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Robin Smothers, 763-370-7347 or

How PR2.0 and social media can help your efforts be successful

Note: this is the sixth 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.)

I find the tools and channels of PR2.0 exciting, extremely useful and full of potential. However, based on the feedback I get from most superintendents and many school communication professionals, I may be alone in those feelings!

I do understand why. The way we communicate with our stakeholders is changing, and change can be hard. Especially when the change removes a communication wall or buffer that has been in place for years. But before you write off using PR2.0 tools to support your referendum communications efforts, consider the following tips:

  1. If you do not already have a presence on Twitter, Facebook or You Tube/Vimeo, you may want to wait until after November 8 to launch one.
  2. If you do have a presence, consider setting up a separate account for your referendum-related communications. This is especially useful for Facebook accounts as it allows any heated commentary to be contained in one spot.
  3. Do not remove negative comments unless they violate your policies. Instead, use the social space to correct misinformation or to acknowledge differences in opinion. If comments are no longer productive, it is acceptable to inform readers and fans that you are closing comments on that subject. The same rule applies to comments on your district blogs.
  4. Set up a listening dashboard or Google alert so you are aware of online conversations regarding your referendum efforts. This can help you identify upcoming issues and determine which Frequently Asked Questions to include on your website or Facebook page.
  5. Don’t bother commenting or responding to comments found on other external blog posts. It’s kind of like picking a fight with a newspaper: you’ll never get the last word. Instead, monitor what is being said and address any meaningful issues (or correct misinformation) in your blog or on your Facebook page.
  6. Consider recording a weekly video log (Vlog) or recording a Podcast about the good things happening in your district. Speak naturally and without a formal script, but be sure that you get your point across. Also, include interviews with students, staff or community members with their comments about the effort. Remember however, that you are always informing and not advocating. Post videos to YouTube or Vimeo (disable comment feature). Post Podcasts to iTunes podcast library. Share video and podcast links on your Facebook referendum page and website. (Note: many laptops now include a built-in camera for easy recording. A Flip video camera is another inexpensive option.)
  7. Don’t just post a news release or article to your website AND Facebook AND Tweet a link to it. Think about how you might use the same information in three to four different ways. Can you revise or adjust the headline and tweak the text by adding some new information?
  8. Use SlideShare to share PowerPoint presentations, especially those that are too large to send via email (SlideShare accounts are free).
  9. Make it easy for community members to contact you with any questions they may have. Set up a email specifically for referendum questions, and respond within 24 hours. Be sure to respond to comments left on Facebook as soon as possible
  10. Be prepared for negativity and criticism but remember, every interaction is an opportunity to get your message out!


Next week: Three weeks to E-Day. How’s your plan doing?

Tweaking Your Plan and Handling opposition: using the referendum to make deposits in the bank of “goodwill”

Note: this is the seventh 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.)

The Tweak’s the Thing

With Election Day less than three weeks away, it’s time to check in on your communications plan. Here are a few questions to help you determine what plan components may need to be changed or reworked:

Are your messages clear?

Do community members seem to understand what you are asking for – and why you are asking for it? Do they understand the need and rationale behind the ballot question? How you plan to allocate the revenue? If not, go back and review your messages. Are they clear? Do they answer the “who, what, where and why questions”? If not, refine your key messages and talking points and use those for the final few weeks.

Are your messages consistent?

Although you may need different secondary messages for different audiences (think seniors versus parents of preschoolers), your overarching messages should always be consistent and should be included in all your referendum materials.

It’s also very easy to get sidetracked and knocked “off message” by opponents. A tactic often used by opposition is to try and get the conversation moved away from schools and students to something that is much more controversial – like tax rates or wasteful government spending. While it is all right to acknowledge these issues, don’t be drawn into a discussion that will take you away from your core message.

Are your messages reaching your community?

One of the most frustrating things in running a referendum campaign is thinking your are getting your message out to all corners of your district – and then finding out you are not. (Note: when I was a tri-chair of the Robbinsdale Area Schools Vote Yes committee, I remember speaking with a parent in the district a few days before the election who was unaware of our referendum effort, even through we had saturated the district with mailings, rallies, neighborhood coffees, yard signs and more. When I asked where she got her news, she said she “really didn’t pay attention to news.”)

The best way to determine reach is to ask. Go to a local community center, coffee shop or community event and ask people what they know about the referendum. Are community members aware of the upcoming vote? Is their information accurate?

Dealing with Opposition

Here’s the thing: you’re never going to have 100 % support for your levy effort. Somewhere in your community, there are people who will always oppose additional funding. They may feel that too much money is already being poured into public education or that education should be privatized. Even some strong supporters of public education may vote no to increased taxes.

Whether the “Vote No” groups’ efforts are well organized and well funded or consist of a single but vocal disgruntled community member, how you deal with them can actually help you build trust and respect, even among those who disagree with you. A few guidelines to consider:

  • Monitor their efforts. Rather than pretend that they don’t exist, monitor you’re your opposition is saying. Any kernels of truth in their message should be noted and – if appropriate – addressed in a FAQ sheet, blog post or other communication. This is especially important if the message resonates with voters and is picking up steam.
  • Don’t get caught up in the details. Rather than argue or refute a seemingly small issue detail-by-detail, stick with your main message and offer community members a place (web page, article, report, etc.) where they can find all the information they need.
  • Take the high road. Sometimes opponents just want to engage district leaders in a verbal brawl. They’ll use every trick in the book to get you to lose your temper or publically dismiss them as nuts. Don’t take the bait. As difficult as it may be, taking the high road will always pay off in the end. (And, if a brawler if truly needed, find a supportive community member willing to take on that role.)
  • Admit when you’re stumped. As hard as it may be to acknowledge, there are some things that you may not know about the district— and that’s ok (you are only human, after all). Rather than give an evasive or inaccurate answer, it is perfectly acceptable to say you don’t know, but that you’ll find out and get back to whomever you’re speaking with. Of course, you then need to do just that.
  • If all else fails, agree to disagree, smile and move on.


Next week: Get Out the Vote Efforts.

The Importance of Internal Communications

Note: this is the fourth 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.)


Photo by freefotouk. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License.


Perhaps more than any other industry or business, public education depends on its employees to be the stewards of its brand. Think about it: day after day, front office staff, bus drivers, custodians, food service personnel and teachers, interact with parents, students and other community members on your district’s behalf.

So why then are employees often viewed as the red-headed stepchild of the communications family?

When it comes to referendum communications, it’s important to not only include internal audiences in your communications plan, but to give them a top-tier status. The following tips will help you do just that:

Ensure that staff gets their information from the district first. Outside of your school board and cabinet members, your staff should be the first to hear district news. Keeping them in the loop and having them hear information from your (as opposed to the local news) builds trust and goodwill that cannot be built elsewhere.

Provide regular updates through a variety of channels. Plan to update your employees no less than once a week. Even if the message is “everything is moving along as planned,” it is important to maintain regular communication. Also, don’t assume that your district intranet will reach all employees.  Consider using a mix of electronic and print communications, telephone messages, and face-to-face communication to update staff. If you are comfortable with technology, consider recording and sharing a video blog (vlog).

Be present and reach your employees where they live. One of my favorite management techniques is “Management By Walking Around.” Adapting this technique for referendum communications is really nothing more than making sure you are physically present in the places where your employees work or gather. That means regularly visiting the staff break room, bus garage, kitchen/cafeteria, preschool/afterschool facilities and custodian area.

Remember, nothing builds relationships more effectively than face-to-face interaction.

Ask and answer questions. Employees can be a good bellwether as to how your community is feeling. They can also help you determine if your messages are getting through. Talk with them. Ask them what they are hearing and if they have any questions about the referendum. Chances are good that if your employees have questions or concerns, others in your community have the same questions.

Treat staff as though they are your best customers. Close your eyes and visualize how you’d like to be treated the next time you visit your favorite store or restaurant. Perhaps you’re greeted by name, shown to the best table. Maybe the chef would prepare a unique dish made especially for you. Perhaps the clerk would bring out some special items from the back room selected for you. Maybe you’d receive special offers or advance notices only available to the best customers. Imagine how special you’d feel and how you might sing that establishment’s praises to your family and friends.

While certainly not an apples-to-apples comparison, imagine if your employees felt the same way about your district’s communications efforts. Remember, if they live in the district (and even if they don’t), your staff is out talking with your neighbors, parents and other community members about your efforts. Even if they don’t support the referendum itself, providing employees with accurate, timely, and relevant information can help them be supporters of the district as a whole.

Next week: How PR2.0 and social media can help your efforts be successful


Preparing Referendum Materials

Note: this is the third 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.)



Unless you’ve perfected the art of cloning, you can’t possibly be in as many places as you need to be to address all of your community’s referendum-related questions. Thank goodness that well prepared referendum support materials can help!

There is no one-size-fits-all approach for materials. You can prepare as many – or as few – materials as fits your community’s need (remembering, of course, to adhere to state and local election laws). However, as you create your communications plan and determine what materials you will prepare, keep in mind the following suggestions:

  • Set a goal of weekly updates. Remember: it is almost impossible to over-communicate during a referendum.
  • Create both broad and audience specific materials, making sure all include relevant broad and/or targeted messages. Note: It is vital that these messages be based on research / community input and address the interests and concerns of each stakeholder group. Groups may include district staff (current and retired), parents of current students, alumni / alumni parents, pre-school parents, senior citizens, business owners, and community groups, just to name a few.
  • Tie your messages and materials to student achievement and impact on the classroom. Telling voters that the district will have to cut $4 million means more when put in terms of the number of teachers or staff positions it represents.
  • Create materials that answer every conceivable question a community member might have regarding the referendum. Proactively answer the “Five Ws and One H of Journalism” (who, what, why, when, where and how).
  • Use charts and graphs to visualize financial information and numbers. Use stories and quotes to humanize and localize your efforts. Annotate and source all your facts.
  • For electronic communications, offer a synopsis with a link back to your website for deeper explanation.
  • Post all materials on your website for download. Save as PDF files rather than Word documents (which are easier to alter).
  • Be consistent in the look and feel of your materials.
  • Consider a sentence-by-sentence breakdown and explanation of the actual ballot language.
  • While you may not be able to advocate for the referendum’s passage, you can encourage community members to get out and vote.
  • Finally, don’t expect community members to come to you for information. It’s up to you to get the information out to your community.

Next week: The importance of internal communication


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

5 Things to Do Now to Prepare for a Successful Referendum

(Note: the following is the first in a series of posts written for 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.)

If you are one of the more than 132 Minnesota school districts going out for levy or bond referendums this fall, you’ve probably already done your research and planning, and are knee-deep into the execution of your communications plan. But if not, don’t worry: you still have time—just not a lot of it.

To help you along, here are five things you should be doing now to prepare for your referendum:

1. Get an idea of how your community is feeling.

It is extremely important that district leadership have a good idea of their communities’ attitude towards a referendum. Is there strong support or just a moderate level?  Is there opposition or ambivalence? Do community members understand why you are asking them for their support?

Several options exist for gathering this essential research:

  • Professional research firms can create and execute scientific random sample surveys, but these can be cost prohibitive for smaller districts.
  • Another option is to hold several focus groups / group interviews and ask questions about the issue. Whether these groups are professionally facilitated or lead by district employees or community volunteers, it is important that they include a wide variety of stakeholders: parents, non-parents, seniors, elected officials, business leaders and employees just to name a few.
  • The least effective — but still useful — method of research is what I call RBWA: research by walking around. If you can’t pull together a formal focus group, try to gather information from simply talking to community members. Again, try to talk to as wide a group of community members as possible.

2.  Select a leadership strategy.

For planning purposes, it’s important to determine early on if the effort will be administration or community led. While both can be effective, the research gathered above can help you determine which approach will be the best fit for your community for this year’s referendum.

3. Develop a communications plan.

One your strategy is set, you can develop your communications plan. While communications plans can vary in size, detail and format, the best plans include the following components:

  • Goals and objectives. Obviously the goal is to ensure that stakeholders have enough information to support (and pass) the referendum. But the way to achieve that goal to identify and implement measurable objectives into your plan.
  • Audience and stakeholder identification. Audiences are the ones who will help you meet goals and objectives, so they are the groups that you will gear your messaging towards (see next point).  As the direct recipients of district-related messages, your audience’s demographics, their concerns, likes and dislikes, and how they get information will determine what communication strategy to use. Stakeholders represent groups with a vested interest in the referendum. These groups often include key influencers who are not district residents but whose support can be critical to a successful referendum effort. They may include elected officials / policy makers, business leaders, and some district staff.  When identifying members of both groups, be as specific as possible (i.e. not just “parents,” but parents of pre-schoolers, parents of elementary students, etc.).
  • Key messages. Key messages are the core message(s) you want your target audiences to hear and remember. They should be included in all of your referendum communications. Key messages create meaning and context for the issue and should answer the “who, what, where and whys” of your referendum efforts. As tempting as it might be to address all of the issues within your district, try to keep your messages referendum-specific and limited to no more than five.
  • Communications strategy. As mentioned above, your audience and stakeholders’ preferences will drive much of the strategy. Strategies could include electronic communication, print communication, earned media or outreach and events.
  • Implementation timeline. A timeline can be created as an Excel worksheet. It should include what needs to be done when, which audiences/stakeholder group it targets and who owns the task.
  • Evaluation. Chances are good that either you – or future district leadership – will hold another referendum. Keeping notes as to what worked, what didn’t and why can be very helpful to future efforts.

4.  Align with a “Vote Yes” community group.

While your mission may be limited to informing the community about the referendum, partnering with a group who can advocate for its passage can lead to powerful and successful outcomes.

5. Prepare for opposition.

Whether it’s a few community members acting independently or a full-blown, organized and well-funded group, chances are good there will be opposition to your district’s referendum. Rather than be reactive, it’s best to determine how you’ll respond to criticisms, exaggerations and outright lies. (MASA’s Rapid Referendum Response booklet has lots of good information on this topic.) However, as you contemplate how you’ll respond, remember while that chances are good that you won’t win over everyone’s vote, every interaction with a community member brings the opportunity to win respect and goodwill.

Finally, consider attending the MinnSPRA referendum communications workshop on September 9. The date of this seminar marks eight weeks to Election Day and this nuts-and-bolts workshop will provide useful information and practical tools for the closing weeks of your referendum information campaigns. Visit for more information and to register.

Next week: A closer look at communication strategies.

Supporting documents for MSBA “Communications on a Shoestring”

Thanks for coming to today’s Communication on a Shoestring workshop. Below are the files mentioned in the presentation.

Comm Shoestring – Wksht Audiences

Comm Shoestring – Wksht Content Analysis

Comm Shoestring – Wksht Key Messages