Focus

Electronic Strategies to Manage Key Relationships

by NORA CARR

Relationship management is one of the most challenging and critical aspects of any superintendent’s job.


Yet under today’s 24-7 media microscope, where the stakes for school leaders have never been higher, how does one person—or a cabinet of several district administrators—manage all of the relationships that ultimately will make or break his or her ability to get the job done?

While research shows that face-to-face interaction remains the preferred and most effective way to communicate, most superintendents simply don’t have enough hours in the day (and evening) to meet with everyone who wants a slice of their time.

That’s where electronic public relations comes in. By capturing contact information for school board members, PTA presidents, business partners, top real estate agents, faith leaders and other community opinion leaders in a relational database, superintendents can reach key constituents quickly, easily and cheaply with important news and information.

For example, say you’ve just learned that the state is going to identify one of your most challenged schools as low performing under the No Child Left Behind regulations and you have less than 24 hours to respond.

The context missing from the state’s report is that you’ve already installed a new school leader, strengthened the reading curriculum and moved five of your best teachers to the troubled school. Test scores, while still low, have risen significantly since last year. In other words, you’re on top of the issue and have strategies in place that are working.

Constituent Buy-In
So how do you fend off the inevitable parent and community outcry, political hyperbole and media frenzy? Your best chance to frame the issue appropriately is to simply get there first with what the problem is, what you’re doing about it, why it’s working and how you need parents and the community to step up and shoulder their fair share of the burden.

Speed is of the essence, however, and before you host a press conference you want to make sure you’ve reached and gotten the buy-in of school board members, key central-office administrators, the principal, teacher leaders (both formal and informal), parent leaders, political leaders, business partners and other community decision makers, the top-selling Realtors for that area and others whose opinions matter to your school district success.

If all of these key constituents already are plugged into your database, you can have your public information officer or another key staff member draft a short, pithy e-mail outlining the issue and your position while you’re phoning your school board members and principal. As soon as the board signs off and the key internal folks are notified, check the message one more time for tone and accuracy and then let it rip.

We used this technique with great success in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., district as we strove to keep our closest friends up to date on everything from the record number of students earning National Merit scholarships to the latest turns of our desegregation court case and the changing face of our districtwide choice plan.

When we received word that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear our case, we were able to notify all of our key audiences, including the news media, and send lawyer-approved message points to all principals and teachers in less than 30 minutes, beating the Charlotte Observer and every news station in town. At the same time, the news also was posted on our Intranet and on our external website and announced on our cable television station. A press conference was held later in the day after the board of education discussed next steps.

While most of the communications were sent from the superintendent, we also used e-mail to communicate messages from the school board chair, deputy superintendent and other administrators.

A simple reporting function built into the software (we used an off-the-shelf program called ACT) allowed us to quickly see what groups and individuals we were communicating with, on what dates and on what topics.

To our chagrin, six months into our first year of electronic communications, we discovered we had neglected our business community, especially top executives. Thanks to the insight our tracking system gave us, however, we were able to quickly regroup with these important community stakeholders.

At Cooperating School Districts, an educational consortium of 61 school districts in the St. Louis area, we used the same technique to alert superintendents regarding state legislative issues and advertise staff development offerings for teachers and principals. CSD also created an innovative website to recruit new teachers by streamlining and simplifying the application process. Now, thanks to this unique program called Missouri REAP (http://www.moreap.net/), teachers may apply at all participating districts by filing only one online set of credentials.

Originally designed for St. Louis-area school systems, the program now has expanded to 15 states, saving districts time and money by reducing paperwork and streamlining the application process. A new national site is in the works. The average annual fee is $750 per year.

Interactive Resources
In another application, administrators in Jefferson County, Colo., Public Schools use electronic communication to keep their fingers on the pulse of their community, posting interactive surveys on the district’s website and deploying interactive voice-response technology to conduct large-scale telephone surveys.

The voice technology is quite simple to use. The district simply e-mails or mails an invitation to participate in the survey, listing a toll-free number. Parents, taxpayers, teachers and others dial the number and punch in the answers using the dial pads on their touch-tone phones. Software logs each call and can post the results instantaneously on the district’s website or on a password-secured site if the district wants to analyze the results before making them public.

Charlotte-Mecklenberg used voice technology and web-based technologies successfully as part of its choice plan application process in 2001 when two-thirds of all parents chose to enter their school selections for their children either online or via the telephone. Paper applications also were entered daily, enabling district administrators to view real-time districtwide results. The results, which were broken down by school level, free and reduced lunch status and other key factors, were used to track and adjust marketing and communication strategies.

Most districts have a fair amount of communications firepower at their fingertips. By tying together a relational database, e-mail, electronic newsletters, cable television, telecommunications and the Internet to convey their key message points, administrators can communicate effectively and regularly with a broad range of individuals and constituencies.

Nora Carr, former assistant superintendent for public information for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., district, is senior vice president and director of public relations for Luquire George Andrews, 4201 Congress, Charlotte, NC 28209. E-mail: carr@lga-advertising.com