A key communicator network can be a valuable tool for a district that is interested in communicating with its community. The network becomes an established group of individuals who serve as consistent, strong links between the district and distinct groups of people. The people on your network can also help dispel rumors. Key communicator networks are typically led by the superintendent, but may involve the board president or other board designee.
The purpose of a key communicator network is to equip formal and informal community leaders with credible factual information and to help them develop a better understanding of the issues facing the community’s schools. As your key communicator network becomes established, the individuals involved become additional, credible voices in your school district. In turn, used properly, the school district has a regular source of input from the community representatives on important topics to help schools keep pulse on the community’s response to decisions, challenges, etc.
Who are the people who should be included in a key communicator network? Every community has formal leadership – people elected to positions such as mayors or town board members; and people who hold positions of status: such as CEOs of major companies, presidents of local colleges, etc. Every community also has informal leaders – people who have a long-standing reputation in your district as being a community leader and advocate. There are also people who are just well-connected – they seem to know everyone and are well respected. The following is a list of possible key communicators in your community.
- PTO/PTA leaders and members
- Senior citizen representatives
- Business leaders
- Chamber of Commerce representatives
- Parent representatives of home schooled children
- Day care representatives
- Health care representatives
- City government representatives
- Representatives of special populations
- Representatives of minority groups
- Parochial school representatives
- University representatives, if applicable
- And don’t forget, include those who do not agree with positions you have taken in the district—those dissenters who can provide valuable information to you
Just like any other relationship that you build, building a key communicator network will take time. An in-person invitation from your district to be a member of your network – a phone call or face-to-face meeting – is a must. It is tempting to save time and send out a blast e-mail. That is not how to get started on this initiative. Person-to-person is the most effective form of communication – even in today’s world of lightening speed message delivery systems – this effort deserves the time it takes to reach out and invite participation.
When you talk to these people in person, state your purpose: you are trying to provide an avenue to provide the community with more information about the schools and in turn, you need their help to keep a pulse on the community’s view of its schools.
Establishing the right tone is important from the beginning. Most individuals will politely listen, but they don’t want to feel manipulated. Of course, that isn’t the point. There will be all sorts of information to share – successes, needs and challenges. Importantly, be transparent from the start. If you are facing a major tax levy challenge right now, and you think the budget won’t get any easier later, tell them that this may be the initial information shared. But that’s not the only information you’ll share.
Throughout their involvement in the network, these people should feel free to give you honest feedback, so setting the right tone from the beginning is essential. We don’t want to be the emperor without any clothes on! The tone you set from the beginning and the tone you carry through is essential. Sometimes it’s what you don’t say that speaks volumes and they will know if you genuinely want their involvement or if you just want a mouthpiece. Remember, from the beginning that you want two-way communication.
Now that you have a group of communicators, what exactly do you do? What information do you provide – and how? That’s easy…give them the information you want to be communicated to the groups they represent and give them the information that they ask about – remember communication is a two-way process so giving and taking information is important.
For example, your priorities may be:
- budget information
- tax information
- negotiation information (both good and bad)
- new curriculum initiatives
Their questions may be:
- tax information, but also
- recent, news-making board of education decisions
- program changes that they don’t understand
- how students are working out in the work place, etc
To be most effective, build a system through which you not only give, but are open to receiving, and listening to, the ideas and questions on their minds, too.
Where do you communicate? Wherever they are willing to come! Meet them on their turf—
· service club meetings
· PTO/PTA meetings, etc.
- breakfast meetings, afternoon coffees, etc.
- in small groups
- in large groups
Once you make the commitment, set-up a strategy of how and when you will communication. Strategize how you will use multiple methods of communication.
For example, you decide to start in January. Perhaps you meet at the school library or another neutral place. The first meeting may be an organizational meeting when everyone comes together, introductions are made, etc. There you set the tone: explain your purpose, and let them talk, too. Provide information of value that demonstrates that you appreciate the time you are spending together. Create a real message – one that you want them to know and understand about a challenge you are facing. This will hook them from the beginning that this is worth their time. One of the agenda items is also to gather e-mail addresses and discuss how many times and when you will be communicating with them. Finally, leave time for questions and answers.
Maybe the February meeting will be electronic – you send an e-mail with a specific update, but also with a link to a survey asking them about key issues that they may be interested in learning more about. The third meeting is again face-to-face and maybe you ask one of them to host it, etc. The point isn’t that you have to always be leading with your ideas: Let the survey guide your agenda for March, and perhaps you agree to meet once a quarter, more if needed during budget season, etc. The topics should be of interest to them to keep them coming back.
When do you communicate with your network? Between quarterly meetings, you may have essential information to disseminate such as:
- during times of crisis to get the correct information in the hands of the community
- during times of referendum to disseminate necessary information
- during times of construction
- during budgeting periods
- during negotiations—both amiable and difficult
- when new programs are being discussed
- when there are safety issues
- when there are curriculum changes on the horizon
- when staff/students/district have earned awards or recognitions
Key Communicator Networks are a viable and valuable method for districts to communicate. They work because you have an established conduit of back-and-forth connections in your district. They take time, but they are an important tool in your communication toolkit that can serve your district well.
The above information was developed collaboratively with the Wisconsin School Public Relations Association.