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Communicating Your District's Image

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Does your message reflect your values? Whose job is it to manage that message? How does one decide how that message is communicated?  School districts' messages are elusive and yet are long standing.  Reputations are established and take on a life of their own, passed down through generations even.  A school district that was once a bastion of outstandingly talented teachers and exceptionally motivated students with a solid budget and stable leadership and faculty 20 years ago maintains that reputation even if it is no longer true. So the good news for a district like that is the standing reputation fortifies the district image. Districts that were once "lighthouse" districts can become complacent but still be perceived to be at the top of performance or at the cutting edge of education. But what if the opposite were true? What about schools that have average reputations or damaged bad ones?  What about those districts known for budget defeats, dwindling resources, leadership turnover, and embattled labor issues? How do they create the space in the public mind to develop new reputations?

As educators, we are often distracted by a belief that communication is a direct, artful exchange.  Say what you want another to understand.  And certainly, in the art of teaching, that communication has an important place.  But, words have so many meanings we can never be sure our intended message is received. And others also enhance their understanding of our meaning by taking in our tone and body language. Even punctuation or using boldface type communicates meaning.

So communicating values is a long term, never ending process. Those districts seeking to change the publically held perception have an even more difficult uphill climb before them. The first step is to actually change.  That begins by having difficult discussions with the faculty and staff about the shared values of the organization and how they are expressed in each role. From the bus driver, to the office support staff, to the building greeter, to the teachers, and the leaders, a common understanding of the behaviors that reflect the values of the school must be accepted and lived daily. 

It takes a long time for the change to be noted by those families of the children that pass through our schools every 13 years.  It takes a long time for the community, the businesses, the potential partners to change their perceptions as well.  So as schools change or as schools want to reinforce their public image, what is the second step after doing the hard work within the school and district?  How does the message get out and who is in charge of getting it out there?  After the behavior of the organization is in sync and there is confidence in the practice of shared values in the organization, how can it be shared with the public? 

Well, like it or not, we are talking about marketing, about advertising, about establishing presence in the public, visible, not hidden work. 21st century tools can be a help, certainly.  Webpages designed for ease of maneuvering, photos, videos and testimonials help move the old perception to a new one.  These are meant to create a picture, a vision of life and culture inside the sytem.  Once the work is done within the school and the culture has begun shifting, using the digital tools effectively can help in the journey. 

A look at other school district's websites can give you a sense. Norwalk La Mirada Unified School District in California, for example, was chosen as one of 25 Best School Websites by Edudemic for their:

Design: What does the layout look like? How is color and text used? How are visuals incorporated?

Innovation: Does the website look like a template from WordPress, or is it original, conveying the uniqueness of the organization?

Content: Is the content fresh and interesting? Does it get updated frequently?

Technology: Do the pages load promptly? Do the hyperlinks work?

Interactivity: Is the information presented in a variety of ways to engage the user, including text, video, photos, and hyperlinks?

Ease of Use: Is it hard it is to navigate the pages or perform a search function?

These are very important considerations when designing a webpage that welcomes users and communicates what you intend.  But simply following these six design features alone may not accomplish the intended task.  For an example of that, we turn to New York Presbyterian Hospital's commercial.  It speaks for itself.  Their values, their talent, their mission...are all in this short video. 

Does your message reflect your values? Whose job is it to manage that message? How does one decide how that message is communicated?  Three questions to begin the journey to establishing who you are as a school/district and getting the word out.

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

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