Communication Matters: Leading Your District Through This Pandemic

Lesley Bruinton, APR
Lesley Bruinton, APR

Let’s face it: there is no rule book for these times. As district leaders, the eyes of the community are upon you and the decisions you make in the age of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Whether this has been on your radar since late January or more recently, it is crucial to your leadership that you keep calm and communicate.

As a superintendent you are, by now, acutely aware that your decisions have ramifications upon the community-at-large. A school closure means that students may not get a meal, parents are worried about maintaining a job because they need to care for children at home, and a business owner is concerned about the long-term health of their investment because employees may not be there.

What you and your district are doing matters, now more than ever.

Beyond the decisions you are making comes the need to communicate them. Now is not the time to worry if you do not have a school public relations practitioner on staff. Be more concerned with your communications practices during these times. In the meantime, the National School Public Relations Association has many ready-made resources you can use now.

Fill the Information Void

Whatever your mode of communication, keep it up...and dial it up! Consistency is key here. If you tweet, commit to tweeting at regular intervals. If your district uses Facebook primarily, post your COVID-19 information at the same time daily. If you favor using the automated phone system to call families, do it daily — but keep it brief! This is time to show, not tell, what you are doing. The consistency will pay dividends for you as people are looking to the district’s voice to help them understand what’s next.

Are you a camera-shy superintendent who delegates the communication to your school PR practitioner? Stop. Your community needs to see and hear your leadership during this unprecedented crisis. Your communications professional can help by designing a communication strategy that reflects your personality and your community’s desire for information.

Differentiation of Communication

Just as your teachers differentiate instruction for students, now is the time for you to differentiate your communication for various stakeholder groups. In short, not everyone receives the same messages, but messages are tailored for the audience. For example, meal service may be critical information for families, but employee paychecks might not be.

It’s Okay to Not Have All the Answers

It bears repeating: this situation is unprecedented and you likely will not have all the answers (or maybe any). Many of your decisions may be foreshadowed by ones from the governor, state superintendent, state health officer or even the mayor. Commit to sharing what you can, when you can with your stakeholders. Your clear, consistent and candid communication will be vital in building and maintaining trust with your stakeholders during these times.

Whichever approach you take, remember that you will always have another chance to communicate: keep messages short and to the point. Remember, families and employees, are juggling a lot on the homefront and may not have the time or bandwidth to process lengthy messages from the district. This is why calm consistency matters.

 

Lesley Bruinton, APR, is the public relations coordinator of Tuscaloosa City (Ala.) Schools, and president-elect of NSPRA’s executive board. You can reach her at lbruinto@tusc.k12.al.us.