Today’s hottest technology tools are having a significant impact on school communications. In just a few years, we’ve gone from defining web site interactivity as posting an eMail address to capture web site visitors’ feedback, to sophisticated online school application systems and news services. Now, we’re not just pushing information out, we’re pulling our audiences in as they choose the news they want to receive from us.

Here’s a quick round-up of tech tools that schools are using to boost communication, maintain public support, and build relationships with key constituents.

1. Subscription news services

Representing the ultimate in “news you can use,” online subscriptions let parents and other stakeholders choose the information they want to receive–from lunch menus to curriculum initiatives and school closings.

Every time new information is posted to your school or district’s web site, subscribers are sent the information automatically, thanks to Really Simple Syndication (RSS) software and other sophisticated, web-enabled tools.

Parents in Fairfax County Public Schools, for example, can sign up to get information from the district and from individual schools.

As part of the district’s pioneering Keep In Touch program, subscribers can choose from an impressive array of information options, including the Familygram newsletter, news releases, emergency notices, the cable programming guide, school boundary changes, and information about child care, adult education, magnet programs, and other special areas.

Because subscribers self-select the information they receive, readership and response rates tend to be higher for these services than for other forms of electronic marketing. Typically launched in partnership with an outside vendor who manages the database and the web-enabled programming, subscription news services also yield great data that can be used to target communications more effectively.

For example, if open rates (the percentage of subscribers who actually open an eMail) seem low, school communicators might need to adjust their eMail subject lines to create more interest.

2. Webcasts

Digitizing video isn’t just for local television news stations. School leaders are extending the reach of their district cable television shows and video productions by posting them online.

Alabama’s Mobile County Public Schools, for example, routinely posts video from its school board meetings and the district’s local cable access show, “Inside Education,” on its web site.

Web surfers can view a promotion of the show, read a synopsis of the stories covered, or access the entire show in high-, medium-, or low-bandwidth formats. Free downloads of Windows Media Player and QuickTime make viewing a snap.

Other innovative web site features include a photo album that shows the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Katrina on local schools, an alumni page, and audio files of recent interviews.

Given the investment school leaders make in cable television and video production, extending these programs’ audience and shelf life on the web makes good sense, both financially and in terms of communication.

Repetition, frequency, and consistency help drive messages home. As one marketing mentor once told me, “Nora, you can fit on the head of a pin what you can get into the mind of the average consumer.”

3. Podcasts

Enthusiastically embraced by students, pioneering teachers, and other early adopters, podcasts are just beginning to catch on among school public relations professionals. Simple to produce, podcasts–basically digital radio broadcasts–represent a powerful new tool for school communicators. While digitizing video and online subscription news services require considerable technical skill, podcasting simply requires a telephone and a service provider to translate recordings into an MP3 file.

Parenting tips, college admission information, superintendent Q&As, staff media interviews, and business leader roundtables all are fodder for podcasts, which can be set up as one-time events or ongoing dialogs.

4. Blogs

Web-based diaries, discussions, and activity logs are gaining ground as a mainstream PR tool in the private sector. Although blogs still haven’t been widely embraced at the central office level, principals, teachers, and other school-based personnel are now using them to communicate with parents, share ideas with colleagues, or simply blow off steam.

Some of the most powerful blogs provide candid insider views regarding the challenges educators face every day. Blogs also can serve as a form of ongoing dialog with parents, faculty, and students about school safety, student discipline, curriculum changes, and other important issues.

5. eNewsletters

Inexpensive and relatively easy to produce, eNewsletters are surging in popularity as school leaders strive to “get there first” with the good news–and the bad.

Short and sweet, eNewsletters are written and designed for time-pressed “skimmers” who will read headlines, subheads, and maybe a sentence or two before moving on to the next item. Readers who want more information can simply click on the link for the rest of the story.

Content is king for eNewsletters. Concise, clear, and compelling copy that quickly summarizes the main points of the story or information is critical; fancy graphics and photographs are not.

The key is to treat eNewsletters as a new medium, and not just as an online version of the old print newsletters–which tend to be too long, too out of date, and too full of education-speak.

6. Voice, eMail, and text broadcasts

Schools and districts across the country have embraced voice, eMail, and text broadcasting systems, especially for emergency communications.

While older versions required equipment purchases and ongoing maintenance costs, the latest web-enabled and VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) software programs let school leaders contact parents by landline phone, cell phone, eMail or text messaging, and pager–all for pennies a contact.

In addition to school closings, inclement weather notices, and other emergencies, voice and eMail broadcasting are being used to contact substitutes, recruit staff, share good news, and alert parents when their children are skipping school or missing assignments.

7. Online surveys and polls

Creating and posting online surveys and opinion polls has never been easier, thanks to do-it-yourself services such as Survey Monkey.com.

Online surveys let you tap into the pulse of the community at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional print or telephone public opinion polls, and they can serve as a powerful, two-way communication tool or listening device.

In addition to gaining feedback on hot topics or issues, the polls also can be used to build your district’s key contact database or subscription service by giving participants a “want to know more” selection option.

Keep in mind that online poll results can’t be generalized to the population as a whole, because participants aren’t randomly selected. While quick results can be helpful, scientifically constructed telephone polls conducted by trained interviewers are still the most reliable source of data regarding public opinion–an important consideration for bond and tax (or mill) levy campaigns and other ballot initiatives.