happening, because it’s better than burying our heads in the sand. But then when there’s a positive story, or just a chance to talk about the education climate, those same reporters call us and want us to be on set. We’ve done a really good job reaching out to our community—finding people where they are.

You’ve had a lot of successful engagement with your #MDpurpose hashtag. Can you tell us about that?

We get caught up in words like “vision” and “mission” too much. If you read any leadership book out there, the definitions for those words have just become muddled. “Purpose” is a much more powerful word: identifying your core values and sticking to them. I think #MDpurpose truly captures who we are. The things that we’re posting are central to the purpose of the school district. When we’re championing our kids and our staff, that’s our purpose.

image showing tweet from Mid-Del news using the MD purpose hastag

It’s not just administration; teachers are posting the hashtag, too. How did you encourage them to post?

Over the last few years, we in the central office have emphasized getting out to our buildings and getting to know our staff. There are typically so many layers in a large school district between the superintendent and the teachers. The only way to bridge that gap is to get to our schools and talk to teachers as much as possible. When I do that, teachers start following me or other members of the central office staff on social media. Then they pick up that hashtag and post.

You’ve talked a bit already about marketing to attract teachers. How does Mid-Del recruit teachers differently than other districts?

First of all, I’m shameless. I will take any platform and any microphone to preach the gospel of Mid-Del Public Schools. I also teach adjunct classes for two universities—not for the money, because it doesn’t pay very well, but because it’s a platform to recruit people. I take any opportunity I have to talk face-to-face with people about what we do in Mid-Del and why this is a good place to teach or work. The face-to-face element is bigger than any other teacher recruitment tool.

Last year, you used video as a tool to market a major bond issue. Can you talk about the campaign and the process of marketing for the bond?

Marketing the bond was a year in the making before we even had one word on social media about it. It started with us going from school to school and asking faculty, “What are the physical needs of this building?” Even two years before that, we’d had a facilities study done by a company, but those are people walking through the building in a day or two. The people who have been in that building for 30 years know a lot more about it than some analyst. We spent a year having critical conversations with our people and our community leaders about establishing priorities, before we even took a bond resolution to our board.

Once we really started marketing, we put out 12 to 15 short videos talking about different bond projects our voters would be deciding on. Some of the videos were spurred by questions we were getting on Facebook. The timing of the bond was critical: having an October bond so that we could talk about it in faculty meetings and with parent-teacher associations. Again, that face-to-face impact, that’s where you find the people that actually go to the polls.

Lots of superintendents know video is important, but aren't sure where to start. Do you have any advice for developing a video strategy?

Have someone who is willing to look at you and say, “That wasn’t any good—let’s film that again.” Someone who’s brutally honest. I think that helps. Be clear about what you want to say, and be quick. People don’t necessarily want to listen to or watch anything that goes beyond 45 seconds. And just don’t take yourself too seriously. If you’re filming a video at a school, get on the swingset with the kids and see who can swing higher.

We noticed your #ThankYouVoters hashtag on Twitter after the bond passed. What made you decide to do that?

We have a very old fleet of buses, and one of the big bond initiatives was that over the next several years, we will be replacing every single bus we own. In August, the first fleet of new buses was out on the roads, picking kids up, and our transportation department put signs on the back of buses thanking the voters. Nobody over here asked them to do that.

image showing tweet from middelnews using the thank you voters hashtag

It’s been a year since the bond was passed, and on the one-year anniversary we started posting updates on where we are currently, just so voters can see the progress being made. Whether it’s our buses, our textbooks, the construction projects that we’re starting, the safe rooms—all of those things impact a lot of kids, and I think that our people are starting to see the differences. It’s been really easy to take pictures and show people, “Hey, you did this. Thank you for your vote."

You can follow Dr. Cobb on Twitter at @middelsupt.


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