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The Role and Value of School Communicators

Author: NSPRA Staff/Saturday, December 16, 2023/Categories: News

While communication touches every aspect of a school system, it is common for communities to not fully understand the role and value of school communicators. The following points are provided to assist professional school communicators in having crucial conversations about their important work. 

Why does a school district need a professional communicator? 

Schools involve two of the most important resources for a community: its children and its tax dollars. That’s why most school systems invest in their ability to communicate with local stakeholders. Beyond the tactical duties of drafting newsletters, distributing media releases and coordinating events, school communicators serve as a critical conduit between school systems and community members on the topics they care about most. 

Highly effective school communicators are strategic thinkers who assess stakeholder needs and school situations to better engage in a two-way exchange of information that: 

  • Builds trust between a school system and its employees, families and wider community. 

  • Increases employee morale, job satisfaction and retention. 

  • Increases family and community members’ engagement in their local schools. 

What are the qualifications to be a professional school communicator? 

Professional school communicators most often hold a college degree in English, communications, public relations, journalism or educational instruction before assuming the role.  In a 2022 representative survey of members of the National School Public Relations Association, it was found that 53 percent of members have a bachelor’s degree and 39 percent have a master’s degree. Almost 10 percent also hold accreditation in public relations. 

What are the typical job titles of a school communicator? 

School communications as a professional field includes many different job positions. In smaller school systems, it is typical to have a generalist handling many communication responsibilities, while in larger school systems with larger workloads, it is common to have multi-person teams that include managers and staff with specialty areas.  

Common generalist titles include: 

  • Communications (or public information or public relations) specialist 

  • Public information officer 

Common management-level titles include: 

  • Director of communications (or public information or public relations) 
  • Chief communications officer 

Titles common for those in specialty areas include: 

  • Digital media specialist 

  • Social media manager 

  • Webmaster 

  • Videographer / Photographer 

What does a school communicator do? 

Among the most common responsibilities for school communication professionals are crisis communications (58 percent), external communications (52 percent), social media (48 percent), community relations and public engagement (44 percent), media relations (43 percent), website management (39 percent) and internal communications (36 percent), according to a 2022 representative survey of members of the National School Public Relations Association. These are the day-to-day types of responsibilities for a communications professional. 

But the ultimate impact of a school communicator is seen in building positive relationships and helping increase understanding between a school system and its stakeholders, including students and their families, school employees, residential taxpayers, local business owners, elected officials and more.  

These communicators may often share positive stories about local schools, but they also gather stakeholder feedback and coordinate listening efforts that inform district and school leaders’ decisions. During a crisis or other challenging situations, they ascertain the facts, offer guidance and ensure accurate, timely and appropriately transparent information is shared with those affected by the situation as well as with the media. They can provide training, tools and resources for other school employees to help them communicate more clearly, accurately and engagingly with families, fellow employees and the public. The majority of school communicators are members of their school system’s cabinet or leadership team, and in that role, offer advice about communications on school initiatives that will strengthen relationships and understanding. 

How common is it for a school district to have a school communicator position? 

All school systems have staff who communicate, but many also have a formal position to handle official district communications. The National School Public Relations Association has supported school communicators throughout the United States and Canada since its founding in 1935. Among NSPRA’s more than 2,800 members today, the large majority are employed by a school system (81 percent) or an educational service agency (10 percent).  

How many communications staff does a district usually have? 

Small school systems with an enrollment of fewer than 10,000 students tend to have 2-4 communications staff. Many medium-sized school systems of 10,000 – 25,000 students have teams of between 2-7. Meanwhile, systems with 25,000 to 75,000 students often have as many as 8-15 communications staff. Districts with more than 75,000 students most commonly have teams of 15 or more, all according to a 2022 representative survey of members of the National School Public Relations Association. 

While it is true that larger school systems with more stakeholders and more revenue tend to have more communications staff, actual staffing levels should be based on the level of a school community’s expectations for clear, consistent and regular information about their local schools.  

How much does a school district typically spend on communications? 

Much like with staffing, larger school systems with more stakeholders and more revenue tend to budget more for communications. Generally, though, school systems designate about a half percent of their annual operating budget to communications, according to a 2022 representative survey of members of the National School Public Relations Association. 

A variety of factors affect salary ranges for professional school communicators such as the extent of the position’s responsibilities, the cost of living around a school system’s location, the size of the school system, the available supply of qualified candidates and an individual candidate’s educational background and level of experience. Not accounting for those differences, many school communicators earn more than $100,000 a year (41 percent), and a similar number earn between $60,000 and $99,000 (45 percent), according to a 2022 representative survey of members of the National School Public Relations Association. 

How does communications relate to public relations, marketing and community engagement? Is it all the same thing?

Communicating is simply sharing information, but true public relations professionals engage in two-way communication: both sending out information and also receiving it back from others. At times, communications and public relations professionals will use their skills at sharing information to engage community members in conversations, special events and school activities.  

Marketing, however, is a very different discipline that focuses on selling a product or service to someone. Professional school communicators may sometimes engage in marketing activities to promote enrollment in a specific school or to promote job opportunities, but that does not necessarily make them marketers. 

Visit https://www.nspra.org/About-Us to learn more about the National School Public Relations Association and school communicators. 

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