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By Trinette Marquis

Predicting the future of school communications


ith the chaotic events of the past two years, it might seem impossible to try to predict what might happen in schools the next two years. However, that’s just what districts across the country are trying to do.

To get a feel for the trends in family engagement, a February 2022 survey of school leaders conducted by school communication platform ParentSquare asked school district representatives how they are communicating now, what’s effective and what they predict they will be using to communicate in two to three years.

There were three key takeaways in the 1,316 responses that can provide insight into trends that are likely to affect most districts in the near future.

Online messaging bar graph
Takeaway 1 — Use a variety of communication methods

Unsurprisingly, all of the survey participants reported using multiple channels to communicate with students and families. In fact, about two-thirds use more than five channels of communication. Respondents understood that reaching a variety of audiences requires more than one channel. Schools provide information in a number of ways to ensure that they are reaching students, families, staff and community members where they are already receiving information.

Takeaway 2 — Email reigns, but text is gaining

Although email came out on top for communication with 41 percent of respondents reporting it as the most frequent tool they use, the story is more intriguing when it comes to how respondents rated tool effectiveness. Email was also rated the most effective by 29 percent but was followed closely by text at 23 percent. Although not being used nearly as frequently as email today, text is perceived as highly effective and an area for growth.

Takeaway 3 — Growth in all digital

Looking ahead two to three years, respondents project that the three channels they are likely to use more often are mobile applications, text and social media. These digital tools tend to be preferred by content creators because they have lower long-term distribution costs, errors can be corrected nearly instantaneously, and the same content can be easily shared across platforms. Somewhat related to the increased interest in digital is the preference to stop using traditional communication methods like paper. By a huge margin, districts in the survey reported that they would like to eliminate their use of paper flyers and newsletters over the next two to three years.

Communicating with your stakeholders

While these three trends provide general insight into the school leader perspective, it is also important to remember that every district is different, because every community is different. The questions in the survey about communication preferences are also great questions for each school community to ask their stakeholder groups. How do they currently receive information? What are the most effective tools the district has been using and what other communication platforms are different audiences already using? These preferences have changed a great deal in the last decade and will continue to evolve as new tools are introduced.
64% want to go paperless
Creating a variety of two-way engagement opportunities makes it more likely that districts will stay on top of these preferences and better understand their audiences. And asking these questions in a way that doesn’t create biased results is critical. If the survey is in English and online, the preferences of those groups will be overrepresented in the results. When attempting to reach underrepresented groups, it might take an extra effort, like bringing the questions to an English Learner Advisory Council or asking district outreach staff for ideas about where and how to engage with members of harder-to-reach communities.

Once the communication preferences of all groups are understood, districts can make better-informed decisions about where to invest. Each time a new tool is adopted, it takes additional time to maintain the content and for training staff at a variety of levels to learn how to use the technology and how to modify the content to fit a specific format. For example, a long article on a website might need to be modified to a couple sentences with a photo for Twitter.

Group working on whiteboard
That’s where the counsel of a communications or public relations professional in a district can help. They understand how to conduct audience research, how to develop communication plans that engage communities with a variety of strategies and tools, and how to develop content that shares the board’s vision in a way that works with the strengths of a tool.

It is also important to identify gaps in communication access. While digital tools can be incredibly convenient for both sender and receiver, not everyone may have the same practical access to the information. For example, online grading platforms are a wonderful way to keep families informed between report cards; but that requires internet access, a device that can display the platform effectively and training for those who have never utilized a similar online system.

Many districts have overcome these barriers with booths at campus-based events that engage families directly to provide training, devices and internet hotspots. Others have opened up school-based parent centers that offer technology stations and staff help for platform questions. There are a variety of solutions, but the most important is to place a high value on equitable access to information and devote time, curiosity and resources to ensure that the groups that don’t have the loudest voices at the board meeting can still be heard.

Trinette Marquis, APR, is the executive director of the California School Public Relations Association and part-time professor of communications at California State University, Sacramento.