There is a popular phrase in business marketing and branding – “Your brand is not what you say it is. Your brand is what people say about you.”
The philosophy also rings true for schools and public education systems. And, unfortunately, those pushing major education reforms like “school choice” and private school vouchers are winning the public messaging battle in “branding” public schools as things they are not by pushing largely non-existent narratives on their path to generate support for such controversial policy changes. As perhaps collateral damage in this branding battle, educators are leaving the profession in droves, and schools are struggling to recruit and retain qualified teachers for the classroom. Because of this, public school leaders must get serious about proactively communicating and messaging to their stakeholders.
Below are some suggested focus areas for school system leaders:
1. Put targets or tangible goals behind your desired brand: Many leaders say they want their organization to be viewed as buzzwords like innovative, forward-thinking, premier, cutting-edge, “the leader”, and more. But, many fail to create the roadmap or share their targets for what makes the organization a desired “brand”. A superintendent should work with a large group of stakeholders to outline a plan that is transparent and shows the community how the organization is reaching its desired brand. When visiting various district websites, words like “excellence” are often prominent. However, it’s also important for school leaders to put a definition, with targets identified by the community, behind what makes the district “excellent”.
2. Engage in a “never-ending” communications campaign: A school district superintendent should treat every day like he or she is running for the office of superintendent. With that, he or she should have an intentional focus on connecting with and reaching all of the organization’s stakeholders – students, parents, teachers, auxiliary and support staff, elected officials, business leaders, faith leaders, non-parent community members, retired residents, and more. These groups should be engaged frequently to ensure the community is up-to-date on everything happening within the school district and informed on challenges and pressure points. Try to live by a simple rule. The first time a superintendent is out asking the community group for consideration of something should not be the first time the superintendent has visited that group.
3. Build Community Advocates for the “Brand”: Alone, a superintendent cannot define or shape the district’s brand. He or she should form “cabinets” or “councils” of stakeholders that can help with messaging various issues in the district – whether they are simply telling positive stories, helping with messaging challenges, or, dispelling rumors in the community. These individuals will be empowered with information to speak articulately to often complex issues. It’s also important to not just invite the “amen chorus”, but also those who may have been critical of the organization in the past to join these groups. In many cases, the biggest naysayers become your fiercest champions.
4. Aggressively share the great things happening in your schools: “Choice” and voucher proponents want public schools to be branded as and viewed as things that the vast majority of them are simply not. There are incredible teachers, students, and stories in every school building across the country. But the public rarely, if ever, hears those stories…only those that fit a certain narrative. School leaders now, more than ever, must aggressively share these inspiring stories through all necessary channels of communication.
Public schools across the country are in the midst of a messaging and branding battle. If education leaders aren’t intentional about telling their stories, they will continue to be told for them.