Working the web to win at the polls

Lots of school leaders think of bond issues as a way to get technology, but only the innovative few have learned to use technology to help pass a bond issue.

You’ve probably been using your school web site to communicate with your constituents in a general way. You’ve posted lunch schedules, announcements and events, and maybe even student achievements.

But have you been harnessing the interactivity, convenience, and immediacy of the web to market your schools? This is where you can really build on your technology investment.

Let’s take a look at how to make sure your web site plays a strategic role in your tax levy or bond issue campaign.

Most successful campaigns employ a multi-pronged approach that combines a clear, compelling message with numerous “yes voter” contacts.

These are the people who have voted your way on previous issues, or whom you have reason to think might be likely to vote with you. In today’s communication-intense world, you may need to provide the same information to the same people eight or more times, and in different ways, just to break through all the information clutter.

You don’t have time or money to burn, so you’ll want to target your campaign to your “yes voters” — parents, grandparents, teachers, support staff, students of voting age. Your web strategy can’t exist outside of a sound campaign plan. Don’t assume that slapping up a web site means you don’t need solid public relations planning and execution. In fact, you might do more harm than good. There are plenty of instances of new media — television, for example — being misused in “noisy” campaigns that stir up the opposition.

The idea is to keep your supporters informed and get them to the polls without inadvertently rallying your opposition. Marketing the right message or product to the right person using the right medium at the right time takes careful research, planning, and execution. This is a strategic management function that should be undertaken by someone on your staff who understands public relations and campaign strategy.

Your overall campaign strategy should include internet activities — eMail, multimedia events, web site features — that support more traditional election tools such as newsletters, door-to-door or telephone canvassing, rallies, yard signs, and direct-mail efforts.

The average taxpayer may not surf the net, but your community’s opinion leaders most assuredly do. This means including the internet in your marketing mix can make good strategic sense.

Why? Because your key constituents want to have the “inside” information, and they want to get it straight from you — before they hear it from the local press or one of their neighbors. Also, having a host of well-informed key communicators helps stop rumors and combats the proliferation of inaccurate or misleading information.

One of the biggest mistakes we make in educational communication is to use new tools in old ways. The last thing we need to do is to simply transfer all of our one-way, “message from on-high” print communications. (And that includes big, full-color photos of the superintendent that take 10 minutes to make it to someone’s browser.) Marshall McLuhan said the “medium is the message.” Use the medium of the internet and world wide web strategically and in new, creative ways. At the very least, target your message to your audience, keep it fresh, concise, accurate and interactive, or choose a different communication channel. Like stale bread, old information isn’t very appetizing.

Here are a few ideas to help you begin thinking of strategies that are fresh and fully baked:

Conduct public opinion research

Ongoing research is vital to effective school-community relations and can make a critical difference in the success or failure of a finance election.

You might consider putting a “pop-up” survey, “guest book,” or downloadable questionnaire on your web page to help you keep your finger on the pulse of your community and target your message more effectively. Keep your surveys simple, direct and to-the-point.

Asking for a mailing address, phone, eMail, and fax address to build distribution lists for future communications can help you separate surfers from true constituents. Use the information to build your communication data base, but respect what respondents tell you. If they’re interested in continuing education courses, don’t bludgeon them with board meeting highlights, staff notes, or education jargon. Send them what they want, when they want it — and in their preferred format.

For a good example of a simple, pop-up survey and how to pique your audiences’ interest in additional information, publications, and resources, check out the St. Louis Science Center’s home page ( And remember, even though someone’s first contact with you might be via the web, it doesn’t mean that’s their favorite, only, or most believable channel of communication. Most research shows that school personnel and school-produced publications — people and print — are the most trusted sources of information for parents. Not the mass media, and not, so far, the web. A good rule of thumb? Never assume. Inaccurate assumptions can kill effective communication.

Streamline media relations and general communications

Most reporters have internet access and appreciate being able to tap into an eMail list of experts from your district who are qualified to address specific educational issues or to answer finance-campaign questions.

Consider linking your site to businesses and community groups that are willing to go “on the record” in support of your campaign. Insert “video clip” testimonials from your campaign committee that describe why support is needed.

Again, customer service prevails. Make it easy for the news media to download fact sheets, photos, graphics, public service announcements, and press releases. Answer all eMail inquiries promptly.

Also, please keep in mind that most states have strict laws that govern what type of information schools can publish using public money (including district staff time). You may want to look for parent volunteers who can develop and post this information for you. Follow your legal department’s guidelines on this issue, but never give up control of your image or your message.

Rockwood School District in Eureka, Mo., is using its web site effectively to promote positive media relations (

Host virtual tours and open houses

Leading a bond levy campaign for a new high school? Pushing for major new investments in educational technology? Celebrating another hard-won capital campaign? Consider using your web site as a way of showing people what you need as well as what you’ve accomplished.

Get students and staff involved in developing a virtual building tour or open house, complete with interactive visits to highlight problem areas that need attention or to showcase that newly opened media center or auditorium. The St. Louis Science Center offers a nifty virtual tour on its home page (

Even if you’re not actively campaigning, think about promoting your schools to your community to build positive communications that will help you win votes the next time around. Virtual ribbon-cutting and dedication ceremonies can be great ways to show your alumni and supporters the fruits of their generous donations to the capital campaign.

Trinity High School in Louisville, Ky., has used all of these strategies to build stronger school community relations and to effectively court alumni donations and support. You can see their work at:

“Our primary goal at this point is to make it an interactive site for the whole Trinity community,” says Chuck Weining, director of technology. “Our web site helps tie alumni back to the school for sports results or to talk to their favorite faculty members (via eMail). For our out-of-town alumni especially, it’s been a real plus and an important reconnection.”

If you’re struggling with poor attendance at traditional open houses or campaign rallies, try hosting a “stay-at-home” option. This can be as simple as posting prize-winning student artwork, photos of the new gym, or a jargon-free explanation of the curriculum. If you’re ready for the next step, post your teachers’ or guidance counselors’ eMail addresses and the times they’ll be available for an online conference. Make sure you respect your audiences’ technological limitations.

There’s no point in digitizing your video clips or going to the time and expense of posting dual formats (with or without graphics, for example), if most of your parents are still stuck with slow modems and very basic software. The goal is maximum information with a minimum of frustration. Advertise your virtual “events” both on the web and through more traditional means such as parent-teacher conferences, student performances, school letterhead (and envelopes), newsletters, brochures, fliers, bulletin boards, school marquees, and lunch menus.

Whatever methods you choose, recognize that the days of one-size-fits-all communication (e.g., a note sent home with the kids) are over.

For more information: contact Nora Carr at For a list of award-winning web sites, contact the National School Public Relations Association, 301.519.0496.

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