With more than 40 states facing burgeoning deficits, school budgets are getting slashed from coast to coast. Often, public information and communications are among the first items to get the ax.

Facing shrinking print budgets for newsletters, brochures, fliers, lunch menus, and mailings, school leaders need to focus more on what works and less on what they’ve always done.

This means more relationship-building and personalized, one-to-one communications and fewer “Dear Parent” memos and “To Resident” mailings.

Thankfully, new media techniques such as electronic newsletters and online publications can support this kind of public relations effort with little or no additional budget impacts, other than staff time.

For example, armed with a customer contact management software program such as Interact Commerce Corp.’s ACT! (for under $200), a $15 per hour college student on summer break, and internet-based eMail, school leaders can start building a database of people they need to stay in close contact with.

Called “opinion leaders” or “key communicators” by PR pros, these are those “E.F. Hutton” folks in your community (when they talk, people listen) who can make or break your program, school, or district.

They can be power leaders—such as the mayor, county commissioners, corporate CEOs, and newspaper publishers—or influential community members, such as PTA presidents, realtors, school reporters, neighborhood activists, Kiwanis Club presidents, and the local ministerial alliance.

Large districts often break their databases into two distinct camps: one for internal audiences such as teachers, bus drivers, and support staff, and one for external targets such as Chamber of Commerce executives, arts leaders, and the region’s largest employers.

At the very least, every school should have contact information (including eMail, voice mail, cell phone, fax, and pager numbers) for all staff members, parents, volunteers, and business partners in a database.

That way, principals and other administrators can use eMail, voice mail, or fax broadcasting to stay in touch with VIPs on a regular basis (six to 12 times per year minimum) with news and information concerning their children and their schools.

If time allows, a school secretary or parent volunteer can use Microsoft Word, Publisher, or other user-friendly software to create an electronic version of the school newsletter. These one-pagers should be filled with short, to-the-point, bulleted news items, deadlines, and lots of kids’ and teachers’ names.

Once the basic template is created, it takes just a few minutes to plug in the weekly or monthly news items—especially if teachers and other school reporters eMail them to the editor.

The format should be easy to read and use, with lots of short, action-oriented headlines, subheads, bullets, and other graphic organizers. One or two font styles and colors are plenty. When it comes to electronic newsletters, content, accessibility, and speed matter more than graphic design.

The goal is to get and keep people interested in what is going on at your school or district. Each news item should just be a sentence or two, followed by a hotlink to your web page or another online resource

By focusing on “news you can use”—such as registration deadlines and school lunch menus—and by including memorable, fun facts that parents and teachers can share at the neighborhood grocery store, recreation center, or synagogue, you can help create a positive “buzz” about your school or district.

The content of electronic newsletters also can be targeted to meet the needs of specific audiences. Business leaders, for example, are less concerned about individual students (unless the student is their child) than they are about test scores, academic rigor, character education, teacher quality, and the wise use of tax dollars.

Frequency also is an issue. Rather than wait for months and then load up an eMail with 10 to 15 news items, you often get more leverage by sending more regular communications and focusing on one or two stellar announcements.

The key for any audience, however, is to keep your missives short. View the subject line on your eMail as your communication’s headline. If you don’t grab your readers in the first word or two, they may trash your eMail without reading it.

While this is less of a concern with affinity groups such as parents and PTA members, you still need to be respectful of their time. Everybody is busy, and no one has time for junk mail, even if it comes electronically and from your child’s school.

You’ll also need to resist the temptation to mark all school and district eMails as urgent or high priority. Like the little boy who cried “wolf” one too many times, you might find yourself wearing out your readers’ responsiveness.

The newsletter may be included in the body of the eMail or sent as an attachment. Attachments can backfire, however, as more and more businesses use blocking software to combat viruses and spam.

If you’re not sure which technique will suit your key audiences best, ask them—and then listen to what they tell you. Also, make sure you include an “opt out” message at the end of your newsletter or eMail, especially if you don’t get the contact information directly from the source.

In additional to eMail and electronic newsletters, more school communications professionals are developing online publications, from simple brochures posted in Adobe Acrobat, to electronic magazines (eZines) created specifically for the web that feature in-depth articles, photo displays, and interactive features such as editor chats and virtual tours.

While the initial conversion from print to online can be time-consuming and expensive, the ability to make changes on an as-needed basis is quickly making print obsolete, especially for data-intensive documents such as personnel directories, course catalogues, school profiles, and test results.

By posting its personnel directory online, for example, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) is saving more than $50,000 per year in printing costs as well as thousands of hours of staff time from several departments, including human resources, public information, graphic production, the print shop, storage, and distribution.

Once obsolete as soon as it was printed, the online personnel directory is now updated automatically every time there is a change in the mainframe employee database.

Firewalls and other safeguards keep private information in personnel files private; employees dictate whether their home addresses or phone numbers may be shared district-wide. Not surprisingly, the directory has become one of the most frequently visited features on the district’s sophisticated intranet (internal web site).

The intranet, including the personnel directory, is advertised via the district’s weekly electronic newsletter, “Direct Line,” which is eMailed to all staff members and posted on all school and department bulletin boards.

The new communication tools seem to be working. In a recent survey, employees said they appreciated the district’s new efforts to keep them informed—a marked improvement from two years ago, when a lack of communication from central administration caused many staff members to cite the daily news as their primary source of information.

Like CMS, districts across the country are shifting more publications to the internet and cutting print newsletters, brochures, catalogues, budget books, and other traditional communications tools.

Whether the growing emphasis on electronic and web-based communications helps improve morale and create better public engagement and support of our schools or widens the information gap is largely up to us.

We can seize these new tools to build and maintain relationships with the people that matter most, or we can simply repeat the same mistakes online that we made in print and hope our “one size fits all” communication approach manages to hit its target.

Related links:
Interact Commerce Corp.’s ACT!
http://www.act.com

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
http://www.cms.k12.nc.us

Electronic newsletter publishing
http://www.imakenews.com