This is a guest post by Jan Abernathy, Chief Communications Officer at the Browning School (NY).
Where's the role of communications positioned at your school? Is your communicator at the leadership table, with a birds-eye view of how decisions are made in real-time? Serving as an in-house consultant to your division heads, and helping them figure out how to position their programs and talk to their families? Are they your first call when a potential crisis hits? Are they initiating discussions with your advancement and admissions teams to develop new ways to engage new families and prospects? And, perhaps most importantly – are they reporting to you?
Communications jobs are still relatively new in schools, with most having been created out of advancement shops within the last 20 years. And when they were created, the role was still pretty simple—the rise of social media was still years away, demands for immediate email communication were non-existent and schools were more likely to issue pronouncements than engage constituents in an ongoing dialogue designed to continue to sell their educational philosophy to current parents. The age of “drop your child off at the door and leave the rest to us” was still very real.
Now education is the product and families are consumers and communications pros have moved into being chief marketing officers, continuing to expand awareness of our schools through digital advertising vehicles, email campaigns, and partnerships with review sites. But strategic communications is only starting to be valued in its own right, separate from increasing enrollment or fundraising numbers. If you think about strategic communication as the intentional use of communication by an organization to fulfill its mission, it's a natural fit for schools. However, to be most effective at this, communications professionals need unmediated access to the Head of School and the board's vision for how the school should be living its mission. Anything less can result in a muddled message that's a bit like a game of telephone or a picture that's slightly out of focus. When your school can't articulate its philosophy, it runs the reputational risk of having its image shaped by forces outside of its control.
Here are more important reasons for a school's communications director to report to the Head:
- You'll gain an honest broker. The expression “it's lonely at the top ” is certainly true of the role of Head of School, particularly now. Navigating challenging board relationships, demanding faculty and aggressive parents can take a toll on anyone. A strategic communicator understands this intrinsically and can tell you how to make this better—and also about what you are doing that might be making things worse. The best communications professionals can help you figure out how to mediate disputes, weigh competing priorities, and make sure that you and your team are playing chess, not checkers.
- You'll get better questions at the leadership table. As you talk about new initiatives with your leadership team, you're likely going to hear about all of the reasons that they will be beneficial to the students in your care. What you may not be as likely to get are questions about how this change will be perceived by current or prospective families or peer schools. Sure, those questions could come from your enrollment professionals, but as they are working very closely with your academic team to select right-fit students, an admissions pro may also be concerned about appearing to be less than supportive of the academics' ideas. A good communications director who has already gained the trust of the academic team can act as a “devil's advocate” in a way that can actually strengthen family buy-in for the project (particularly important if the idea will also require funding) or at the very least ensure that all potential questions about it get answered before they are asked.
- It will help your image—which will help your school. Heads have an image to maintain, and that image will position them for new and different leadership roles within the independent school community. The Head is also a key factor in attracting great faculty and right-fit families at any school. Blogging, speaking at a conference, or sending an email about an important change at school are all building blocks that define your leadership presence at your school and beyond. When you've got a close relationship with your comms director not only will they be able to write for you—freeing up your time for important leadership work—but they will also be able to look for key opportunities for you to use communication tactics to advance your school's mission beyond your own doorstep.
Gone are the days when communications leaders “only” created a magazine and an annual report, maintained a website and social media presence, and wrote the newsletter. In order for schools to thrive, communication must be intentional, strategic, and multi-modal. It must illuminate where a school stands pedagogically as well as on important issues such as diversity, equity and inclusion, social and emotional learning and mental health. Communications directors must continually scan the environment for new opportunities to highlight their schools (and their Heads) in ways that resonate with today's families. All of this suggests an intentional approach is absolutely crucial. How often do you say, “the way that we communicate this is going to be really important?” Recognize that importance by giving the communications role the structure it deserves and the communication director should report to the Head of School.