Guest Column

Do Unto Others: A Roadmap for Communicating Well

by Beth S. McCullough

Success in the area of communication is as simple as abiding by the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

If you expect those with whom you communicate to be forthright, you must be as well. If you expect your e-mails and phone calls to be returned in a timely manner, promptly answer e-mails and phone calls you receive. If you expect staff members, parents and the community to accept your ideas and vision with open minds, do the same when they approach you. Winston Churchill said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

As a school communications professional for the last eight years, I frequently have the opportunity to sit back and observe others as they communicate. Over and over, I am struck by the differences in how people who are truly genuine are able to reach their audiences compared to those who have other motivations. Yes, some people can pull the proverbial wool over people’s eyes for awhile, but inevitably genuine outshines insincere.

This is especially true in the barrage of 21st-century communication to which we are accustomed. The general public has become much more communication savvy. A pro-active approach is essential. The object is to build trust, not to build doubt. Recently, I facilitated a workshop for site administrators and central-office staff that required participants to step out of their comfort zones to fully benefit from the training. I noted how the workshop presenter introduced himself to each participant as he or she entered the room. What did this simple gesture accomplish? It established a level of trust that became the foundation for the rest of the day.

Lead by Example
You obtained your position of leadership by having the qualities required for success. One key to good management is leading by example. I know two administrators whose offices are within 20 feet of each other, but because of past issues, they do not speak to each other. What example are they setting for the support staff whose desks sit between their offices? How does their lack of communication affect the office environment?

Of course, the answers to these questions are negative impacts.

Within a school or a central office, communicating with a unified voice is critical. Help your staff and colleagues learn how to strengthen the organization by providing them with communication training. The time invested will benefit the school district immensely.

My district holds annual crisis communication training for central-office administrators and principals. The training empowers administrators with skills to effectively handle the news media and teaches them how to communicate with stakeholders. Having a clear, concise message is a key to navigating complex issues.

By being pro-active and communicating with stakeholders, we have weathered the loss of students, personnel issues and controversies together. School staff, families, the community and the media know we will quickly respond to situations that arise and maintain lines of dependable communication.

Ounce of Prevention
“It should have never escalated to this point.”

How many times have situations come across our desks that cause us to shake our heads while uttering this remark? Probably too often. I, too, have been dismayed at not being called as the first inkling of a potentially explosive situation emerged.

Gut instinct goes a long way. As an administrator, you must learn to listen to that little voice inside that warns of things to come. Once you hear that voice, you should act on it. Sometimes acting simply means taking steps to prevent what seems to be a small situation from escalating into a major one. It may mean talking to those involved — students, teachers, parents, administrators or community members — to ensure communication is clear. Being sure proper procedure is followed and completing proper documentation are important in the event a questionable situation resurfaces at a subsequent date.

Even though situations may arise in the middle of a busy workday, do something now rather than later. Yes, this will require time and effort, but consider the costs that could be expended dealing with formal complaints and lawsuits down the road. Time spent by you to resolve a situation in its early stages is time well spent.

Mobilizing Quickly
Your school district, like mine, has likely been dealing with the severe effects of the economic downturn. During our annual budget preparation process, many stakeholders, particularly staff, had serious concerns about proposed cutbacks. I realized the extent of the concerns during a phone conversation with a principal the day after our first school board meeting about the budget.

Using our online resources, I took 30 minutes to answer her questions so she could discuss the budget situation with her staff that afternoon. I also went to another school faculty meeting that day and discussed the main budget points. The next morning our superintendent held a budget meeting with all principals.

These key stakeholders helped us explain aspects of the budget at the school level. Central-office staff on the “chopping block” took my suggestion and met with senior staff to get first-hand clarifications for their questions. No effort is too small or too insignificant when it comes to effective communication.

After years of dealing with critical situations, I have realized the single most defining factor in working through challenges is how those involved communicated. It starts with applying the Golden Rule.

Beth McCullough is the public information officer for Chatham County Schools in Pittsboro, N.C. E-mail: beth@chatham.k12.nc.us