As you fine-tune your school communications program, you might want to rethink your use of print and cable TV and focus more on eMail.

Two recent studies once again show a growing preference for eMail and internet-based communications among nearly all demographic groups.

 

For example, a recent survey of 4,000 adults in 20 cities conducted by Opinion Research Corp. and America Online showed that 41 percent of Americans check eMail first thing in the morning—and a whopping 61 percent say they check their personal eMail while at work.

 

 

 

Adding fuel to the fire, a recent online survey by Burst! Media found that internet use continues to squeeze out traditional media, with nearly 61 percent of all respondents saying they spend more time on the internet than a year ago.

 

 

 

And it’s not just teens. Close to 40 percent of all women and males ages 25-44 in the Burst! Media survey also report spending less time today reading newspapers, watching television, or listening to the radio.

 

 

 

While America’s love affair with eMail might have some employers pulling their hair out in terms of lost productivity, school leaders and PR professionals need to pay close attention to this critical market shift.

 

 

 

Parents and other key stakeholders clearly are using eMail in record numbers to communicate with teachers, research schools, investigate new programs, raise money for the PTA, and check their children’s grades and homework assignments.

 

 

 

While the traditional backpack method for parent communication still has its place for some school-based information, such as lunch menus, pizza nights, and field trip notices, we clearly need to shift more time and resources—including staffing—toward electronic communications.

 

 

 

In this day and age, I’d find it very hard to justify the time and money that many districts are still pouring into their print newsletters for parents and staff. Life just moves too quickly these days for these dinosaurs to be very effective.

 

 

 

(Please notice I said district-based newsletters. School-based newsletters that are timely, brief, and to the point are still well-read by most parents, especially if the lunch menu is on the other side.)

 

 

 

The tough truth facing schools today is that parents now expect 24-7 access and quick response times to eMail inquiries.

 

 

 

While parents’ and other stakeholders’ use of eMail and the web represents powerful PR opportunities, my sense is that most schools, districts, and departments don’t have the staff to develop and distribute content through these channels in a timely fashion.

 

 

 

Keep in mind that the real power of eMail is the ability to personalize your communications. Parents are used to online retailers whose sites greet customers by name when they return and allow customers to pick and choose what information they want, and when.

 

 

 

Of course, these kinds of nifty tools require on-site registration, password protections, and sophisticated back-end databases and software.

 

 

 

That also means we have to build the kinds of systems and structures that make it easy to get these tasks done, and we need to start paying stipends for school web masters and communicators just as we do for football and debate coaches.

 

 

 

We also need to start providing more secretarial and administrative support to classroom teachers, and we need to build in more time during the school day for parent communication.

 

 

 

It’s simply unrealistic to expect teachers to teach all day in the classroom and spend nights and weekends eMailing parents, especially because so much of their so-called “free time” is already booked with lesson preparations and grading.

 

 

 

Given the time pressures of parents and teachers, I’m not sure that traditional open houses, parent nights, and quarterly or biannual parent-teacher conferences alone can get the job done. Nor should these 1950s tactics still function as our primary communication channels.

 

 

 

Rather than get frustrated by poor parent showings at these traditional events, especially at the middle and high school levels, maybe we need to come up with some radically new approaches and find ways to use technology effectively.

 

 

 

Businesses increasingly are replacing face-to-face meetings with conference calls, web-exes, video conferencing, and other electronic formats.

 

 

 

While parents and teachers still need some good old-fashioned face time, in 26 years in public relations I’ve yet to attend a large-scale PTA or PTO meeting that was really worth the time invested, other than the student performances.

 

 

 

We’re often quick in schools to assume that parents don’t care or that working parents simply are putting their careers first when they fail to respond to our memos and meetings.

 

 

 

Yet how much time to do you have to read reams of paper? How much extra time do you have to attend evening meetings, especially if they seem kind of silly? How many working parents can take time off during the school day for parent-teacher conferences without losing pay and benefits?

 

 

 

It seems to me we need a new model of parent communication and involvement, one that doesn’t require an army of stay-at-home moms and dads to succeed. eMail and the internet aren’t going to be the silver bullet, but these tools certainly need to factor more heavily in the equation.