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#Leadership in a Time of Crisis Q&A: Lindsay Whitley

As we continue our deep dive on the changes to education and the impacts to students, parents and staff brought on by the novel COVID-19 pandemic, we connected with Lindsay Whitley, the Associate Superintendent of Communications and Community Engagement for Cumberland County Schools, the fifth largest school district in North Carolina. We got his perspective on how his district has been impacted by the coronavirus and how his team has responded in this time of crisis. He serves as chief communication strategist and is responsible for overseeing external and internal communications generated on behalf of the school system.

RB: How would you describe your professional climate right now?

LW: Due to the uncertainty and anxiety felt across the nation, our professional climate is ever-changing. Although school communications professionals are under a lot of stress right now, we are becoming more and more innovative, adapting to a new way of leading, communicating and operating. Our team at Cumberland County Schools (CCS) has jumped right in during this time, showing perseverance, creativity and dedication to our students and schools. Our pace of work has not slowed down. In fact, we have learned to communicate quicker than ever while also maintaining clarity and accuracy.

RB: Are you working remotely?

LW: Yes, I am working remotely from home, along with my wife, who is a teacher, and our two sons who are adapting to online learning. Being at home has been a nice break from the office, but it comes with new challenges. I have been back to the office a few times for essential items like printing new signage, signing documents, etc.

RB: Are you and your team utilizing any Zoom, Google Hangouts or Skype virtual meetings?

LW: CCS is a Google district, so we are using Google Meet and Google Docs. We also occasionally use Zoom and other virtual meeting sites.

RB: What channels are you utilizing most to share updates and communicate with your community?

LW: As a communicator, I believe in using all available communication channels because everyone receives information in different ways. We always communicate internally first—to our employees and board members, mainly through email. To communicate with external stakeholders, we utilize social media, Parent Link (phone and texting system), media and our website, which has been completely overhauled to accommodate COVID-19 updates and information.

We are always sure to communicate directly with opinion leaders, elected officials and other stakeholders, usually through email.

Additionally, we are taking special care to keep our media partners updated. I have been doing a weekly radio interview to provide updates and information.

RB: What are the most common questions you’ve received from your community members so far?

LW: One thing we know for sure is that our community cares about our children and schools. We have heard from concerned parents, grandparents, neighbors and community members who want to make sure children are being fed and still have access to learning. Parents are asking about grades and what these changes might mean for our high school seniors and graduation.

We are receiving guidance from the state on these issues so at this time, we don’t have all the answers. But we do know that we want students to keep learning. We also want to celebrate the Class of 2020. Dr. Connelly (the superintendent of CSS) recently wrote an open letter to the Class of 2020. We hope our seniors know we are offering hope in the face of adversity.

RB: What advice is your district giving?

LW: During these uncertain times, our main concern is the well-being of our students, families and staff. We are focused on caring for the whole child, ensuring students are fed, cared for and also have what they need to continue learning. We understand that this is not business as usual. We encourage everyone to take care of their family and themselves and reach out for help when needed.

Having said that, we also know that learning and connecting with teachers and other classmates can provide stability and continuity for our students. It is important to learn for the sake of learning. We don’t want our students to fall behind. We are providing laptops to students who need them.

Additionally, we understand that students may experience difficulty as a result of anxiety or stress related to the illness or school closure. CCS has a Student Services Hotline, 910-475-1950, which should only be used by CCS students. A CCS counselor or social worker is available 24 hours a day to help students with concerns about anxiety, depression, abuse, suicidal thoughts or access to food.

RB: How are you and your district leaders getting their COVID-19 updates?

LW: We are getting COVID-19 updates from a variety of sources: the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, our local health director, Governor Roy Cooper’s office and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

RB: What challenges have you faced during this novel pandemic?

LW: Like the rest of the world, we have faced many challenges during this time. We don’t typically conduct business with this much distance between our team, and that has been difficult at times. Information is changing by the hour, so we are constantly working to stay on top of the latest updates, communicate with each other and provide the most accurate and up-to-date information as possible to our constituents.

RB: Are you facing any specific communication roadblocks?

LW: In this world of social media and instant communication, a communication roadblock we have discovered is making sure everyone is receiving accurate information. It is easy to share misinformation, oftentimes, inadvertently, so we are constantly ensuring information parents and community members are seeing and hearing is correct.

RB: What PR best practices have helped you navigate how to communicate to students, parents, fellow staff and the community?

LW: There are many PR best practices that have helped us during this time:

· Frequent communication through multiple channels. People are getting so much information these days. Sometimes, it takes someone hearing something seven times before they process it.

· Two-way communication. District hotlines and social media have allowed an opportunity for us to receive direct feedback from our community so we know what misinformation to correct, what concerns parents have, etc.

· Celebrating the positivity. People are craving good news, so it’s imperative that we push out those “feel good” stories. Dr. Connelly’s letter to the Class of 2020 and the story about high school teachers creating masks for front-line workers are two examples.

RB: What tips would you give to other PR professionals that have helped you personally through this crisis?

LW: The number one tip I would give to other PR professionals is to not be afraid to ask for help. This is unprecedented. You can’t and shouldn’t do it alone. Reach out to other leaders within your district and/or professionals who serve in similar roles in other districts. We are all in this together. Let’s share resources, best practices, and help each other.

RB: On a personal level, what are you doing to maintain a positive outlook and be productive?

LW: I have taken time to get outside. The weather here has been phenomenal, so I have been taking advantage of that with walks around the block. I have also enjoyed this unexpected time with my family.

RB: Once this pandemic has subsided, what takeaways will you have to use for crisis communications in the future?

LW: Take deep breaths. Be ready for anything. Don’t reinvent the wheel—reach out to others who have faced similar crises. Communicate often using multiple communication channels. Lastly, don’t be afraid to clarify and update if something you communicated is not clear. It is okay to admit you made a mistake, provide better and more concise information and move on. Stay positive, you will get through this!

Free Virtual Graduation DIY webinar

As a result of COVID-19, there are conversations taking place nationwide about possibly canceling the traditional high school graduation. Every school/district would rather postpone, but if that is not an option, a virtual option will have to do. Our goal with this Virtual Graduation DIY video is to provide you with a simple tutorial of how you can pull off a virtual graduation using your own staff and resources.

Sign up to watch our free webinar.

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#SchoolPR in a Time of Crisis Q&A: Molly McGowan Gorsuch

With the rapid changes and uncertainty brought on by the novel COVID-19 pandemic, it hasn’t been easy for our education partners. We had a chance to connect with Molly McGowan Gorsuch, the public information officer for Henderson County Public Schools, a 23-school district in Western North Carolina, and get her perspective on how her district has been impacted by the coronavirus. She is a proud board member of the North Carolina School Public Relations Association and an active member of NSPRA, is a charter member of the Public Relations Society of America’s WNC Chapter, and serves on the Henderson County Education Foundation board.

RB: How would you describe your professional climate right now?

MMG: It’s been tense and frazzled, but also incredibly collaborative. We’ve been trading graphics, messaging templates, and best practices like Halloween candy. From Day 1, public relations professionals in K-12, healthcare, and private agencies have put out offers to shoulder the burden together. A #SchoolPRpro needs only to throw out a bat signal on Twitter, email, or professional association discussion page, and a Google Drive link of shared resources is being dropped into their inbox, along with an encouraging word. I’ve always appreciated my National School Public Relations Association and NCSPRA networks, but I’ve never valued their hivemind expertise more than I do now.

RB: Are you working remotely?

MMG: I was maintaining regular office hours (which – let’s be honest – are anything but regular for PR folks even under normal circumstances) through March 18. I began working from home on March 19, when I learned that I had been in contact with someone who was being tested for COVID-19. Out of an abundance of caution, I self-isolated and began working from home to wait out the results of my contact’s test. It turned out negative, but by the time I had the results, our district was encouraging staff who could work from home to make the transition – so I’ve set up camp at my dining room table with my husband, who’s also working from home.

RB: Are you and your team utilizing any Zoom, Google Hangouts or Skype virtual meetings?

MMG: I feel like I’ve downloaded the entire cache of virtual meeting apps in the past month! Our district’s directors and principals use GoToMeeting daily for a morning briefing on state and local educational decisions and public health updates. In our schools’ brand new remote learning model, teachers are using Google Chat and Meet daily to connect with their students and host “office hours,” and I’ve used it to lead a virtual training session. My standing Friday meeting with regional public health communicators is hosted on Adobe Connect, and I’ve used Zoom to trade best practices and battle stories with my Western North Carolina #SchoolPR peers. I also used Skype to call in for a radio interview, since the local station is operating remotely to practice social distancing.

RB: How are you and your district leaders getting their COVID-19 updates?

MMG: Of course, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, N.C. Department of Health & Human Services, and our local Henderson County Department of Public Health (HCDPH) provide us with specific public health directives; the N.C. Department of Public Instruction and Gov. Roy Cooper press conferences are where we look for guidance on K-12 operations during the school closure. 

In the spirit of collaboration I mentioned earlier, everyone is on a myriad of teams, committees, and subcommittees where information and best practices are shared. I’m in my 5th year serving on the county’s Local Health Information Team, composed of health practitioners and communicators from the HCDPH, emergency management, area hospitals and clinics, and other health and human services organizations. In addition to our now-weekly meetings, I also participate in a Friday round-robin of “what’s working, what resources can we share” virtual meeting with health department communicators in the greater Western North Carolina region. 

I can’t speak for every single workgroup the members of our Leadership Team are on, but I know that our superintendent is part of the NCDPI’s weekly superintendent check-in, and serves on state subcommittees. As of April 3, I’m also attending a weekly PIO/Communications Leaders Check-In hosted by NCDPI’s recently formed COVID-19 Communications Work Team. 

Invaluable #SchoolPR resources have included the NSPRA Connect discussion boards, a private “school communications pros discussion page” Facebook group, and the less formal (but equally helpful) group chats with fellow North Carolina School Public Relations Association board members and my #WNCschoolPRpros in Asheville City Schools, Buncombe County Schools, and Transylvania County Schools.

RB: What channels are you utilizing most to share updates and communicate with your community?

MMG: During this time of uncertainty, I’ve made a conscious effort to provide consistency to our HCPS Family in our messaging – both internally and externally. Following HCPS’ initial response to COVID-19 in early March, HCPS set the expectation that the district will share a Community Health Advisory Update each Friday – in addition to any emergent communications during the week. All Community Health Advisory Updates are:

  1. Externally sent to parents through Peachjar
  2. Posted as an article online
  3. Linked to our district’s dedicated COVID-19 information page
  4. Shared on our social media

When the updates contain relevant external messaging applicable to the community beyond our schools, they’re also sent to traditional media. Especially urgent or time-sensitive messages are also recorded as SchoolMessenger calls to families in English and Spanish.

RB: What are the most common questions you’ve received from your community members so far?

MMG: Honestly, the questions change daily – sometimes hourly – in response to whatever new information we’re able to present. First the main question was, “Are schools going to close?” That decision was made for us when Gov. Roy Cooper issued the executive order on March 14 closing all K-12 schools in North Carolina. Immediately, the questions became, “Will the schools be implementing remote learning?” and “Will the school system be feeding children?” It was interesting to see that, not just in our region but across the nation, the public’s main concerns and offers of support centered around providing meals to children over the shutdown. I think this response – and K-12 districts’ adaptability in meeting this overwhelming need – is indicative of the extent and quality of services public education provides in our country.

Once meals were addressed and our new Learn from Home model was launched, questions turned to grading: “How will remote learning lessons be graded?” “What about senior graduation requirements?” Again, answers we couldn’t give until we had guidance from the state. 

When we had our first employee test positive for COVID-19 last week, our families wanted to know at which school the employee works. Though not included in our initial statement, we shared this detail the following day accompanied with relevant information from the health department (more on that later).

RB: What advice is your district giving?

MMG: First and foremost, we’re echoing every bit of public health advice local and state health officials are providing. Initially, that focused on handwashing, but now it’s moved to social distancing and reminding families of the county and state “stay at home” orders. We also remind concerned individuals that the health department runs point on investigating “close contacts” of all positive cases in the community – school-related or otherwise – so they would be notified by HCDPH if health officials believed there was a possibility they’d had contact with COVID-19. We advise families to reach out to us if their children need school meals but lack transportation to our pick-up or delivery sites, so schools can deliver meals directly to them. And we remind families of available community resources for food, utilities, and other essentials.

RB: What challenges have you faced during this novel pandemic?

MMG: The logistics of establishing new COVID-19 internal protocols, mapping and mobilizing new bus routes to deliver meals, developing brand new virtual learning, organizing staff into new “duties as assigned” on the fly, preparing thousands of Chromebooks for student rental, etc. means that even a district’s most efficient turnaround times in addressing each new shutdown surprise feels delayed to the public. So families are having to do a lot of “hurry up and wait” for answers.

I think what’s been frustrating for communicators in all fields during this pandemic is the fact that no matter how proactively we work to communicate what we know when we know it, it’s never enough and it’s bound to change immediately. New information breeds new questions, which can’t always be answered as quickly as the public demands in this atmosphere. And this demand is only heightened by the immediacy of social media. Though I’ve worked diligently over the past six years to create a culture of two-way communication on the district’s social platforms, each question on Facebook or comment on Twitter or Instagram triggers a jarring startle response in me. To be fair, that response is part of what makes School PR pros reliable, quick communicators; but in crisis communications this invisible tether to our phones quickly becomes time consuming as well as mentally and emotionally draining.

RB: What PR best practices have helped you navigate how to communicate to students, parents, fellow staff and the community?

MMG: Consistency: Immediately after making our first district statement, we established that HCPS would be sharing situational updates each Friday, and where families should look for accurate district updates: Peachjar emails, our website, HCPS socials, traditional media, and alert calls. 

Two-way Communication: Whether it’s me responding to Facebook comments, our Technology Department manning a new Learn from Home helpline, or each principal answering phone calls from their schools’ parents, our efforts to deliver timely responses seem to have built trust among our district’s stakeholders.  

Regarding social media, I’m navigating how to balance this heightened workplace demand with my own wellness, but I know that since we’ve set the precedent that families can come to us with questions during this closure period, I need to be diligent in finding answers for them as they come. 

Transparency: When we had our first employee test positive for COVID-19 last week, we communicated the positive case with our HCPS Family to be transparent even though school isn’t in session. Despite reminding families that local public health officials are the authority in identifying positive cases and and would be following up with anyone in the community who could be considered “close contacts,” our social media blew up with parents wanting to know where the employee worked – in case they’d come in contact while picking up a Chromebook or meals. I shared this detail the following day – strategically accompanied with the confirmed info that 1) the employee had NOT been involved in distributing any meals or educational materials before becoming symptomatic, 2) as soon as the employee felt unwell, they’d followed public health recommendations to go home and self-isolate while awaiting test results, and 3) health officials had completed their contact tracing for those who would be considered “close contacts” – so anyone who should be concerned would have already been notified. Our families truly appreciated the transparency in naming the school and have been commenting messages of support, prayer, and healing for our employee. 

Equity of Communication: We have a large population of families whose home language is Spanish, so I’ve worked extremely closely with our ESL Family Liaison (Evelyn) and ESL Instructional Facilitator (Omar) to translate every written, recorded, and social media COVID-19 update so it’s presented in English and Spanish simultaneously. While important district alerts in the past have gone out in Spanish, this is a truly coordinated effort that’s setting a precedent for HCPS crisis communications I’ve been working toward for a year. Though crisis communications wasn’t necessarily in their wheelhouse before the pandemic, Evelyn and Omar immediately understood the urgency of the translations I began throwing their way, and we’ve established an efficient workflow that will prove beneficial for future crisis communication needs. 

Touchpoints: We’re making sure to give our families multiple methods of accessing official HCPS information so if they miss one touchpoint, they have other reliable locations to check. And we know not all of our families have access to the Internet so when it came to sharing important public health information, our health department and I collaborated on a guerilla marketing tactic. On their behalf, I designed a bilingual sticker with NCDHHS social distancing facts and local helplines, which our school nutrition department is sticking on the thousands of meals we’re distributing weekly.

RB: Are you facing any specific communication roadblocks?

MMG: One afternoon, I needed to record the day’s second crucial SchoolMessenger alert, using language we were posting online. From delivery complications of our first message, I’d learned I needed to include both my English version and Omar’s Spanish version in the same message (not recorded and sent separately) to guarantee delivery to all subscribed users. The message was long, and we either needed to cut content or talk fast. Administrators wanted all content included, so Omar and I did some fast-talking. We heard some feedback that we were hard to understand, and it was frustrating that our focus on equity of communication was literally lost in translation. Thankfully, having multiple messaging touchpoints proved valuable, so we could direct families to additional sources if they’d had a hard time understanding the call. 

Also, as seems to be the case in many counties, our local health department doesn’t have department-specific social media accounts; public health messages share the stage with other departments’ topics on the official county government Facebook page (and the county has a Twitter profile, but it’s been inactive since June 2019). Although the county Facebook has made a concerted effort to focus its posts primarily on directives from its department of public health, it’s impossible for HCPS to directly share or retweet HCDPH-branded messages that can clearly be traced back to the health department.

RB: What tips would you give to other PR professionals that have helped you personally through this crisis?

MMG: Know and respect your bandwidth. Yes, this is a time of collaboration, and you’re likely being asked to weigh in on messaging, help with graphic design, or otherwise lend your skills to a partner organization. I support this wholeheartedly – it’s for the good of local and global public health, after all – and there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel when communicators can share their resources. But you also need to take care of yourself. When we stretch ourselves too thin, we become more susceptible to physical illness and emotional burnout – and our districts need us healthy now more than ever.  

Allow yourself to feel the uncomfortable emotions. Early on in the pandemic, I found myself crying at work – I’m talking head-down-on-desk, suddenly totally drained, wracked with emotions I hadn’t realized I’d been holding onto until I stopped to breathe. It hit me that, in our roles as professional communicators for entire school districts, we so often don’t allow ourselves to pause for our own mental breaks. We should grant ourselves extra grace to feel ­– and respond to – our emotions even more intensely, and by accepting them we can move on.

Find yourself a hobby that doesn’t involve screen time. We’re glued to governor’s press conferences on television, social media on our phones, and web conferencing on our computers. In your off time, try to actively disconnect. This one’s hard for me, but luckily I have a helpful husband who will steal my phone when he can tell I need a break.

RB: On a personal level, what are you doing to maintain a positive outlook and be productive?

MMG: I’m trying to exercise 5-6 times a week, either participating in home workouts my CrossFit coach is programming for members, or running. While also a stress reliever, doing so logs points for my CrossFit HVL #QuaranTeam (a socially distant, friendly competition that’s keeping us accountable and sane while our gym is closed). 

I’m also making a dent in my stack of books, working on cross stitch projects, video chatting with friends, and getting as much sunshine as possible. Our yard is getting some much-needed attention, and our dog has never had so many walks in his life.

RB: Once this pandemic has subsided, what takeaways will you have to use for crisis communications in the future?

MMG: Though I had prepared a crisis communication plan modeled after my 2019 measles outbreak plan, it’s beefing up significantly as I catalog each COVID-19 communication the district makes. So the resulting record will serve as a much more robust communication plan for any long-term, district-wide crisis – and can be pared down and applied to crises of smaller magnitude than that of a global pandemic. 

The processes for writing, approving and translating key messages have also become streamlined among district leaders, myself, and our ESL Department – which will improve the timeliness of any crisis communications in our district’s future. 

Additionally, this pandemic has reinforced the importance of drafting, updating, and resharing district-approved talking points for both staff and board members, so that’s definitely a key element I’ll incorporate in any future crisis communications.

Molly stays plugged in with her #SchoolPR colleagues on Twitter (@MollyMGorsuch) through #k12PRchat and is an advocate for #k12PRwell.

Marketing during a crisis. What's the right approach?

Marketing during a crisis. What’s the right approach?

If you turned your television on right now, odds are you’d likely see some sort of news coverage related to COVID-19 and the rising number of cases in the United States and worldwide. While those statistics are obviously important to know, like most of you, I’m eager for some uplifting news stories about communities pulling through and coming together during this crisis. I don’t want to speak for everyone else, but Tiger King just doesn’t do it for me (although I still find the memes amusing).

The Coronavirus pandemic has impacted the daily lives of everyone, especially those involved in education. Most people are working remotely from home, which means many parents are now having to juggle homeschooling their young children along with the day-to-day aspects of their job. Older students are now taking their classes virtually through video conferencing platforms, but this hasn’t been without its hurdles. Many families don’t have the necessary resources at home to effectively implement online learning. 

School districts and individual schools have had to adapt by the second to the challenges COVID-19 has presented. The list of issues many schools are dealing with would make this blog much longer than it needs to, but watching everything unfold from my vantage point has been both inspiring and enlightening. Long story short: schools provide much more than just an education to our youth and we should support the teachers, administrators and parents navigating this new reality as much as we can right now. Their ability to adapt and make the best of this situation has been inspiring, to say the least.

For marketing communications practitioners, we’re all navigating uncharted waters right now during this global pandemic. We’ve never seen anything like this in the age of social media and it isn’t surprising that many are walking on eggshells right now.

On September 11, 2001, Facebook was still a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, as they say. At the time, like me, Zuckerberg was watching the events of 9/11 unfold at his high school. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tik Tok, and YouTube all didn’t exist in 2001. Even during the financial crisis in 2007-08, I would argue social media and the velocity and speed in which people consume content wasn’t anywhere near where it is now. For the platforms that did exist in 2007-08, most offer completely different features in 2020.

For most school marketing communications practitioners, the simplest approach right now is likely to lay low, minimize bold/risky content and inform your community when something changes in regards to schedule adjustments or when the next meal delivery will take place. Both of those examples are vital pieces of information and shouldn’t be diminished, but if you think you can’t use this circumstance to build your brand with bold and creative ideas, you could be missing a great opportunity.

Bold ideas right now could have a lasting impact and create equity down the road when this crisis ends and we’re back to our normal, everyday lives.

Much like the days, weeks and months following 9/11, there’s a thirst and hunger for positive and uplifting content right now. All of the drastic changes that have taken place in K-12 education over the last several weeks since COVID-19 became our new reality have created an opportunity for marketing communications practitioners to show how their schools are unique and how their community has pulled together. Finding a creative way to show and promote the positive stories happening right now will have both an immediate and long-term impact on your brand.

What are some examples of creative initiatives your school district or school has implemented over the last month during this crisis? Share your examples and we’ll share them on our social media channels. 

5 mistakes to avoid in a rebrand process

It’s a new year (and a new decade!), which means we’re all making big plans and setting lofty organizational goals to kick off 2020. For many schools and districts, this means tackling that organizational rebrand you’ve been thinking about for years. That 1980s logo just isn’t cutting it anymore.

The purpose of this blog isn’t to deter you from rebranding. Rather, our hope is to shed light on a few components K-12 schools and districts forget about during a rebrand process and to keep you from making the same mistakes.

1. Rebranding just for the sake of rebranding.

Before you even consider bringing the idea of a rebrand to the table at your next leadership meeting, you should have at least one core reason identified as to why you think your organization should make such a monumental change. What problem are you trying to solve? If your only response is “I think it’s time for a change” your rebrand exercise is likely going to be a challenging one. Some of the most typical reasons to rebrand include:

• Major changes to your target customer. Perhaps your admissions footprint has changed over time and the type of families you’re recruiting have different needs.

• You have an outdated look. This is the most typical reason we come across as a company. Most schools and districts haven’t touched their visual identity or assessed their messaging platform in years, and their brand doesn’t reflect their current values.

• Large structural changes to your school or district. In 2013, Berea High School and Midpark High School in Ohio merged as part of the Berea City School District’s consolidation process. Because of this merger, the new high school — Berea-Midpark High School — needed a new visual identity and mascot. The school ultimately landed on Titans as the new mascot and combined the previous official colors of Berea High School (blue and red) and Midpark High School (orange and brown) to establish the new school’s color palette (blue and orange).

2. Operating in a silo.

Even after you’ve identified your reason for rebranding, you still run the risk of alienating and angering your community if you operate in a silo during the process. Inclusivity is essential in a rebrand exercise. From the very start of the process, you should include your key stakeholders and engage in focus groups and surveys at every stage. Giving your students, teachers, administrators, school board members, and other key stakeholders a seat at the table will not only help you clarify your current brand equity, it will help you develop advocates and fans when you’re ready to launch later in the process.

Make your rebrand exercise collaborative, interactive and enjoyable for your community by inviting feedback and allowing your most important stakeholders to have a voice.

3. Neglecting equity.

In all likelihood, people in your community are attracted to something in your current brand. Whether it’s a logo, mascot, color or some piece of messaging you’ve used for years in a slogan, you should determine what equity exists in your current brand before finalizing any changes. Through surveys and focus groups, you’ll likely know at the end of your research phase if your rebrand exercise is going to be evolutionary (small refinements to the existing brand) or revolutionary (complete brand overhaul).

This is where many organizations go wrong and abandon members of the community. Learn what your community loves about you and build on it.

4. Avoiding substance.

Rebranding just for the sake of seeing something new likely won’t end well. While it’s always fun and exciting to see a fresh look and new logo, your visual identity is only a small part of your brand. You should use this opportunity to not only assess your organization’s visual identity system but take the time to clarify your mission, vision, values and unique selling proposition. What philosophies and behaviors drive your organization? What sets you apart? Why should the community care about you? Your mission and values are likely well established throughout your organization in everything you say and do, but taking a magnifying glass to those components alongside your visual identity will be beneficial in the long run.

5. Failure to launch.

You’ve spent months pouring over survey results, held countless focus groups, and prepared dozens of design drafts. You now have a new visual identity system you want to show to the world, but you haven’t thought through how to launch it in a way that’s going to create a buzz and resonate with your community. Creating both an internal and external launch plan late in the process is vital. Internally, your staff needs to understand the new brand and how to use your new visual identity and/or messaging platform. Failure to engage internally with your staff before taking your new brand public could prove costly. 

Externally, consider your audiences and the most meaningful way to introduce them to your new brand. Perhaps you have it in your budget to buy decals, t-shirts, coffee mugs or other branded merchandise with your new marks for a large community gathering where you’ll introduce the new brand. If you have media members you work with on a regular basis, make sure they have easy access to the new logos and a style guide to follow. 

Phasing out your old marks and outdated messaging copy takes a lot of work, but it’s all too often an afterthought for organizations.

At Rhodes Branding, we’ve worked with a number of districts and schools on rebrand efforts. If a rebrand exercise is something you’re considering, we’d love to help. Send a us note.

Here is our #SchoolPR question and answer blog with Zachery Fountain.

#SchoolPR Q&A: Zachery Fountain

RB: What is your name and occupation?

ZF: Zachery Fountain, Director of Communications and Public Relations for the Flagstaff Unified School District.

RB: How would you describe your job and where you work to a complete stranger?

ZF: The work of a school communications director is that of an air traffic controller.  We have schools, programs, and activities that are always occurring and it is my role to ensure that we can appropriately share this information with our stakeholders.  This means creating predictability from all of the different groups so that their great work can be effectively shared and promoted for the greatest good.

RB: If someone were to shadow you for a day, what would they learn or what would you want them to learn about you?

ZF: I would want them to learn that I believe in high expectations in all that we do.  Our work is the ultimate start up. We have only so many opportunities to support our students, families, and community and I want us all to succeed to the best of our abilities.

RB: What’s one pet-peeve you see all too often in the education space that you’d change if you could?

ZF: The idea that we are only competing with other educational institutions.  Individuals receive a massive number of targeted messages everyday and we are not just competing with the school down the street, but also every large organization with an advertising budget.  This means that we have to invest in quality communication and visual mediums that drive student experience; not just singular events.

RB: If you had a magic wand and could fix three things about K-12 education, what would they be?

  1. Respect for school communications teams as professionals.
  2. Commitment to branding resources.
  3. Increase in the number of staff applying to join the education profession.

RB: What do you miss the most about being a kid in school?

ZF: We moved around a lot while I was in school and the thing that I miss the most is exploring new communities and meeting new people along the way.  There was a sense of adventure and it always paid off with great lessons and experiences.

RB: What grade level did you enjoy the most and why?

ZF: I enjoyed my junior year of high school at Centennial High School in Las Vegas, Nev., because Mr. Mark Remillard taught me that my passion for politics and communications could be used together on the Forensics team.  It was the first time that I could be competitive off of the basketball court and join other students who had similar passions. The son of a military officer, I really felt like I finally found a school community at Centennial and I will always be grateful to Mr. R for creating that opportunity to grow in new ways.

RB: What did you think was “cool” when you were young that isn’t cool now?

ZF: My Sony Walkman.  Back then, 12 Foo Fighter songs on the go was an incredible feeling.

RB: In your opinion, what makes a brand good?

ZF: A good brand is identity.  Knowing the who, what, when, why, and how from an icon builds buy-in and common understanding.  When folks can look at an icon and know the story or identify with the people, it is powerful in building trust overtime.  In an impression based marketing world, repetition of the values and comprehension of the work makes all the difference as organizations seek public trust.  So, it is more than logos, it is a bridge to storytelling that encompasses why anyone should care.

RB: How has the way parents and students communicate and engage with you changed since you started your career?

ZF: The big change is that our families have become platform agnostic.  They may check Twitter for a snow day alert, sign up for events on Facebook,  or check grades via an app. What this means is that we now have to adapt for multiple platforms and drive home communications in more comprehensive campaigns for the most basic of information.  As each of these platforms fine tune their practices, it adds more requirements that we need to be prepared for as we seek to break through.

RB: If you were given ad space for a 30-second Super Bowl commercial to promote where you work, what would the commercial look like?

ZF: The commercial would start with images of a traditional classroom experience, a needle drop sound effect would drop, and there would be a rapid set of images and video showing the fast paced experiences in our district closing with a large FUSD logo and a link to a splash page for all of the programs that were featured.

RB: Do you have any bold predictions for what K-12 education will look like in 20 years?

ZF: I believe that we are the verge of a massive change in K-12 education with large segments of teachers, staff, and administrators on the edge of retirement.  It means new ideas, while also a loss of institutional knowledge for all organizations. How we navigate this gigantic change is going to be interesting in that the greater adoption of technology inside and outside the classroom, with more prevalent consumer practices towards education, there are great opportunities on the horizon if districts are prepared.

Team gathered to review calendar at a roundtable

A Content Calendar: What it is and why you needed it yesterday

What is a content calendar?

Content calendars are shareable resources that your team can use to plan all content creation and promotion and visualize how your content is distributed throughout the year.  A content calendar gives you the direction you need to develop rich, quality content on various platforms and stores it all in one place. By establishing and maintaining a consistent theme, planning your posts, and crafting robust content on time, a content calendar aids your school or district communications team by saving them time!

Developing a content calendar allows for more time to be proactive and less weight on your shoulders during the busy school year when you have to be reactive. Content calendars are integral to a successful marketing strategy, yet only 32 percent of companies that utilize content marketing have a written process for it (Content Marketing Institute). In posting thoughtfully curated content, you increase your school’s following, boost engagement, connect with your students and staff members, and maintain your school narrative.

Establishing Guidelines

When creating a successful content calendar, the first step is establishing guidelines. This means assigning content owners, publishers, and schedulers for each platform and theme. For you, this might be an athletic director, the journalism teacher, or anyone who’s already involved in creating content. Starting is the hardest part, so make it easier on yourself by adding important dates and themes from previously established calendars like your school’s academic calendar or a sports calendar.

Determining a Cadence

The second step of implementing a content calendar is determining a posting cadence. Your cadence is how often you post content to each platform. For example, you may post to Twitter 12 times a day and Instagram only twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. A consistent cadence helps your community establish trust and know what information they can rely on and when. If the cadence is disrupted, you can leave your students and staff members feeling confused.

Establishing a cadence also keeps you from forgetting about that one platform that hasn’t had much attention in a while. It’s important to be aware of the different levels of interaction on your social platforms as each of these is likely to vary in engagement. Knowing what content performs well, which platform is most impactful, and the most ideal days and times to post, is key to defining your cadence.

Quality Content

Determine what content resonates with your audience. To do this, utilize the analytics tools provided by your social media platforms. These metrics are often titled “Insights” or “Analytics” and can be found on Instagram Business profiles, Twitter, LinkedIn Business profiles and Facebook Business pages. Through these results, you can develop a deeper understanding of what types of posts perform well and when. For example, your audience may resonate more with your school’s sports teams and engage more with score posts or updates from the latest play on Twitter. Or maybe you just rolled out a new career program and your parents are highly engaged with articles on Facebook explaining what’s new. By observing metrics, you discover what’s performing best.

Theme consistency is a good indicator of a strong social media direction and presence, but it’s also beneficial to include features of diverse perspectives. For example, you could ask a teacher to write a blog about their teaching style, or you could reach out to your principal or headmaster for a blog on what makes a good leader. Not only is consistency key, but diversity and inclusiveness is paramount. No one likes being left out and that goes for staff, sports teams, art clubs, teachers and your community as a whole. Make sure you’re not being one-sided in your features and posts.


Because so much of the school year is spent being reactive, scheduling out your content ahead of time is incredibly important. If you can’t fill in every blank space on your content calendar, don’t panic. Instead, include a placeholder theme of the post with a due date for the draft. This way, you won’t go days without content and you’ll have a direction for what’s needed, along with a deadline. For example, if you know your school will need content to post on Veteran’s Day and you host a Veteran’s Day breakfast each year, your calendar might look something like this:

| Holiday | Veteran’s Day | Take pictures at Veteran’s Day Breakfast | Post to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram | Due Date: November 11, 2020 |

A good rule of thumb is planning out your content 1-2 weeks in advance. That way, you can see which days of the week are more saturated with content and which days may need some attention.

A successful marketing campaign requires an organized, well-thought-out approach. With a content calendar, you can schedule posts weeks or even months in advance instead of brainstorming them in a frenzy the day of. There are plenty of free content calendar templates available online, and you can even get started with a simple Excel spreadsheet. You’ll be happy you started- a content calendar can bring you one step closer to achieving your marketing objectives and exhibiting your school’s growth!

9 tips to recognize teachers and staff throughout the year

9 tips to recognize teachers and staff throughout the year

Retain and motivate your staff with positive acknowledgment

As a leader, it’s important to create a cohesive team culture for your employees. A major part of this is showing recognition for your team of administrators, office staff, and teachers throughout the school year.

Your staff walks through the school doors day after day for more than just a paycheck. They want their contributions to make a difference and impact their students – the real reason they are there. Along the way, though, staff members also want to feel appreciated and recognized for their hard work, and this starts from the top down.

Recognition in the workplace has been proven to increase retention, engagement, performance and a sense of fulfillment for employees. Knowing their leader cares about their role and the effort they put forth, employees feel a greater sense of accomplishment, purpose, and ultimately reward. 

It’s important to remember that recognition needs to be authentic. Your staff can easily identify an artificial compliment during the morning meeting. How do you ensure your praise is sincere? 

  • Be thoughtful and specific. Take a few moments ahead of time to articulate – in your mind or in writing – the explicit value the person’s actions have brought to the school/team/students/etc.
  • Use your staff members’ names when recognizing them in front of their colleagues. 
  • Make eye contact and use positive body language. If you seem disingenuous or disinterested, your efforts will have a negative lasting impression and create distrust amongst your staff.  

Along with authenticity, consistency is key to effective recognition. Starting off the school year strong is essential, but you want to maintain steam throughout the year. Being consistent will keep your staff engaged during the hyper-active times of the year and feeling motivated through the last days leading up to summer break.

Here are nine tips for recognizing your staff throughout the school year that will keep them engaged, fulfilled and hungry for more.

Peer-to-Peer Recognition

Peer-to-peer recognition creates a considerate team environment and fosters collaboration. You can create a board in the staff lounge or front office with notes of appreciation to colleagues, nominate a staff member each week and hang their photo on a board with positive mentions from colleagues, or post sticky notes with positive messages on a teacher’s room door. You can also recognize staff members on their birthdays – whether it’s a monthly email recognizing staff’ birthdays or simply wishing ‘Happy Birthday’ to your personnel on their special day, the thought will provide feel-good moments to your team.

Celebrate Milestones

Observing staff anniversaries or applauding milestones is a touching recognition opportunity. Celebrating a new teacher’s completion of their first year or a tenured staff member’s 20-year anniversary at the school, these highlights are vital to celebrate. These are great gifting moments as well. A personalized plaque or a gift card to a local restaurant are popular options that are easy to get and have a meaningful impact.

Acts of Kindness

A simple compliment goes a long way. Exuding genuine kindness towards your colleagues and staff every day is an easy and effective way to build rapport and show you care. Showing an interest in a staff member’s personal life is a considerate way to display compassion. Asking about their weekend plans, their family’s vacation, or purely how they’re doing on any given day shows an easygoing and natural approach to be a thoughtful leader.

Positive Feedback

Along with acknowledging achievements and providing shout-outs to your team, it’s important to reinforce their performance with positive feedback. Constructive, encouraging, and actionable feedback is just as beneficial as a ‘thank you’ on a consistent basis. It helps your team feel a sense of accomplishment, reassures their dedicated efforts, and emboldens their drive to keep going.

Free Staff Meals

Providing your staff with a free breakfast or lunch a few times a year is an enjoyable way to recognize their roles throughout the school year. Giving staff time to sit and enjoy a break with each other is also a great way to maintain collaborative rapport amongst the larger team. A free meal is an easy way to appreciate the entire team at one time.

Growth Opportunities

Providing project opportunities to encourage growth is another way to recognize your team for their continued efforts. Providing committee leadership openings is important as well. Continuing to encourage staff to enhance their skills, discuss their long-term plans, and consciously put them in growth situations will flex your muscles as a leader and grow their individual flame. Make sure to offer continued support, guidance, and feedback as well.

Give Time Back

The gift of time is a hot commodity to educators; shortening a meeting or surprising your staff with a cancellation to give time back is an appreciated way to recognize their busy schedules. Any extra time to plan or catch up is always valuable. Also, ensuring staff meetings are concise and efficient is welcomed. Provide relevant district or school news in a timely manner and avoid frivolous topics that can be covered in an email.

Signs of Appreciation

It’s important to show your staff appreciation for all their contributions. Whether it’s the secretary who manages the homecoming committee or the teacher who is always ready to cover another class, letting your staff know you are grateful and value their efforts is essential.  A sincere ‘thank you’ is the quintessential sign of gratitude that every leader needs. Writing a handwritten note or humbly saying ‘thank you’ to a staff member is an effective and noticed method for recognizing them on a regular basis. Even better, it doesn’t cost a thing.

School Merchandise

A fun way to recognize your staff, while also presenting a consistent brand image, is giving free merchandise. Apparel, office supplies, drinkware, and writing utensils are all great items to display your school logo or mascot and gift to staff members. The options are endless. Utilize ‘spirit days’ where staff can wear their school apparel. Your team will feel a sense of pride using and wearing items with their school imagery and branding.

Remember, your teachers, administrators, and staff choose to be at your school for more than a paycheck. Let them know their contributions don’t go unnoticed. Put these nine tips into action to show your genuine appreciation for long-term retention, engagement, and happiness.

When engaging alumni, the two most popular ways we think of are asking alumni for donations and reunions. However, it is important to know that your alumni are looking for more than just being asked for money and hanging out with former classmates. Alumni can be an important ongoing part of your school’s community, including interacting with current students. These 5 ways will help you to engage your alumni on a deeper level.

5 ways to engage alumni

Offering More Relevant Content and Opportunities to Engage with Alumni on a Deeper Level

When engaging alumni, the two most popular ways we think of are asking alumni for donations and reunions. However, it is important to know that your alumni are looking for more than just being asked for money and hanging out with former classmates. Alumni can be an important ongoing part of your school’s community, including interacting with current students. These 5 ways will help you to engage your alumni on a deeper level. 

Social Media

85% of alumni organizations at large report they “do a poor job,” or “need to do more” to attract and engage young alumni. A key way to reach out to your alumni is to meet them where they are at. For many of your grads, especially the younger ones, they are hanging out on social media. In fact, 61.6% of grads use social networking sites to keep in touch with their alma mater. 

Nostalgia campaigns that take advantage of the #ThrowbackThursday hashtag on Twitter and Instagram can catch the attention of your alumni. You can also share information about upcoming events that alumni may be interested in. One example of this is sharing the date and time of the homecoming football game. To keep alumni engaged that can’t make the big game, ask people to show their school pride by sharing a photo of themselves wearing school colors.  

Monitor the hashtags your alumni use when sharing content about your school so that you can take advantage of relevant hashtags. Also, monitor what social media platforms your alumni use. If your alumni are really engaged, you might consider setting up social media accounts specifically for your alumni. 

Also, don’t forget to segment your audience. You’ll have alumni that range in age so make sure to target each segment where they are and with content that is most relevant to that group. To help you segment your alumni, currently, you’ll typically find graduates of less than 10 years on Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat, while you’ll find that graduates of 10 or more years are likely hanging out on Facebook and their email inboxes. 

For the more professional side of social network platforms, utilize LinkedIn to help your grads focus on higher education and/or finding a job. This is a great platform to show that you still care about your graduates and their progress. On LinkedIn, you can build groups or communities for your grads where alumni can connect with people from their class and reach out to businesses looking for employees. 

A Place on Your Website

Many school websites focus on prospects as well as current students. Consider creating an alumni microsite or an alumni portal that offers benefits and showcases relevant content like events, news, photos, and resources. In fact, 78% of alumni prefer to access their benefits online. But don’t let your alumni content on your main website get buried, however. You want your alumni to find the link or portal easily.

If you have the resources and time, consider curating a blog on the alumni site that shares relevant content, like tips for stand-out resumes, interview etiquette, and other fun topics. 

Maintain Networks and Offer Resources

Speaking of resources, two of the most important resources you can offer alumni is networking and help with finding a job. You can offer to make introductions, keep alumni engaged with their former professors and offer career fairs. Even as a high school you can help your alumni network and find jobs, especially if they have moved back to your community. Who better to know local businesses and their need for employees than the local schools and their employees who live in the community?

LinkedIn has recently become a great tool for schools to provide alumni with career resources as well. In fact, it can be pretty hands-off for your school–just create the group and allow the networking to happen organically! These groups can also give current students and alumni the opportunity to create professional relationships and establish a career-driven network with other alumni. Twitter can also be a great tool to share job leads or relevant articles on finding jobs (or perhaps share posts from that blog we mentioned above). 

Presence at Events and Collaboration

Do you have an event or a student organization that could benefit from alumni support? If your event needs career panelists or judges, staff for student retreats or mentors for students, alumni are perfect for filling that role. Not only is it a great way to get your alumni involved with the current student population making them feel as if they are still part of the community, but it can also help current students better understand the skills they are developing for later in life. Consider having a group of alumni that you rely on often for these roles and refer to them as alumni ambassadors. 

Hire Your Alumni

Who better to support your school and show school spirit like no other than your alumni? Obviously the job of teacher or mentor is a great job for many alumni, giving them the chance to interact with current students, but you may find other ways to support alumni with building projects, event planning, and other ancillary projects the school develops. There are so many roles within your school that alumni can fill with gusto and pride!

From utilizing social media accounts better to having grads mentor or even teach your current students, you can build your school’s community. By engaging your alumni where they are at and on a deeper level, you’ll be able to have more meaningful interactions with them that benefit both your school and your grads. 

Useful stats to better understand Generation Z.

Useful statistics and info to better understand Gen Z

Generation Z is the newest generation to be named and encompasses people born between 1998-2015. They are currently make up nearly 74 million people in the United States and, by 2020, Gen Z will make up about 40 percent of the U.S. population (Sparks & Honey). 

The Greatest Generation1928-1946
Baby Boomers1947-64
Generation X1965-80
Generation Z1998-present

They are the first generation of true digital natives, meaning from an early age, they have been exposed to the Internet, social media and mobile devices. Because of this, Gen Z is incredibly comfortable researching and cross-referencing sources of information before making a decision.

In a time of increased competition among public, private and charter schools, it has never been more vital for school administrators to understand Gen Z and what makes them unique. They do their research and what they see online from your school influences their opinion of your brand. 

Here are a few data points to keep in mind when you’re thinking through how to effectively communicate with Gen Z.

45% of Gen Z say they are online “almost constantly” (compared to 24% in 2014-2015), and another 44% say they go online several times a day. (Forbes)

60% of surveyed Gen Z will not use a website or app if it loads too slowly. Similarly, 62% will not use an app if it is too difficult to navigate. (Content Square)

Instagram and YouTube are the two most popular social media channels for Gen Z. (99 Firms)

It’s estimated that Generation X had an attention span of about 40 seconds, Millennials of about 5 seconds, and Gen Z, even less. (Sarah Gibb, Future Shopper)

Both Gen Z and Millennials are turned off by brands that constantly self-promote. (Social Media Week)

More than 40% of Gen Z and Millennials expect to see user-generated content before making a purchase. (Statista)

More than half of Gen Z (51%) say their generation is more creative than previous generations, according to a 2019 study conducted in the United States and United Kingdom by JWT Intelligence. 

After watching their Millennial siblings expose everything in their personal lives for posterity on social media and suffer the consequences, Gen Z has grown up more cautious about leaving their digital footprint behind. (Content Square)

75% percent say their mobile device/smartphone is their device of choice, compared to their laptop (45%). (National Retail Federation, IBM)

Gen Z consumers are 2x more likely to shop on mobile than Millennials. (99 Firms)

73% use their mobile device to text and chat, while only 36% do schoolwork through their mobile device. (National Retail Federation, IBM)

47% of U.S. Gen Z consumers research items on mobile devices while shopping at brick-and-mortar locations. (Retail Touchpoints)

60% of Gen Z are more likely than average consumers to hang up if their call isn’t answered in under 45 seconds. (Business Wire)

63% of Gen Z members prefer real people to celebrities when it comes to advertisements. (BazaarVoice)

61% know someone who has been cyberbullied or stalked online. (Alanna McLeod, Burns Marketing)

70% of teens are working entrepreneurial jobs like teaching piano lessons or selling items on eBay. (Harvard Business Review) 

Gen Z’s are the least likely to believe there is such a thing as the “American Dream.” Many have watched their older Millennial siblings dream big and then move back home when it didn’t work out, which has given Gen Z a generally practical, no-nonsense mindset. This means that they look for products and messaging that reflect reality, rather than a perfect, imagined life. (Ruth Bernstein, Advertising Age, Move Over Millennials – Here Comes Gen Z)

Gen Z is saving money far earlier in life than older generations. About 60% of the people surveyed by Lincoln Financial Group between ages 15-19 have a savings account and 71% say they are focused on saving for the future. (Lincoln Financial Group)

63% are worried about their future. (Sparks & Honey)

Gen Z influences $600 billion in family spending. (99 Firms)

60% expect to have multiple careers by age 30. (Sparks & Honey)

76% want to make their hobby their job. (Alanna McLeod, Burns Marketing)

63% believe entrepreneurship should be taught in college. (Alanna McLeod, Burns Marketing)

45% choose brands that are eco-friendly and socially responsible. (National Retail Federation, IBM)

46% agree that their friends’ recommendations and opinions matter when choosing a brand. (National Retail Federation, IBM)

60% want to have an impact on the world. (Alanna McLeod, Burns Marketing)

Education is evolving faster than ever. The choices of where a student can study are growing, and schools of all shapes, sizes, and stature must define what they stand for and take into consideration the differences between Gen Z and Millenials when crafting their communications.