A Closer Look at Communication Strategies for Passing School Referedumns

(Note: this is the second in a 10-part series on topics related to communication and successful school operating or bond referendum efforts that originally appeared on the Minnesota Association of School Administrators website. These posts are not meant to be an all-inclusive guide for school district leadership, but rather offer suggestions and guidance on school district referendum communication-related issues. All opinions expressed are my own.)

 

Determining which communications strategies to use in your referendum information campaign may be one of the most important decisions you make when developing your communications plan.

In public relations practice, communications strategies are generally defined as the overall concept, approach or plan that will be used to achieve a communication program’s goal. Typically, communication professionals write communication strategies that read like mini-goals (i.e. “enhance understanding and awareness about the district’s need for additional revenue” or “increase timeliness, frequency, transparency of information”). However, for districts that do not have a public relations / communications professional, it’s often useful to define a communications strategy as the approaches that will be used to communicate with your stakeholders and meet your objectives, which in turn will help you achieve your goals.

While strategies can range from electronic communications to face-to-face meetings, to paid or earned media, it’s essential that the strategies you choose are the ones that will best reach a specific target audience, with the information supporting that decision ideally determined through research.

For example, to get your message out to internal audiences, you might consider:

  • Electronic communications such as intranets, email messages and a dedicated referendum page on the district’s website will help employees better understand the hows and whys of the referendum from an internal perspective.  If you’re fond of technology, consider recording a weekly video blog (or vlog), posting it on You Tube or Vimeo and sending the link to employees.
  • Print communications such as short weekly referendum updates and fact sheets will be appreciated by internal audiences who prefer to receive information the old fashioned way: through their office mailboxes. Be sure to also distribute these in teacher’s lounges, staff lunch/breakrooms and other employee gathering areas.
  • Small group, face-to-face meetings. Schedule casual weekly brown bag lunches or coffees at each building, taking care to invite all staff members. Be sure to include school bus drivers, custodians, food service and other support employees, as they are often looked to as trusted sources for referendum information.

Of course, please remember that all communication is considered public and that your goal is to inform employees about the referendum, not advocate for its passage.

Variations of the same strategies can used to reach external audiences, as well as a few tried and true approaches.

  • Electronic communications. Regular email messages and e-newsletters can be sent to those community members who give their permission by signing up through your district’s website. Use these addresses thoughtfully and strategically: send too many and you risk irritating your audience. Send too little and you’ve missed out on reaching an engaged and interested audience. E-news providers such as Constant Contact or Mail Chimp are affordable ways to manage lists and mailings. It’s also a good idea to have a dedicated space on your district website devoted to referendum-related issues and information. Be sure to update often and consider offering an RSS feed so that your audiences can get fresh news delivered to their email inbox or RSS reader as soon as it is posted. Also make sure that your referendum fact sheets, frequently asked questions and other information materials are available for download as PDF files.
  • The question is not whether or not to use print communication, but how to use it most effectively. One mailing or several? Include information in a regular district publication or design a standalone piece? As each district is different, there is no one size fits all answer to this question.
  • Media relations can be a great strategy for delivering your district’s message. Guest authoring an op-ed (opinion/editorial) piece, writing letters to the editor and using community calendars are all effective ways to help you get the word out.
  • Meetings and events. Face to face meetings with businesses, chambers of commerce, residents and other stakeholders are one of the highest impact ways to communicate. These meetings can be big or small, formal or informal, held in auditoriums, coffee shops or in private homes (for neighborhood gatherings). Successful events often occur when an administrator is paired with a school board member, parent or other community member who can explain why audience members should support the referendum by voting yes. Also, if you are using Prezi, PowerPoint or another visual presentation, be sure to tailor your content to fit your audience: business leaders will have different interests that a group of senior citizens; parents of pre-school children different that empty nesters.
  • Social media can be a powerful communication strategy as it can reach an engaged and interested audience. If you’re not ready to dip into the social media pool, it should still be considered when creating a rapid referendum response plan to organized opposition.

Next week: Preparing materials for your information campaign

About robin

Robin Smothers, APR, is the driving force behind the public relations firm, RMSPR. Robin’s practice focuses on community initiatives, particularly education. Accredited by the Public Relations Society of America, Robin draws from more than 20 years of experience to develop award-winning public relations, communications and community engagement programs. Prior to founding RMSPR in 1999, Robin worked in agency, non-profit and corporate settings. Robin holds a M.P.A. in Community Engagement, a Certificate in Public Participation from the International Association of Public Participation, and a Certificate in Business Communication from the University of St. Thomas. She is past president of the Minnesota School Public Relations Association and past president of the Association for Women in Communication, Twin Cities chapter. Robin is a frequent author, speaker and presenter on topics such as PR2.0, community engagement and public relations. Contact Robin at robin@rmspr.com.

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