By Brian Stephens, Caissa Public Strategy
As parents and students get ready to return to school in the fall, school districts play the primary role in mitigating fears and building confidence that schools are safe and prepared. Striking the right tone in your messaging is as important as presenting consistent, factual and concise information.
Think of it this way: Parents in this situation are the consumers, and the school district is the communicator.
Consider that, according to multiple studies, the average consumer is presented with up to 10,000 ads a day. Those of us of a certain age can remember the 1970s, when the average was more like 700 a day (yes, you read that right). At minimum, consumers face approximately 6,000 each day — and once you add on hundreds of emails, unread text messages and mounds of snail mail, it starts to look and feel like information overload.
In different situations, people occupy both sides of the consumer/communicator divide. But as the school district, it’s easy to have amnesia about being on the other side, making us forget what information overload feels like. Parents do care about what you want to convey — but they’re inundated, and it can be difficult to get your message through.
The solution? Jump back on the other side of that divide. Start thinking like a parent. Stop with the amnesia. And start with your targets, so you don’t get trapped in a fishbowl.
School districts across the country are not communicating enough with parents and families about the process of returning in the fall. They may feel as if there’s danger in sharing too much — maybe the fear lies in details being lost, or of simply being ignored. Or they succumb to telepathic thinking, perhaps assuming people know what is going on or thinking some things may seem self-explanatory. It’s a dangerous trap.
Your first task is to over-communicate. Wear yourself out with your own messaging. Believe me, parents will know your heart is in the right place, and they won’t dislike you for consistently sharing the information they need.
Present consistent, simplistic messages. For example, “Here’s our plan to return to school.” Then, use more detailed documents to support that plan. Make the information digestible and concise. The idea is three talking points of no more than 21 words each, which I call the 3-21 rule. Keep yourself open to feedback once you’ve proposed your plan.
One person in the district needs to be the point-person for all communications. This helps build rapport, put a face on your plans and avoid inconsistent messaging. It also troubleshoots staffing transitions during this time period, so if the point-person leaves, it’s easier to introduce the newcomer who will work in their place.
Build trust with parents and families by knocking down the biggest communication barrier: admitting when you don’t have the answers. For the educated, that’s a hard one. But when not knowing the answer means no information is sent out, it adds to parents’ stress, because human nature is to automatically fill in the blanks with the worst-case scenario.
“We don’t know, but we’re working on it,” is a simple and appropriate response. It lowers cortisol levels in the brain, and lets parents know you are present and actively trying to develop a solution.
So, stop the amnesia and think like a parent. Keep calm and over-communicate. Make yourself a familiar and reassuring source to families. We’ve come this far, and with the right work, the transition will be that much easier.