We’ve had a lot of conversations with school leaders over the years and through these conversations, we’ve noticed a consistent theme: When it comes to branding and communication, there’s often a disconnect between districts and their individual schools. By this, we mean communications professionals will send out districtwide information and initiatives to schools. But this information often gets lost in the weeds or misinterpreted along the way. This in turn leads to repetitious work for the communications professionals and inconsistent messaging and branding across the board.
At Apptegy, we talk a lot about unifying your brand and communications. But how exactly does that work at the micro-level—and how does that work in your role as a communications professional? Most schools only have one point person for communications (or a small team, if you’re lucky), and this person can’t be everywhere at once. So how do you practically solve the problem of empowering your staff to represent your district accurately and relay information that’s consistent with your brand? We recently sat down with a few school leaders to hear their ideas.
Jessica McCartney leads the Communications Department at Enumclaw School District, a district of 4,000 students tucked into the foothills of Mount Rainier National Park in Washington. As a native of Enumclaw and an alumna of Enumclaw High School, she has deep ties to her community.
When McCartney moved into the role of Director of Communications, she began to see a disconnect between district-level communications and what was being shared at the local school level. This inconsistency became apparent when Enumclaw launched district-level campaigns.
As a kindergarten parent, McCartney knew that people have a preferred place to get information. This makes it vital for information to be consistent and accurate, no matter where parents are looking.
“It’s unlikely that the majority of people are going to be looking at the superintendent's newsletter, the school newsletter, and the classroom newsletter,” McCartney says. “We’re all very busy, and attention spans are the hottest commodity to try and capture. I felt like if a parent or a guardian was really looking for all the information—if they were choosing that school or classroom newsletter and they weren’t reading the district newsletter—then some information could be missed.”
Her solution? Create a Google Drive Hub where all district-wide communications and brand information are stored. A place where district and school-level staff can pull down language, graphics, logos, stories, pictures, and internal resources that are approved and vetted by the district.
The Hub became a place where things are captured and multiple people can crowdsource information.
Implementing this change was a gradual process, but as staff began to embrace the Hub, McCartney noticed a drastic improvement in brand consistency and crowdsourcing. It also helped ease the workflow for both parties. For McCartney, it eliminated some of the repetitious work that was taking time away from more essential tasks. Likewise, staff felt empowered to speak about district initiatives clearly and accurately.
“I was noticing that when I would create content, a kindergarten enrollment graphic for example, and I would send it out in an email to our school communicators, it wasn't always reaching the intended audience. Sometimes someone would get left off that was involved in a newsletter that I wasn’t aware of or it would go out in an email and get buried,” Jessica said. “There was some repetition in the work I felt like I could eliminate so that it was easier for not only the person creating content but also the person trying to obtain the content.”
McCartney’s next project is to create a two-way communication system where teachers, parent organizations, and community members can upload content to the Hub. This is one practical solution for gathering authentic, real-time stories straight from their school community.
Of course, she recognizes that extending access could create a certain level of chaos. But with the right amount of training and restrictions, she believes it can work. For example, Google Drive allows you to set restrictions on folders; that way, you can vet who has permission to access which folder. You can also modify folders so that employees have permission to download assets, but not delete what’s already there.
By creating the Hub, Jessica was able to solve the problem of school-level miscommunication, brand inconsistency, and repetitious workflow. It became the place where things are captured—a place where staff could turn to find vetted language and brand assets. In the near future, it’ll become the space where stories from the learning community are shared and celebrated.
Bite-sized brand emails
Across the country, in midwest Kansas, Ben Boothe, Ed.D., has created a unique system for keeping his school community on brand. Boothe moved into the role of Director of Community Relations at Gardner Edgerton School District 231 (GESD) in August 2019. In his first year, he quickly recognized the need for brand consistency across the school district.
“I recognized when I started in the role that there was no brand consistency. There were no standards,” Boothe says. “Nobody had taken the time to organize or ensure we had all of the formats necessary for our school logos. They were scattered all over the place. Even industry-standard color codes had not been identified for each of the buildings.”
Dr. Boothe began to take note of all of the branding pieces that needed to be defined for each building, like fonts, templates, letterheads, PowerPoint slides, and signatures. “I was at home and had this extra time as a result of the pandemic. COVID provided this window to sit down and create these brand standards,” Boothe says.
Developing brand guidelines is the easy part, but getting people on board is another matter entirely. Once Dr. Boothe had created brand guidelines for GESD and the individual schools, he knew he needed to take a creative approach to implement this change—one that felt gradual and not overwhelming to the over 950 employees serving the district.
That’s when Boothe came up with the idea to send out periodical brand action item emails. Each email included a few bite-sized brand initiatives, like how to update email signatures or where to find a school’s PowerPoint presentation template. He also included a list of instructions and tutorial videos on how to implement these changes.
Change is always difficult, especially when you’ve been stuck in a system for a long period of time. But because Boothe broke these action items into small, easily digestible steps that were spaced out over a long period of time, his staff embraced the change. It was also important for him to explain the rationale behind the change at the beginning of the process.
Most of the time people will follow through with what you ask them to do if they know the rationale or the ‘why’ behind it. My whole mindset is connection with people over control.
Once this project was complete, Boothe began to notice significant improvements in brand consistency and messaging across the district, and so did his staff. They had no idea how badly they needed brand standards until after the fact. It’s like getting a good haircut, he says: “You know you need a haircut, but you really don’t know how badly you need a haircut until it’s done. That was the staff’s general response.”
Offer voluntary social media training
Social media is an essential tool for school communications—and Andy Almos knows it. As superintendent of East Central Public Schools in Minnesota, Almos recruited staff volunteers for a communications committee that now has an agenda-led meeting every month. Their aim is to improve the district’s communication efforts and create a unified online presence.
If we’re not telling our story,” Almos says, “somebody else is telling our story for us.
As East Central began to develop their social media presence, Almos realized a large portion of his staff was not using it. The East Central communications committee brought it to Almos’ attention that the largest barrier for most of his staff was a long-harbored distrust of social media. For so long, they’d seen social media as nothing more than a way for professionals to get into hot water. To mitigate this fear and to create brand consistency, the district began hosting informal social media training sessions.
As with committee participation, social media training was voluntary. During the sessions, attendees learned how to create a Twitter account and use basic functions like retweeting.
For Almos, it was key to teach staff how to share content. East Central follows what they refer to as their COPE strategy: Create Once; Post Everywhere. “So when the superintendent creates a message, we don’t want a first-grade teacher, for example, to put their own twist on it,” Almos says. Instead, team members retweet or share the exact messages that come out at the district level.
At one training, Almos and his committee even included some real-time practice by posting a photo of the session online, giving attendees a chance to try retweeting, using hashtags, and tagging one another. This was also Almos’ way of telling the East Central community: “We believe in social media, and these are the people who are going to be our communication channels.”
By implementing voluntary social media training sessions and establishing the COPE strategy, East Central has seen huge improvements in brand consistency and messaging across their schools.
Solving the issue of brand inconsistency at the school level doesn’t happen overnight. But there are a few things we can learn from the initiatives McCartney, Boothe, and Almos put into place in their districts.
The first is the need for a centralized place to store information, stories, vetted language, and brand resources—a place that school communicators have access to and are trained to use. And this place doesn’t have to work one way. With the right restrictions and proper training, you can create a two-way communication system to capture stories directly from your community.
The second is a strategic approach to getting your internal staff on board. Whether you’re sending out bite-sized action item emails or setting up informal social media training sessions, it’s important to be thoughtful in your approach. Take steps gradually, be patient with your staff, and be clear with your directives. Soon enough, your staff will welcome the change, like a much-needed haircut!
Read more Apptegy resources
The importance and power of creating a seamless, unified online identity
How your district’s user experience determines the strength of your brand
For today’s families, your website needs to do more than broadcast out—it needs to provide help.