Hickman Mills C-1 School District - hickmanmills.org

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Hickman Mills C-1 School District - hickmanmills.org
Communication Audit Report:

                         Hickman Mills C-1
                          School District
National School Public Relations Association
15948 Derwood Road | Rockville, MD 20855 | P: 301-519-0496 | F: 301-519-0494 | www.nspra.org |   NSPRAssociation |   nspra
Copyright © 2020 by the National School Public Relations Association. All rights reserved. With the exception of the
Hickman Mills C-1 School District, no part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any
means without permission from the National School Public Relations Association.
NSPRA Communication Audit Report 2020

Introduction������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 4

Key Findings������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������ 8

Observations and Comments����������������������������������������������������������������������������������11

Recommendations������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������ 13-55

     Recommendation 1 & Action Steps�������������������������������������������������������������� 14

     Recommendation 2 & Action Steps�������������������������������������������������������������� 21

     Recommendation 3 & Action Steps�������������������������������������������������������������27

     Recommendation 4 & Action Steps������������������������������������������������������������ 30

     Recommendation 5 & Action Steps������������������������������������������������������������ 36

     Recommendation 6 & Action Steps������������������������������������������������������������ 39

     Recommendation 7 & Action Steps������������������������������������������������������������� 43

     Recommendation 8 & Action Steps������������������������������������������������������������ 47

     Recommendation 9 & Action Steps������������������������������������������������������������ 50

     Recommendation 10 & Action Steps���������������������������������������������������������� 54

Benchmarking Against NSPRA’s Rubrics of Practice
and Suggested Measures����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 56

Appendix����������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������� 61

Hickman Mills C-1 School District

  The Hickman Mills C-1 School District                obstacles to ensuring that thousands of
(HMC-1) serves 5,610 students in the South             stakeholders—students, parents, instructional
Kansas City, Missouri area. The district has an        and support staff, volunteers, taxpayers,
early childhood center, an alternative education       community and business leaders, legislators,
center, six elementary schools, one middle             etc.—feel engaged in their schools, valued by
school and one high school. It enjoys the              the district and represented in the important
distinction of becoming the first consolidated         decisions that affect them.
school district in Missouri in 1902. It is also the
                                                         The HMC-1 Board of Education and
only urban district in the state to have received
                                                       Superintendent Yolanda Cargile, Ed.D., are
accreditation from the nonprofit AdvancED,
                                                       committed to effective communication
which recognizes and validates school
                                                       throughout the school system and with the
quality efforts.
                                                       community. By contracting for and approving
  HMC-1 students are diverse, with an                  this communication audit by the National
enrollment that is 69% African American,               School Public Relations Association (NSPRA),
13% Hispanic, 9% white, 6% multi-racial                they have demonstrated their willingness
and 3% other. Among them, 7% are English               to reflect on the district’s communication
language learners. Due to high poverty levels          strengths and challenges. They have also shown
across the district, HMC-1 participates in the         their ongoing commitment to strengthening
Missouri Department of Education’s community           the relationship between the district and its key
eligibility provision, which provides free meals       stakeholders.
for all students.
                                                         Since 1935, NSPRA has been providing
  The district is provisionally accredited by          school communication training and services
the state and making strides toward full               to school districts, departments of education,
accreditation, but it continues to be challenged       regional service agencies and state and national
by a steady decline in enrollment—with a 15.5%         associations throughout the United States and
loss during the last five years. It also has an        Canada. Among those services is the NSPRA
eroded tax base, and the Kansas City poverty           Communication Audit, which provides:
rate is 16.5%, according to the U.S. Census
Bureau. At the end of the 2018 school year,              •   An important foundation for developing
the district closed two elementary schools in                and implementing a strategic
response to these challenges and distributed its             communication plan.
STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts            •   A benchmark for continuing to measure
and math) and project-based learning programs                progress in the future.
to all schools.
                                                        In serving HMC-1, the goals of the NSPRA
  In recognition of the improvement needs of           Communication Audit process were to:
its remaining, aging school buildings, the
 HMC-1 Board of Education has voted to place a           •   Seek data, opinion and perceptions, and
bond issue on the August 2020 ballot.                        from these to assess the effectiveness and
                                                             management of public relations, marketing
  That election will test the degree to which
                                                             and engagement efforts in the district.
HMC-1’s patrons feel connected to and are
willing to invest in the future of the district.         •   Provide customized recommendations on
The district’s diversity and relatively small size           strategies and best practices to enhance
are strengths, but they also present natural                 the overall communication program.

NSPRA Communication Audit Report 2020

  In opting to conduct a communication audit,         publics with the goal of stimulating better
HMC-1’s leaders have clearly indicated their          understanding of the role, objectives,
desire to analyze communication practices             accomplishments and needs of the
across the district as well as within the existing    organization.
offices that perform communication functions.
                                                        “Educational public relations programs
  The key findings, observations and                  assist in interpreting public attitudes, identify
recommendations in this report should be              and help shape policies and procedures in
reviewed carefully. Whether they pertain to the       the public interest, and carry on involvement
work of the Public Information and Partnerships       and information activities that earn public
Office (PIOP), any other department or HMC-1          understanding and support.”
as a whole, they are intended to help the
district improve the effectiveness of current
communication, engagement and marketing               Opinion Research as a
efforts and to support its commitment to              Foundation
“providing a foundation for a proudly diverse and       An NSPRA Communication Audit provides
historic community.”                                  information about attitudes, perceptions and
  It is difficult to measure public relations         the effectiveness of current public relations,
overall. However, individual elements can             engagement and marketing efforts, and offers
be assessed. It can be determined whether             recommendations to enhance or expand the
specific program goals and objectives have            overall program. The audit also provides a
been met. The real measure of success for any         benchmark for continuing to measure progress
program, however—including a communication            in the future. The development of any effective
program—is to determine whether it is helping         communication program begins with
the district move forward on its stated mission.      opinion research.
Accordingly, in developing recommendations,
the auditor reviewed the perceptions of the
focus groups and the resource materials in light
                                                      Scope and Nature of the Audit
of the district’s mission, five-year strategic plan     A communication audit of HMC-1 enables
and education pledge to its stakeholders.             the district to view its communication from an
                                                      outside, independent perspective. The NSPRA
                                                      consultant for this communication audit was
Guiding Definition                                    Steve Mulvenon, Ph.D. His vita is included in the
  NSPRA works to advance the cause of                 appendix of this report.
education through responsible public relations,         The first step in the communication audit
communication engagement and marketing                involved PIOP submitting samples of materials
practices. In doing so, NSPRA uses the following      developed to communicate with various district
definition as a foundation for all educational        stakeholders. All forms of communication
public relations programs:                            were examined for effectiveness of message
  “Educational public relations is a planned,         delivery, readability, visual appeal and ease of
systematic management function, designed              use. The auditor also reviewed the district’s
to help improve the programs and services             website, video and social media platforms, with
of an educational organization. It relies on          an additional focus on stakeholders’ use of and
a comprehensive, two-way communication                engagement with the online content.
process involving both internal and external

Hickman Mills C-1 School District

   In addition, the auditor reviewed other               America and are reflected within NSPRA’s
 relevant information such as community and              Rubrics of Practice and Suggested Measures.
 staff surveys demographic data, strategic plans,
                                                           The final report was carefully reviewed and
 district policies, communications staffing,
                                                         edited by NSPRA Executive Director Richard
 news items, etc.
                                                         D. Bagin, APR, and Associate Director Mellissa
   However, the core of the communication audit          Braham.
 process was the onsite focus group component.
 The auditor met with 10 focus groups and
 conducted interviews with district leaders and          Assumptions
 communications staff in person on Oct. 28-29,             It is assumed that school systems undertake
 2019. Each focus group was guided through a             communication audits because they are
 similar set of discussion questions, and each           committed to improving their public relations
 session was approximately one hour in length.           and communication programs. It is also
   HMC-1 officials identified and invited as             assumed that they wish to view the school
 participants those who could represent a broad          district and its work through the perceptions of
 range of opinions and ideas. The stakeholder            others, and that they would not enter into an
 groups represented in the focus group sessions          audit unless they were comfortable doing so.
 and interview sessions included the following:            However, some caution should be observed
                                                         regarding the nature of such a review. Whenever
     •   Elementary parents
                                                         opinions are solicited about an institution
     •   Secondary parents                               and its work, there is a tendency to dwell on
                                                         perceived problem areas. This is natural and,
     •   Principals and assistant principals             indeed, is one of the objectives of an audit.
                                                         Improvement is impossible unless there is
     •   Executive leadership team                       information on what may need to be changed.
     •   Elementary/pre-K teachers                         It is important to note that perceptions are
                                                         just that. Whether or not they are accurate,
     •   Secondary teachers
                                                         they reflect beliefs held by focus group
     •   Support staff                                   participants and provide strong indicators of
                                                         the communication gaps that may exist. The
     •   Community and business leaders                  recommendations in this report are designed to
                                                         address these gaps and to assist district leaders
     •   Volunteers and partners
                                                         and communications staff in their efforts to
     •   Board of Education members                      communicate more consistently and effectively.

   Following the review of materials, focus                This report is intended to build on the many
 group discussion comments and interview                 positive activities and accomplishments of
 feedback, the auditor identified key findings           the district and communications staff as well
 and prepared recommendations for improving              as to suggest options and considerations for
 two-way communication and engagement with               enhancing and expanding the district’s overall
 the district’s internal and external stakeholders.      communication program.
 The recommendations are based on proven
 strategies used in successful communication
 programs by school systems around North

NSPRA Communication Audit Report 2020

Recommendations                                    Copies to participants
  The recommendations in this report have            Focus group participants were generous in
districtwide implications, and a number of them    sharing their thoughts and ideas during the
apply to other staff and departments beyond        focus group sessions. They were also interested
those with formal communication functions.         in finding out the results of the communication
Implementing all of these recommendations          audit. Because of their high level of interest
is a long-term effort, one that might span         and involvement, along with the importance of
several years. Doing so while maintaining          closing the communication loop to build trust
existing programs may entail an investment         and credibility, we recommend that this report
in additional staff capacity. For those reasons,   be shared with focus group participants and
any new communication components should            made available on the district website.
be introduced as budget, resources and staff
capacity allow.

Considerations for
implementing recommendations
  The recommendations in this report address
immediate communication needs as well as
those that are ongoing or that should receive
future consideration as part of long-range
planning. Some recommendations may apply
only to those with formal communication
tasks, and others may apply to all departments
and schools. Some recommendations may
be implemented right away, and others may
require additional staff capacity or financial
resources to undertake while maintaining
existing programs. This is a long-term effort in
which the report should serve as a road map
for the future.
  Recommendations are presented with
the intention of helping HMC-1 take its
communication program to an exemplary
level that serves as a model for other school
districts. Communication programs in any
organization are most successful when treated
as a management function that is planned,
evaluated and regularly updated. With its
capable staff in the Public Information and
Partnerships Office and the recommendations
in this report, HMC-1 is well equipped to meet
the evolving communication needs of its
families, staff and community.

Hickman Mills C-1 School District

 Key Findings
   The following key findings reflect common                    partners and non-profit organizations.
 themes that emerged from the focus group                       Among those participants representing
 discussions and the review of district materials.              the wider community, several felt that the
                                                                district’s community partnerships appear to
                                                                be robust and growing. They pointed to the
 General Perceptions of External                                recent and very successful Family Summit
 and Internal Focus Groups                                      as evidence.
 District Image Strengths                                 District Image Challenges
     •   Focus group participants generally                 •   When asked how the district was described
         described the district’s atmosphere as                 in the community, focus group participants
         warm, student-centered and caring. They                used terms such as rough, declining,
         noted an overarching commitment to                     substandard, poor academics, dangerous
         supporting families with a comprehensive               and “the hood.”
         set of wraparound services. Family school
         liaisons were mentioned as an asset and an                ▫▫   Based on comments in the focus
         example of the district’s commitment.                          groups and interviews with key staff,
                                                                        much of the negativity stems from a
     •   In nearly every group, internal and external,                  perception that schools are unsafe
         HMC-1’s work to promote racial equity was                      and that student discipline is not
         identified as a clear and visible strength.                    being sufficiently addressed.
     •   In internal focus groups, participants                         Stories (and video) of specific
         referred to the district as innovative,                        incidents have circulated widely on
         progressive and advanced. Regarding                            social media.
         technology, they pointed to the recent roll        •   In several internal and external focus
         out of 1:1 computers and tablets                       groups, multiple participants felt that the
         for students.                                          district is not currently providing adequate
     •   In several groups, participants lauded the             student support in the areas of mental
         district’s free, full-day pre-K program as             health and discipline. Many attributed this
         evidence of a commitment to improving                  to a lack of necessary finances and/or
         school readiness.                                      inadequate staffing levels, particularly at
                                                                athletic events.
     •   Among the teacher focus groups, there was
         an appreciation of a strong professional           •   Based on media coverage and on focus
         development program.                                   group comments, part of the image
                                                                challenge stems from an enrollment
     •   District administrators, particularly the              decline, an eroding tax base and a decision
         superintendent, were generally seen                    last school year to close two elementary
         as accessible, visible and active in the               schools. Local media described the district
         community by both external and internal                as “troubled” and “cash-strapped.”
         focus group participants. They are perceived
         as constantly seeking to implement best            •   Comments from community members and
         practices across the district.                         employees noted a troubling rift between
                                                                individual school board members, whose
     •   The district benefits from a strong base               comments they felt portrayed the district in
         of support from a varied list of community             less than a favorable light.

NSPRA Communication Audit Report 2020

Communication Strengths                                  superintendent’s Twitter account had 1,465
                                                         followers. Several principals, schools and
 •   The superintendent is widely seen as an             sports programs also had active accounts.
     active and good communicator, someone               The district Facebook page (https://www.
     who is accessible, transparent and invested         facebook.com/HMC1Proud/) is active, up-
     in the community.                                   to-date and enjoys 3,634 followers.
 •   The Public Information and Partnerships        Communication Challenges
     Office is seen as a valued and valuable
     resource among district and school              •   When asked for the greatest
     administrators. They particularly appreciate        communications challenge facing the
     the department’s event management                   district, every focus group mentioned
     skills and support with messaging during            overcoming the negative image and
     crisis situations.                                  perception of the district, and developing
                                                         clear and consistent messaging about where
 •   School board participants noted strong              improvement is needed and what is being
     internal communications. They appreciated           done to get there.
     the effort by the superintendent to keep
     them “in the loop” with frequent messages.      •   Nearly all of the focus groups mentioned the
                                                         difficulty of communicating with parents.
 •   There is a strong, positive working                 From faulty email addresses to changing
     relationship between the superintendent             cell phone numbers to parents’ failure to
     and the director of Public Information and          read printed materials, the need to improve
     Partnerships. Marissa Wamble is viewed as a         parent communications is a top-of-mind
     “communications expert” by her colleagues           issue across the district.
     and is a valued member of the executive
     leadership team.                                •   Participants in a majority of the focus
                                                         groups cited changing demographics within
 •   Within the Public Information and                   the district—growing levels of poverty, an
     Partnerships Office:                                aging population, greater racial and ethnic
     >> There is a clear collegial and                   diversity—as another challenge to effectively
        professional relationship.                       communicating with all stakeholders.
     >> There is a general recognition and           •   There is a general lack of awareness both
        agreement of their strengths and areas           in the community and among staff about
        of need. They are “on the same page.”            the August 2020 bond election. Several
     >> Their efforts with social media,                 participants said this was symptomatic of
        especially Twitter, were frequently              the district’s need to be more proactive
        mentioned in several groups                      in communicating about major, important
        as a strength.                                   issues. (At the time of the auditor’s visit
                                                         in October 2019, the district had not yet
 •   HMC-1’s social media efforts are well               begun any formal communications rollout
     established, especially with Twitter and            regarding the bond election.) Additionally,
     Facebook. At the time of the auditor’s              in both internal and external focus groups,
     review, the district Twitter account                concern was expressed about the general
     (https://twitter.com/HMC1proud) had 547             economic health of the community. Those
     followers and was frequently updated. The           perceptions will certainly impact the

Hickman Mills C-1 School District

       level of voter support for the bond issue,        •   There do not seem to be clear protocols
       and leaders will have to take them into               or expectations for who is responsible for
       consideration when planning the upcoming              communicating important information
       bond campaign.                                        or key messages following Executive
                                                             Leadership Team (ELT) meetings. District
   •   The district’s reliance on digital                    leaders indicated that while there is not
       communication methods is seen as a benefit            a set standard for what communications
       by some stakeholders and as a challenge               must happen after every meeting, ELT
       by others. Those who like it appreciate that          information is often embedded throughout
       they can get the information in the manner            the Leadership Link, though it is not
       they prefer, but those who have concerns              labeled as coming from ELT. Getting such
       worry about:                                          information to filter down throughout the
       >> Families with limited or no Internet               entire organization is critical to helping
          access missing out on communications,              employees serve as trusted messengers
          resources or opportunities.                        and ensuring that they are “in the loop.”
       >> Teachers and support staff being out               Focus group participants said that was not
          of the communication loop during the               always the case.
          work day when information is released        Sources for News and Information
          via social media.
       >> Senior citizens and empty nesters with         •   Both internal and external groups
          no direct connection to the district               appreciated the district’s efforts to
          being left out.                                    communicate on a wide variety of platforms
                                                             including email, text messages, social media
   •   In many of the focus groups, one or more              and phone blasts.
       participants commented on difficulties with
       navigating the district website. Generally,       •   There was not a wide awareness of the
       they described it as useful but not as a              C-1 School Messenger in any group. After
       go-to source of news and information.                 being reminded of what it is, a number of
       Following are some of the most commonly               participants said they just skim it. While
       expressed concerns among participants:                some said it was attractive and well-
                                                             designed, others said it had too much “fluff”
       >> Several felt that there are too many               and not enough hard news.
          clicks required to get to desired
          information. The section on enrollment         •   Employees appreciate receiving Board
          was cited by several as an example.                Briefs and look forward to it, although they
       >> Some internal stakeholders, many of                noted that the links do not always work.
          whom have regular computer access,
                                                         •   Internal groups were appreciative of
          were concerned about the amount of
                                                             emails from the Public Information and
          scrolling required to see a page.
                                                             Partnerships Office, especially surrounding
       >> While some appreciated the                         potential or current crisis events.
          standardization of the school websites
          template, many more felt that the              •   Although not mentioned in any focus group,
          school websites are not providing                  usage statistics provided by the district
          enough timely and unique content for               show a solid level of awareness of the
          their buildings. That was especially true          district’s mobile app.
          for several elementary schools.

10 |
NSPRA Communication Audit Report 2020

Observations and Comments
  The auditor offers these general observations      •   An increased focus on internal
and comments following the conclusion of the             communication is needed to create staff
comprehensive communication audit process:               ambassadors, improve key messaging
                                                         about district initiatives and reinforce
 •   It is time for the Hickman Mills C-1 School
                                                         the HMC-1 brand. Internal focus groups
     District to take its communications
                                                         noted a pattern of inconsistency in both
     program to the next level. As noted in
                                                         the dissemination of information and
     the key findings, HMC-1’s stakeholders
                                                         the messages shared, which directly
     acknowledge that the district’s image
                                                         contributes to a lack of awareness and
     has suffered for the last several decades.
                                                         understanding of school district initiatives
     Whether real or perceived, it is viewed
                                                         that was apparent among staff participants.
     in a negative light. That said, there is
                                                         Communication protocols are needed
     a wellspring of support from staff and
                                                         at all levels to ensure key messages and
     community groups waiting to be tapped
                                                         critical information cascade effectively and
     into. At present, the biggest hole in HMC-1’s
                                                         efficiently throughout the district so that all
     overall communication program is the lack
                                                         employees are able to communicate in “one
     of well-defined strategic communication
                                                         clear voice.”
     plan and a marketing plan to accomplish
     this shift in recognition status.               •   Hickman Mills C-1 School District could
                                                         benefit from defining its identity and value
 •   Superintendent Dr. Yolanda Cargile is
                                                         proposition with a coordinated marketing
     a popular and respected leader, who
                                                         and branding campaign. As a part of that
     is known as a “homegrown” educator
                                                         effort, HMC-1 has an opportunity in its
     with her roots in Hickman Mills. The
                                                         rebranding efforts to move away from
     district is fortunate to have a visionary
                                                         its current logo that connotes geometric
     superintendent, who is seen as a highly
                                                         movement to one that communicates
     credible education leader in the community.
                                                         student success and diversity. A rebranding
     She is well respected for her commitment
                                                         campaign can engage both internal and
     to racial equity and her community
                                                         external stakeholders in identifying positive
     involvement. Many teachers applauded
                                                         attributes of the district.
     her frequent classroom visits, where she is
     welcomed as a colleague.                        •   Communication vehicles need to be
                                                         continually assessed and evaluated.
 •   As noted above, a written, formal strategic
                                                         HMC-1 has a variety of tools available to
     communication plan is needed to support
                                                         communicate district messages, including
     HMC-1’s goals. A more strategic and
                                                         print materials, e-newsletters, websites, a
     proactive approach to communication,
                                                         mobile app, social media and engagement
     beginning with a comprehensive
                                                         activities. Based on focus group feedback
     communication plan, is needed to focus
                                                         and auditor evaluation, there needs to be
     the overall communication program and
                                                         continual improvement of the district’s
     support a renewed emphasis on branding
                                                         various communication channels to ensure
     and marketing efforts. Some keys to
                                                         they are connecting with target audiences,
     success that are included in this report
                                                         delivering the information audiences want
     are creating a plan that is research-based
                                                         in the formats they prefer, and are resulting
     and aligning surveys and other evaluation
                                                         in outcomes and actions that benefit the
     tools to provide actionable feedback on the
     communication plan and marketing efforts.

                                                                                                      | 11
Hickman Mills C-1 School District

   •   The HMC-1 Board of Education is widely
       perceived as being divided, and in some
       cases, that perceived division is seen as
       negatively affecting the school system.
       This perception makes it more challenging
       for district leaders to communicate a
       unified vision for the district and to build
       stakeholders’ faith in their commitment
       to that vision. District leaders, including
       the school board, should seek every
       opportunity to communicate with one
       voice, authentically, on issues where they
       are unified to build greater confidence
       among stakeholders in their school system

   •   A major theme in almost all focus
       groups concerned challenges posed
       from an eroding tax base, a loss of retail
       businesses and the budgetary impact of
       the tax abatement given to the Cerner
       Corporation. As HMC-1 works to enhance
       its communication program, it should
       make outreach to the business community
       a high priority and incorporate those
       efforts into the recommended strategic
       communication plan.

   •   Hickman Mills C-1 School District is poised
       to raise its profile as a leading school
       system in the metropolitan Kansas City
       area. The district has the leadership and
       communication team in place to effectively
       meet its communication and marketing
       goals and build strong support for the
       schools. The district has quality teachers,
       experienced administrators and innovative
       programs. The challenge is to effectively
       communicate that to the broader
       community. Doing so will provide the
       foundation for success as HMC-1 continues
       to grow and move forward.

12 |
NSPRA Communication Audit Report 2020

  In the Hickman Mills C-1 school district,         years. This is a long-term effort, and new
communication efforts are guided by the district    communication components will need to be
strategic plan and the Public Information and       introduced when budget, resources and staff
Partnerships Office’s (PIOP) goal of “informing     capacity allow.
the public and district community about HMC-
1’s quality and diverse learning environment,
                                                    Summary of Recommendations
as well as the district’s dedication to finding
strategic and researched-based solutions to the      1. Strategically align the overarching goals of
great global challenges in education                    the district’s communication program and
we face today.”                                         the daily efforts of communications staff
                                                        with HMC-1’s mission and strategic plan.
  In the PIOP office, the director splits her
time between her communication duties                2. Work to build a culture of communication
and overseeing the All-In Mentors Program.              throughout the district.
A full-time public information specialist            3. Strengthen communication between the
manages a wide range of duties, including event         district, schools and parents.
coordination, social media, video district and
school websites, marketing campaigns and             4. Develop a comprehensive marketing plan
photography. Supporting their communication             to raise HMC-1’s profile and solidify
efforts is an administrative assistant, who also        its brand.
serves as the district receptionist. The district    5. Strengthen the engagement
also contracts for creative services and event          of staff members in the district’s
planning. Finally, PIOP manages the district            decision-making process.
printing operations. Together, the team is
tasked with providing communication strategy,        6. Develop a key communicator network that
guidance and support in a variety of areas for          emphasizes and strengthens relationships.
the district and its schools.                        7. Continue efforts to make the
  Communications staff have accomplished                HMC-1 website the go-to source of
a great deal in HMC-1. The following                    district information.
recommendations focus on areas for                   8. Enhance communication with residents
improvement or growth in the district’s                 without children enrolled in HMC-1.
communication program, but that should
not detract from the many positives coming           9. Review and expand the crisis
out of the communications office. In fact,              communication plan.
many of the recommendations will require             10. Consider the staffing and resource
commitment and participation from the entire             implications of the recommendations
administrative team if the district is going             in this report.
to realize meaningful improvements in its
communication program.
  The recommendations are listed in a
suggested order of priority, but the district
may choose to implement different
recommendations and action steps at
different times. Some can be implemented
immediately, and others may take several

                                                                                                  | 13
Hickman Mills C-1 School District

                                                        •   A means for reporting on their progress
 Recommendation 1:                                          and demonstrating accountability to
                                                            district leadership and other stakeholders.
 Strategically align the
 overarching goals of the district’s                    The strategic communication plan should be
                                                      developed by communications staff (see Action
 communication program and the                        Step 1.1) to align with the district’s five-year
 daily efforts of communications                      strategic plan, which serves as the guiding
 staff with HMC-1’s mission and                       philosophy for all departments throughout the
 strategic plan.                                      district. Goals in the strategic communication
                                                      plan should be for and about the work of PIOP,
                                                      but their achievement should contribute to the
   The day-to-day communication demands of            achievement of the district’s strategic plan goal.
 any public school system can easily consume a        The department’s current goal of “informing
 majority of staff members’ time, leaving little      the public and district community about HMC-
 time for strategic planning and evaluation of        1’s quality and diverse learning environment,
 communication efforts. This can result in a          as well as the district’s dedication to finding
 communications department spending the               strategic and researched-based solutions to
 majority of its time and resources on general,       the great global challenges in education we
 habitual and reactive communications rather          face today” aligns with the district’s strategic
 than on delivering the district’s key messages       plan goal, but consideration should be given
 and engaging stakeholders in meaningful              to shifting its focus from the department’s
 relationships. Communication programs, when          output—“informing” efforts—to its desired
 not guided by a clear vision and measurable          outcome (e.g., All district stakeholders will be
 objectives, easily fall victim to the latest         aware of “HMC-1’s quality and diverse
 communications request or crisis of the day          learning environment...”).
 while missing strategic opportunities to expand
 a district’s outreach and brand.                       As part of clarifying the vision for the
                                                      communications function, HMC-1 school
   A strategic communication plan with clear          leaders can use this communication audit
 goals and measurable objectives created              report, in conjunction with the district’s
 specifically for the work of the Public              five-year strategic plan, to determine critical
 Information and Partnerships Office (PIOP) will      communication and engagement priorities.
 help keep the department’s communication             The recommendations in this report offer
 efforts on track and maximize the value of           some proven strategies that can help to focus
 HMC-1’s communication dollar. It will also           communication efforts and may also indicate
 increase the effectiveness of the district’s         functions that can be decreased in emphasis
 overall communication program by providing           or that need more support. Without a plan, it is
 PIOP staff with:                                     difficult to effectively create an open dialogue
   •   A gauge by which to judge whether their        with stakeholders, to deliver the messages
       tasks are mission critical, nice but low       that are important to both the district and its
       priority, or an unnecessary and inefficient    stakeholders, and to build support
       use of staff time. This helps ensure key       for the schools.
       messages are not lost in the day-to-day
       communication tasks that can overwhelm
       school districts.

14 |
NSPRA Communication Audit Report 2020

Action Step 1.1
 Develop a strategic, district-level
 communication plan that outlines
 measurable objectives intended to
 move the communication program
 toward achieving its goals.                                 Strategically align
  A comprehensive, strategic communication
                                                              the overarching
plan provides transparency and accountability              goals of the district’s
for the implementation of all district
communication goals, including those outlined
in HMC-1’s 2019-2024 Strategic Plan. It is                   program and the
a vehicle for moving a school district from
a reactive stance to a proactive position in                   daily efforts of
communications. This plan should guide                     communications staff
communication activities; however, it is
important to remember that school districts                with HMC-1’s mission
exist in an ever-changing environment,
impacted by community, state and federal
                                                            and strategic plan.
factors. Creating a flexible and dynamic plan
                                                   about communications as well as opinions and
that allows for the impact of these factors and
                                                   attitudes about HMC-1 and its programs. This
mandates will ensure that it remains a relevant
                                                   communication audit report is an excellent
and useful tool for keeping communication
                                                   starting point on that research. So are the
efforts on track.
                                                   community and staff surveys conducted as part
  PIOP should develop a strategic                  of the district’s strategic plan development.
communication plan that clearly demonstrates
                                                     NSPRA advises the use of a plan that adheres
how its work relates to achievement of
                                                   to the four-step strategic communication
the district’s mission and that outlines
                                                   planning model, often referred to by the
communication program components,
                                                   acronyms RPIE or RACE:
objectives and activities that directly support
HMC-1’s strategic plan. Each of the three           •   Research and analyze the situation,
pillars in the district’s strategic plan (i.e.,         including stakeholders’ needs and wants.
district, schools, community) have roles and
responsibilities for PIOP, but what is missing      •   Plan for how to address the situation
are department-specific details on the                  by setting longer-term communication
necessary research, planning, implementation            goals and shorter-term, measurable
and evaluation measures used by exemplary               objectives. Articulate clear goals and
communication programs.                                 measurable objectives for communication
                                                        based on desired changes in awareness
  A comprehensive, strategic communication              levels, knowledge levels, perceptions
plan will provide a clear road map to drive             and behaviors of key audiences. Identify
communication efforts in both the short and             the strategies you plan to use to achieve
long term. The communication plan should be             your objectives and the tactics/tools for
based on research that is regularly conducted to        accomplishing each strategy. Focus around
determine constituent needs and expectations

                                                                                                   | 15
Hickman Mills C-1 School District

       key messages. Identify your affected             NSPRA members at www.nspra.org/gold-mine):
       stakeholder groups and the best ways to
                                                          •   Chartiers Valley School District - https://
       reach and build relationships with them.
       Delineate specific tools and tactics for each
       audience. Identify needed resources to
       deploy tools/tactics and how they                  •   Rockwood School District - https://www.
       will be acquired.                                      nspra.org/files/docs/Rockwood
   •   Implement your plan and begin
       communicating with specific tools on an
       established schedule. Articulate who is          Action Step 1.2
       responsible for deployment of each tool/
                                                         Communicate with objectives
       tactic and the time line for deployment.
                                                         in mind, and avoid jumping to
   •   Evaluate the outcomes, whether you                preferred tactics.
       achieved your measurable objectives and
       the success of the strategies and tactics          Once a comprehensive, strategic
       used. Include evaluative measures                communication plan has been developed, the
       based on the articulated goals and               PIOP office can organize part of its regular
       measurable objectives.                           staff meetings to review their progress toward
                                                        meeting the measurable objectives of the plan.
   The planning process will demonstrate                This will keep staff focused and energized on
 how communication projects, tasks and                  impactful communications work and reduce the
 responsibilities support specific HMC-1 goals,         distraction of less impactful tasks.
 provide clear direction for staff, prioritize the
 work and increase effectiveness.                         These discussions also offer the opportunity
                                                        to reflect on how to communicate with
   It also will help staff identify higher priority     objectives in mind rather than jumping first to
 areas that may need more support and lower-            familiar, preferred tactics. This helps avoid the
 priority projects/activities they may need to          selection of tactics based on misperceptions
 abandon. It can be difficult to release work that      about widespread community used, which
 is familiar and for which we feel ownership,           can happen when there is a highly vocal but
 but part of effective communication planning           not widely representative cheerleader for a
 is identifying practices that are no longer            particular tool or platform. For example, while
 effective. A well-written and thoughtfully             social media capabilities are abundant within
 crafted strategic communication plan can               PIOP thanks to a talented team and growing
 provide a measure of the value of projects,            in popularity among school leaders across the
 programs and activities in which the                   country, local research may show that the most
 communications staff is engaged. With a small          effective way to achieve an objective among
 communications office of only two full-time            a particular stakeholder group is through a
 professionals in HMC-1, it is essential that their     campaign that involves face-to-face time.
 time is spent on matters of importance.
                                                          Both creativity and the use of research should
   Following are some examples of strategic             be encouraged in exploring new strategies and
 communication plans created by school districts        tactics to keep the communications efforts
 based on the recommendations from an NSPRA             relevant and highly effective.
 Communication Audit Report (available to

16 |
NSPRA Communication Audit Report 2020

                                                      audiences, strategies, tactics/communication
Action Step 1.3
                                                      tools to be used, a timeline of tasks and
 Continue to create mini-                             who will be responsible for each task. Once
 communication plans for key                          administrators have gone through this exercise
 initiatives and specific programs,                   a few times with communications staff, they
 and show administrators how their                    will feel more comfortable following the
 initiatives might benefit from a similar             template to engage in their own communication
 planning process.                                    planning when necessary.
                                                        Developing the communication skills of
  PIOP has developed a number of seasonal and
                                                      the entire administrative team can help lay
event-specific mini-communication plans (such
                                                      the groundwork for HMC-1 to become more
as for the Family Summit) to organize its work
                                                      proactive in telling its story and build strong
in support of HMC-1 initiatives. This practice
                                                      support both internally and externally.
should continue, but each mini-communication
plan should be guided by the overarching
communication goals and measurable                    Action Step 1.4
objectives established in PIOP’s new district-         Continue to evaluate all
level strategic communication plan. As the             communication strategies, tactics
need to communicate about new initiatives and
                                                       and activities.
programs unfolds during the year, continue to
prepare individual, mini-communication plans            Especially important to an effective
targeted to the desired outcomes.                     communication plan is the evaluation
  In the internal focus groups with principals        component. Being able to measure outcomes
and directors, they said their communications         (e.g., change in behavior or attitude) and not
responsibilities were unclear and could               just outputs (e.g., number of posts or news
benefit from some training. Providing basic           releases issued) is a critical component when
communication training, as well as mini-              decisions must be made about continuing
communication plan templates, can help and            specific communication activities given limited
encourage department heads and principals             resources and staff capacity. The focus group
to develop their own plans for communicating          feedback for this audit, as well as the results of
about their special projects, events or issues.       the surveys conducted as part of the strategic
The communications team can support their             plan development, offers a fresh perspective
efforts and use of best practices with training,      and a baseline of where the communication
resources and advice (see Action Step 2.1).           effort now stands.

  The training process can begin simply                 Following are some additional suggestions
by modeling the desired behavior. If an               for future evaluation methods to include in a
administrator is responsible for launching            strategic communication plan:
a new initiative, a communications staff
                                                       •   Follow-up communication surveys. On key
member might offer to assist with planning
                                                           areas of concern within this review, HMC-1
communications about the initiative.
                                                           can and should conduct follow-up surveys
Schedule a meeting, and bring a blank mini-
                                                           to determine if any progress has been made
communication plan template. Work side-by-
                                                           and to inform next steps. These can be
side together to fill out the template with a goal,
                                                           coordinated internally or through an outside
measurable objective(s), key messages, target
                                                           vendor and can occur as stand-alone

                                                                                                        | 17
Hickman Mills C-1 School District

       surveys or a series of questions on another,           the district’s e-newsletter, C-1 School
       larger district survey.                                Messenger, may not be resonating with
                                                              readers. (Some felt it was too “soft” and
   •   Soft soundings. Ask staff and parents for              needed to contain hard news. Others said
       their opinions in informal conversations at            they only skim it.) Planning for a reader
       meetings and social events, as a “by the               survey a few months or even the year
       way” at the end of phone call or even in line          after any adjustments are made would
       at the store. Recruit other administrators             help the district determine whether those
       and school board members to do the                     adjustments were effective.
       same, and provide them with a “question
       of the month.” Focus on a single topic             Action Step 1.5
       or publication, and keep a running list            Develop a specific communication
       of responses. For example, ask whether
                                                          plan for the upcoming bond election.
       they saw the recent issue of C-1 School
       Messenger and what they liked about                The Board of Education has approved a bond
       it. This type of casual outreach can also        election for August 2020, and at the time of
       increase engagement and goodwill while           the auditor’s review, details of the bond issue
       demonstrating that district leaders are          and ballot language were in development. As
       approachable and willing to listen to input.     noted elsewhere in this report, there was a very
   •   Brief focus groups. Gather parents’              low level of awareness on this matter among
       opinions during brief focus group sessions       the focus groups. It is urgent that the district
       offered as part of school open house             develop a plan for communications regarding its
       programs or PTA/PTO meetings. Focus              upcoming election campaign.
       questions on just one or two specific              The most effective communication
       district/school communication vehicles           programs are guided by an overall strategic
       and activities.                                  communication plan (Action Step 1.1)
                                                        that is supplemented with detailed, mini-
   •   Digital analytics. Regularly review website,
                                                        communication plans for the roll out of key
       social media and mobile app analytics,
                                                        initiatives, projects and programs (Action
       and track changes over time as content is
                                                        Step 1.3). Think of these as “sub-plans” that,
       updated, changed or added to determine
                                                        when completed, contribute to achievement
       what is currently resonating with users.
                                                        of the goals and objectives established in the
   •   Reader surveys. There is value in                comprehensive strategic communication plan.
       conducting specific reader surveys                 In developing a mini-communication plan
       annually or biennially to determine reader       for an election campaign, begin by considering
       expectations and desires and how well            any available research (past election results,
       they are being met by district publications.     voter turnout among staff, past exit poll results,
       Surveys can be conducted districtwide and        etc.) and all elements necessary for planning,
       also at the local school level. This will help   implementation and evaluation. Find samples
       HMC-1 assess whether publications are            of award-winning communication plans for
       connecting with audiences and whether            bond/finance campaigns among the NSPRA
       some should be revised, combined with            Gold Medallion winners (https://www.nspra.
       others or discontinued. For example,             org/awards/gold-medallion-winners), including
       feedback from some focus groups suggest          these recent winners:

18 |
NSPRA Communication Audit Report 2020

 •   Continue the Greatness (Papillion La Vista           through a scientific, random-sample public
     Community Schools) - https://www.nspra.              opinion poll (higher cost). Based on that
     org/sites/default/files/award-submissions/           research, refine key messages about
     gold-medallion-19_ne-papillion-la-vista.pdf           the referendum.

 •   Focused on Our Future (West St. Paul-            •   Use multiple channels to deliver
     Mendota Heights-Eagan Area Schools)                  key messages.
     - https://www.nspra.org/files/%234%20                >> Incorporate social media into
     District%20197%20-%20GM%20                              communication strategies and tactics,
     2015%20entry-paymentinforemoved.pdf                     with messaging designed to reach the
  With a bond/finance campaign, these general                voting-age stakeholders most likely to
strategies have proven successful for many                   interact on those platforms. The HMC-1
school systems:                                              Facebook page and Twitter feed provide
                                                             channels for sharing information quickly
 •   Know your target audiences. Determine                   and easily. Currently, the district uses
     which groups may become opponents if                    these primarily to transmit positive
     they don’t feel properly informed and which             news, but don’t hesitate to use them to
     are most likely to support the district at              keep stakeholders informed of facts
     the polls. Consider any research available              and key messages during a referendum
     on what issues they care about and where,               campaign.
     when and how they prefer to get their news
                                                          >> Over the past 10 years, social media
     and information.
                                                             has changed the way elections are won
     >> Include staff as a primary audience                  or lost, but you can’t overlook more
        in your campaign. Every employee—                    traditional one-way communication
        support staff, teachers, administrators,             tools such as the news media and
        etc.—should be well-versed on how                    district and school websites. Refer back
        they, their students and their schools               to what you know about your target
        will be positively affected if the bond              audiences to determine the best ways
        vote is successful.                                  to reach each group of potential voters.
     >> Identify opinion leaders among staff,
                                                      •   Incorporate two-way communication.
        parents, business partners, community
                                                          Personal interaction and engagement
        leaders and civic groups, and initiate a
                                                          with audiences, when properly planned,
        dialogue with them. These people could
                                                          can be among the most effective tactics
        be the same as those invited to join the
                                                          for building understanding and support of
        proposed key communicator network
                                                          a proposal. Avoid formats that create an
        and the Business Advisory Council (see
                                                          us-versus-them mentality (e.g., town hall
        Recommendation 6).
                                                          meeting with an administrative dais looking
 •   Determine which key messages will                    down on the public) and consider instead a
     resonate most with stakeholders and                  structured community conversation with
     help move supportive voters to action. Low           small-group discussions, live video chats on
     turnout at the polls is a national crisis, but       platforms such as Facebook or Crowdcast,
     it can defeat local bond proposals as well.          or a group idea-sharing platform
     Test possible messages with small focus              such as Thoughexchange.
     groups of key stakeholders (lower cost) or

                                                                                                    | 19
Hickman Mills C-1 School District

   •   Know what you can and can’t say. In most
       states, public entities are allowed to explain
       the reasoning behind the bond proposal,
       what the dollars will be used for and how
       much taxes will increase, but they are
       prohibited from asking voters to “vote yes.”
       Some also place restrictions on advertising
       related to the vote. Be aware of Missouri
       law that outlines what school districts can
       and cannot do with taxpayer dollars. (In
       some school communities, non-affiliated
       groups have instead taken on the role of
       asking for voters’ support through fliers,
       mailers and media buys.)
   Assuming the election is successful, issue
 periodic updates on work progress with links to
 more information on the full scope. Continue
 to report progress at least quarterly through
 an easy-to-spot place on the website (perhaps
 through a data dashboard) as well as through
 e-newsletters, social media, videos, open house
 events and during the superintendent’s public
 appearances as appropriate. Doing so will
 help raise the profile of these initiatives and
 demonstrate accountability, transparency and a
 commitment to the district’s mission.
   Following are some award-winning examples
 of school district webpages designed to keep
 stakeholders informed after a bond was

   •   Bond Program (Spring Independent School
       District)- https://www.springisd.org/

   •   Building a Better Education for Every
       Student (Gresham-Barlow School District) -
   NSPRA has a resource that is helpful in
 conducting successful referendum campaigns
 – Election Success: Proven Strategies for Public
 Finance Campaigns . It is available from NSPRA’s
 Online Store at www.nspra.org/products.

20 |
NSPRA Communication Audit Report 2020

                                                     demonstrate many practices within the district
Recommendation 2:                                    that are helping create a culture
                                                      of communication.
Work to build a culture of
                                                       That culture of communication is not yet
communication throughout                             pervasive, though. As this report identifies,
the district.                                        there are several challenges preventing
                                                     HMC-1 from fully realizing the benefits of a
  School districts that truly maintain a culture     culture of communication. For example, an
of communication weave today’s best practices        inconsistent range of communication skills
for two-way communication into their goals,          among administrators, along with widely
policies and practices at all operational levels,    diverse quality of school websites and no clear
both internally and externally. Education            expectations for information to be shared from
leaders across the nation are increasingly           top to bottom, has caused some of those who
prioritizing this culture, as suggested by current   most need information to miss it entirely.
trends in hiring practices, programs and               The following action steps are aimed at
professional development related                     maintaining, strengthening and
to communications.                                   expanding the culture of communication
  That is a good trend for many reasons, but         throughout the district.
one of the chief reasons might be considered
“customer satisfaction.” Schools earn their          Action Step 2.1
best ratings from parents who feel they are
kept informed, have ample opportunities to
                                                      Provide communication training
provide input and that their child’s school is        and support for administrators, and
interested in what they have to say, according        evaluate their communication efforts.
to a 2016 PDK International study. Similarly,
                                                       Administrators at all levels spoke positively in
a 2017 Gallup study found that employees are
                                                     focus groups about the support, guidance and
more likely to remain with an organization
                                                     resources provided by the Public Information
and contribute to its economic health if they
                                                     and Partnerships Office (PIOP), but none
feel actively engaged in the organization—
                                                     mentioned a formal, regular training program
something achieved in large part
                                                     to build their skills as communicators and
 through communications.
                                                     ambassadors for the district and its schools.
  HMC-1 has some elements that are                   Given the evolving nature of communication
characteristic of a culture of communication.        technology, community demographics and
The district’s 2019-2024 Strategic Plan              staffing, the department should consider
outlines several goals and strategies where          providing regular communication skills training
success hinges, at least in part, on effective       for all administrators—both veterans
communications. The school board policies            and new hires.
related to community relations prioritize citizen
                                                       An annual communication “boot camp” for
involvement, mutually respectful interactions
                                                     administrators would provide training, tips and
with news media, community partnerships
                                                     practical learning experiences to help them,
and maintaining positive relationships with
                                                     in their leadership roles, better communicate
stakeholders through communications.
                                                     with stakeholders. It would strengthen their
The communication strengths identified
                                                     partnerships with communications staff, who
through this communication audit report also

                                                                                                     | 21
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