One of the great things about working in education is the opportunity to start anew every fall. No matter how tough the previous school year was, we get to go back to school with new school supplies, new students, and new hopes.

After a school year marked by massive budget cuts and teacher layoffs, it’s kind of nice to think about something relatively simple and stress-free, like better school communications. So, with hope springing eternally, here are 10 tips for boosting your eCQ (eCommunications Quotient) during the new school year.

1. Start tweeting. Social media is changing the communications landscape in new and sometimes challenging ways. Now’s the time to start experimenting (responsibly, of course) with Twitter, TeacherTube, and other approved–and not-so-approved–social media sites. Eventually, school districts are going to unleash this new medium and find a way to make it educational. Get ahead of the game by learning how to use these sites now. Many leading universities have Facebook pages, and the president of the United States routinely deploys social media to get his message out. It’s time we got on board.

2. Tell stories. Find ways to tell more stories about the people who make your school or district so compelling. School and district web sites are so packed with information and education jargon that the narrative about what is really going on inside classrooms often gets lost. Educators tend to write at a graduate-school level, yet parents and the public often read comfortably at an eighth grade level. A series of photos with captions highlighting a typical student’s day communicates more than text-heavy and often incomprehensible curriculum guides.

3. Add more people. As Rich Bagin, the executive director for the National School Public Relations Association, likes to point out: “When facts and emotion collide, emotions win.” Stories are emotional; facts are not. Find a way to bring more human dimensions and emotion to your electronic communications by posting digitized video interview clips and testimonials, and adding photos. Photos or video of real kids and teachers are more compelling than stock photographs that are used so often on the web that every school web site starts looking the same.

4. Keep it fresh. I hereby empower all school and district web masters to take down any outdated material posted or created by others without asking permission first. Stale, outdated content defeats one of the web’s primary premises: 24-7 access to timely news and information. Let’s not start another school year with outdated phone numbers, deadlines, staff listings, addresses, welcome pages, and policies. Keep it current, or take it off!

5. Survey your audiences. For less than $50 a year, you can use web-enabled software like SurveyMonkey or Zoomerang to create online surveys to gauge whether your messages are connecting as intended with parents, teachers, students, community members, and other key publics. Research will help you focus your communication efforts more strategically and get better results. It’s not enough to count hits. Find out where people are going on your web site and why, and bring the most frequented sections to the forefront.

6. Use new tools in new ways. It’s always tempting to use new tools in old ways. Don’t. Web sites are meant to serve as interactive communication channels, not as static repositories of outdated information. Build in feedback loops such as surveys, eMails, monitored chat rooms, live web chats and webinars, online quizzes, and other tools that engage site visitors.

7. Start blogging, podcasting, and video streaming. If you’re still asking “Should I bother?” or “What good will it do?,” just remember that people once said the same thing about whether school districts should invest in web sites. What was new and novel just a few years ago is standard now. Get started, or get left behind.

8. Free control of web sites from IT. Now, I say this with all love and respect for my colleagues in information technology. But the fact is that the web is a communications, marketing, and public relations tool. Control over strategy, content, navigation, and branding should rest with communications, not IT. What IT brings is the know-how to make the communications ideas happen. Great eCommunication requires great collaboration and cooperation among a wide variety of school and district departments. Get everyone around the table, and start mapping out sites that serve external customers first rather than internal egos and power struggles.

9. Improve site navigation. The good news is that school-related web sites have become much more robust in terms of content and services in recent years. The bad news is that too many are far too difficult to navigate. The most common mistake is to fail to distinguish between various levels of content. When everything on the page receives the same graphic treatment, it makes it harder for site visitors to find what they need. At the very least, incorporate a site search engine tool and spend more time plugging metatags into your HTML, so searchers don’t have to know the exact wording to find key content.

10. Learn from the kids. Kids are natives when it comes to technology. Find out what they’re using and why, and then figure out a way to incorporate it into your classrooms and school communications. The next generation of parents is more tech-savvy than ever before. Growing up with instant messaging, they’re going to expect higher levels of responsiveness from school personnel.

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Mass Notification Systems resource center. Terrorism. Severe weather. Violent crimes. Water main breaks. Gas leaks. All of these scenarios can occur instantly. The question is, will your schools be prepared to communicate urgent news before it’s too late? Go to: Mass Notification Systems