November 3, 2015
Building a communications plan without research is much like trying to shoot fish in a barrel: You know your target is there, you’re just not sure where to aim.
Research should be the foundation for every communications plan. Surveys, focus groups, online discussions, and interviews with key influencers provide the information required to set goals and objectives, develop key messages, identify target audiences, and create effective communications strategies and tactics.
Information must be gathered from every group that could impact perceptions about your schools, including students, staff, parents, businesses, the media, and the community. Each targeted group should be surveyed about perceptions and attitudes concerning the schools, effective communications vehicles, desired frequency of communication, and message effectiveness.
Once the research is completed, the findings should be divided into the following categories:
- Negative attitudes and perceptions
- Positive attitudes and perceptions
- Desired communications vehicles, by group
- Message effectiveness
Negative attitudes and perceptions
List all of the negative attitudes and perceptions identified by research, prioritizing them in order of frequency. Note that it does not matter whether a perception is accurate, all that matters is that one of your publics perceives it. Rate each perception as critical, important, somewhat important, or least important.
For example, the two top misperceptions may be “Teachers in the district are poorly trained” and “The high school gym is not equipped to host multi-district sporting events.” If your publics believe your teachers are poorly trained, that could impact funding, budgeting, parental and community engagement, overall attendance, and teacher morale. Clearly, that is a critical concern. But a belief that the district needs a new high school gym might be labeled “somewhat important.”
Pull all of the critical concerns from your list, and prioritize them according to frequency of mention. The top three will become the subject of your communications plan. They should be targeted for “corrective messaging.”
Positive attitudes and perceptions
Follow the same process for positive perceptions. The top three should be targeted for “reinforcement messaging.”
Desired communications vehicles, by group
Ideally, each group will be asked how they receive information about the schools, as well as how they prefer to get information. For example, students may say they learn about school events through daily announcements or announcements on bulletin boards. But the majority may also say they would prefer to get that information through Facebook or Twitter. This information does not necessitate eliminating daily announcements or bulletin board posts, but it suggests that for some students, social media might be more effective.
It is also important to remember that there are three learning styles: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. One size does not fit all. A variety of tactics must be employed to ensure a single message is heard by everyone within a targeted group or groups. Try to identify at least one communications vehicle for each learning style.
The best method of determining appropriate messaging is by analyzing negative and positive attitudes and perceptions identified through research. Which perceptions or attitudes must be corrected? Which ones should be reinforced? This information provides the content for your key messages.
The identification of negatives and positives also provides the information required to effectively target messages. For example, if there is a perception among businesses that students are not adequately prepared to enter the workforce, a communications strategy for correcting that perception, directed at the business community, is essential. Similarly, if parents and students believe bullies are a problem in the schools, the district must develop a strategy to correct that perception among those populations.
Ideally, school populations are surveyed on an ongoing basis to ensure that a communications plan is working. Research not only identifies gaps in information and perceptions, it can also be used to assess the effectiveness of communications strategies and tactics. That ensures your district is hitting your communications targets with the right messages.