The Case for Comms Directors

Why your district needs communications professionals

By Melissa Hite Last Updated: April 23, 2024

At this point, you know a strong communications strategy is crucial for a successful school district. (If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be reading this magazine.) But as a superintendent, you may be trying to squeeze communications into a teacher or staff member’s already long list of priorities. You may even be trying to handle it all yourself. 

We get it. Money is tight; hiring a new central office staff member is a big investment. And as the school leader, you should be involved in your district’s branding and communications strategies. But you don’t have to go it alone—and in fact, we believe the benefits of hiring a full-time school communicator far outweigh the costs. Here are a few reasons why schools need public relations professionals.

School communications professionals
save you time and stress.

In AASA’s most recent Decennial Study on the American Superintendent, released in 2020, superintendents ranked “job-related stress” as the most pressing problem they faced in their positions. Only 8% of those surveyed said they felt “little to no stress”; 56% felt “very great or considerable stress.” And that was before the onset of COVID-19. More recently, a 2023 survey from nonprofit think tank RAND Corp found that school superintendents were more than twice as likely as other working adults to report job-related stress. In that report, nearly 80% of the school leaders surveyed said work was “often” or “always” stressful. We’re sure none of these numbers surprise you.

Happy ghost with a

All that stress seems to come, at least in part, from the myriad demands on a superintendent’s time. In the Decennial Study, “excessive time requirements” ranked second among school leaders’ most pressing problems. “For the superintendent, the position is a 24-hour-a-day job,” write the study’s authors. “The challenges and the demands upon time are never-ending.” 

Faced with all those challenges, are superintendents actually spending their time on the issues they’d like to? It would seem not. When asked which issues consume the bulk of their time, school leaders cited “school-community relations” in the top five—above “school reform/improvement,” “curriculum/instructional issues,” and “educational equity/diversity.” However, when asked which skills they would like to improve, 30% of superintendents listed “school reform/improvement,” and 26% answered “curriculum/instructional issues.” Furthermore, only 34% rated themselves “very effective” in handling diversity issues. It seems that superintendents want to improve in areas that they simply don’t have time to focus on.

Communications issues are no doubt important and no doubt time-consuming. But just as important (if not more so!) are concerns about academic rigor, continuous improvement, and equity. You can’t do it all, and trying to do so might be destroying your mental health and work-life balance. So why not bring in some expert help in the form of a communications professional? 

School communications professionals
are becoming more common.

At one point in the not-so-distant past, having a dedicated school PR professional was generally seen as a luxury, something only the very largest districts could justify. However, this is no longer the case. The field of school communications is growing—and if your district doesn’t have a school communicator in its ranks, you may be at a disadvantage.

Need proof? Take a look at the growth seen by the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA), the country’s leading organization for school comms professionals. Just since 2020, they’ve seen a 51% increase in membership, gaining nearly 1,000 new members. Also telling is what kind of districts those members are working for. In their 2022 Profile of a School Communicator report, NSPRA found that 10% of those surveyed worked for a district with an enrollment of fewer than 2,000 students. This is the highest percentage of school comms pros working in districts this size since 2009, when overall membership was significantly lower. “It could be reasonable to consider one such factor of this shift to be that smaller school districts that did not previously have a communications-specific position added one over the last two years,” the report speculates.

This shift isn’t exactly a surprise, either; after all, in the last four years, we’ve gone through a global pandemic that necessitated clear and consistent communication. Now more than ever, people are seeing how critical it is to have a school communicator on their team. No matter the size of your district, your peers are hiring communications professionals, maybe even more than one—and they’re reaping the benefits. You can’t afford to be left behind.

School communications professionals
offer a different perspective.

As a leader, you already know the value of listening to multiple viewpoints. It’s why you survey your community before building a bond campaign or bring families together to collaborate on your district’s Profile of a Graduate. You are only one person, with a limited perspective and your own built-in cognitive biases. The more diversity your team includes, the better solutions and strategies it will generate.

But what does this have to do with school PR professionals? School comms pros often provide a different perspective than superintendents, whether due to their age, gender, or professional background.

Age, Gender, and Diversity

You’re probably well aware that even though it has been slowly diversifying over the years, the superintendency is still dominated by men. Research conducted by Dr. Rachel S. White at the Superintendent Lab found that during the 2023-24 school year, 71% of all superintendents were male. The position is also fairly uniform in terms of age; according to a 2024 survey from AASA, more than 85% were between 40 and 60 years old. Only 4% of those surveyed were under 40.

But according to our recent survey, conducted in partnership with NSPRA, most school comms professionals—76%—are women. Comms directors are much more diverse in age as well. Our research found that more than one-quarter of school communicators are under 40, and in fact, 6% of those surveyed were in their 20s.

Confused, and Overwhelmed

These differences matter. Research has shown that diverse teams—as opposed to homogeneous ones—come up with more innovative ideas and identify the flaws in a plan more readily. What’s more, the presence of women on a team greatly improves collaboration, regardless of what role they play. 

We’re not suggesting that by hiring a comms professional, you will automatically have solved diversity issues in your central office staff or cabinet. Though both positions are slowly diversifying over time, both superintendents and school communicators are still overwhelmingly white. As you look at your executive team, you should always be considering which perspectives are represented there and which ones aren’t.

Of course, these numbers are generalizations, and they don’t represent reality for every district. But the odds are decent that if you hire a comms professional, they’ll be different from you in some major way—and the more perspectives you have on your team, the better your collective decision-making will be. Adding a school PR professional is just one way to add another crucial, unique perspective.

Professional Background

No matter what path they took to the superintendency, nearly all school leaders have one thing in common: They’re education insiders. Even if you’re in your first year in the role, you probably spent years (if not decades) teaching or coaching before moving into administration—and just about everyone in your cabinet likely did the same.

Communications professionals, though, are different. Many of them are—or at least were—education outsiders. In our recent survey, we found that 42% of current school comms professionals worked in public relations or marketing outside of schools prior to their current roles. About a quarter had worked as reporters or journalists before joining their current districts. 

This means that a school communications professional will likely know a lot more about public relations and marketing than you do. They’ll bring outside expertise to the table—whether it’s knowledge of the latest trends in private sector marketing or insight into the types of stories reporters are looking for. A former journalist, for example, will know the best ways to pitch positive school stories to your local news—because they’ll know what would have piqued their interest when they were on the beat. 

As education outsiders, comms professionals also act as a bridge between you and your larger community. Remember: Many of your parents, families, and community members are education outsiders as well. A comms pro with a non-education background can help you cut out any "eduspeak” and translate your messaging to appeal to a broader audience. It’s true—you or someone in your central office might be able to develop the skills necessary to handle communications competently. But you’ll never have the unique viewpoint of an education outsider.

School communications professionals
are a good investment.

We haven’t been living under a rock—we know this is a tough time for schools financially. As ESSER funds run out and student enrollment declines nationwide, you may be looking to save money wherever you can. Maybe you did hire a school communicator with pandemic relief funding, and you’re now wondering if it’s worth it to find the money elsewhere. Whatever your situation, we believe it’s well worth the investment to hire (or keep) a comms professional.

Confused, and Overwhelmed

Here’s the thing: The work of school communications has to be done. It’s nonnegotiable. Just think what would happen if your district suddenly went dark on social media, stopped sending out any updates, and quit responding to incoming messages from families or the media. Your community’s trust in your schools would implode overnight. Whatever your district’s financial situation, you have to keep communicating; the question is on whose shoulders that massive responsibility will fall. 

Imagine you’re a restaurateur looking to hire a chef. You’re strapped for cash, but opening a restaurant without any food is not an option. You could hire a professional with experience working in successful restaurants, or you could hire your neighbor Jeff, who volunteered to do it as a side gig. Jeff is a decent home cook, and he’d definitely be cheaper than a pro—so he’ll do, right?

When we frame it this way, it sounds ridiculous, but that’s the reality for a lot of districts when it comes to school comms. Instead of investing in a professional, districts cram school communications onto a staff member’s already long list of responsibilities and hope for the best. But no matter how competent they are, a stipended employee probably won’t have the expertise or the capacity of a full-time school communicator. 

The truth is that a skilled comms professional costs more because they can do more. They can help you shape your brand; prepare you to communicate during crises; recruit teachers and classified staff; and even boost your finances through successful bond votes and enrollment campaigns. Just like a five-star chef attracts diners to a restaurant, an effective school comms professional can actually help you generate funding for your district. Why wouldn’t you make that investment?

We realize that you, the superintendent, may be handling communications yourself—but you won’t be as effective as a professional, either. As we’ve already seen, you have way too much on your plate. Of course, we’re not saying that you should hire a communications director and then divest yourself of all comms concerns and responsibilities. To be successful, a comms professional will need to work in partnership with you to keep your marketing and comms strategies aligned with your overarching district goals. 

You can’t walk away from school communications completely—but you also don’t have to do it alone. Leave the heavy lifting to the experts. Hire a school communicator.

Confused, and Overwhelmed

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