As parents tuned into news reports about the spread of coronavirus in the United States, telephones at local school districts across the country began to ring. Announcements of school closures abroad prompted questions about what schools stateside were doing to get ready for the novel coronavirus or COVID-19. Today, school district leaders are relied on for leadership and guidance on this evolving disease. Clear, proactive outreach and consistent messaging are critical as district leaders begin to respond.
As with most communications campaigns, there is no “one size fits all” approach. Each district should stay true to their vision, systems, and stakeholders, while challenging themselves to be flexible, collaborative, proactive, and transparent. Remember, a communications plan is only as good as the programming and processes it represents. To create an effective outreach strategy, leaders must start by creating their district’s response plan.
Here are five action steps to help school leaders craft an effective outreach plan:
As with most communications campaigns, there is no 'one size fits all' approach."
1. Tap into existing communicable disease policies and crisis procedures. It is important that district teams work collaboratively with health leaders in your community. Reach out to your state and county health department and request written guidance and regular updates. Begin by revisiting your district or school board’s communicable disease procedure and crisis communications plan. Assess what parts of these policies and procedures translate to the coronavirus and identify any new steps you need to take. If your district does not currently have existing plans or procedures in place, check in with your local health officials for recommendations. Set up alerts from news sources, federal directives, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention so that you and your team stay on top of breaking news. Pay special attention to updates in your state or region that could cause local concern.
2. Determine where announcements will be made. Set one main source for posting announcements for your district. Consider where families in your district are most likely to get their information and ensure that you are meeting your audiences where they are. Communicate that decision to parents and other key stakeholders. Consider creating a website landing page (for example, www.yourdistrict.edu/coronavirus) that can act as a one-stop shop for information that is regularly updated and can be easily accessed on a mobile device. All other outreach should direct stakeholders to the centralized landing page.
3. Create a steering committee to offer input on your communications. In evolving cases like these, consider creating a nimble working group of district leaders who bring a diverse set of perspectives to the situation. This committee should be assessing risk, coordinating efforts, and identifying any proactive measures schools can take. Consider including the superintendent, communications lead, operations lead, student services lead, district attorney, and partner-organization representatives or community experts. Since this steering committee represents different stakeholders and is empowered to take action, its members can be critical spokespeople who can help build buy-in both internally and externally. As you create outreach messaging, incorporate this group’s expertise into your tactics, ensuring that your community members are receiving thoughtful, data-backed information.
4. Create core messaging. It is important that your stakeholders hear a clear and consistent message from you across all communications and outreach channels. Creating a set of central messages that you can modify for all other communications will ensure that your district leaders are all singing from the same song book and have the same information available. Be sure to ensure accessibility for your outreach materials and translate all messaging into Spanish and other languages spoken by your district’s families. Messaging should include the proactive and prevention steps the district is taking (including at the school level), where updates will be posted and who families can reach out to for more information.
5. Create an internal communications plan for coronavirus. Based on the district’s crisis communications plan, steering committee outcomes and ongoing information updates, the lead communicator for the district should create an internal communications plan to guide your outreach efforts. This plan should include tactics for regular external and staff-wide communications about preventative measures that can be taken. This strategy should also serve as a rapid response plan that incorporates a few different scenarios, including school closures. Think through potential situations before they happen to ensure your communications team and other district leaders don’t miss important steps while in a hurry or accidentally forget to touch base with key stakeholders. Consider including emergency procedures and a communications tree with contact information for district officials. Plan to translate all collateral and outreach materials into the languages spoken in your district. Remember to keep the plan updated as the situation in your district evolves.