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Five tips for digital communication in the new year


It’s important to match social media sites to audience preferences and needs.

With a new year approaching, it’s a great opportunity to re-evaluate what’s working—and what’s not—in your classroom, school, or district communications program. Here are five tips to power better communications and community relations in 2012, plus some thoughts to ponder as we enter a new era in public school choice.

1. Start using QR (quick response) codes for lunch menus, schedule changes, parent-teacher conference reminders, professional development announcements, contact information, website addresses, and other simple communications. Growing in popularity, QR codes—those goofy-looking bar-code squares you’ve been seeing everywhere lately—can be created and read using free online applications and are perfect for today’s mobile generation.

The codes can be distributed via digital and broadcast media as well as fliers, newsletters, and other printed publications. Students, parents, and teachers can then use their camera phones to scan the code and get the content. Only download codes from reputable sources. In some cases, security hasn’t kept up with hackers’ ability to attach malicious code to unsuspecting consumers.

2. Free up social media for student and teacher use, and for parent communications. Now that the FCC has lifted restrictions on social media use tied to eRate dollars, bureaucratic excuses are waning for blocking today’s fastest growing communication form. It’s time to shift from saying no to teaching stakeholders how to use social media wisely, well, and appropriately for learning and communication in school, at home, and on the go.

Students and employees need better guidance and training, however. Otherwise, social media missteps—like the recent tacky student tweet that resulted in a national free-speech debate and an apology from Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback for an “overreaction”—will continue unabated. Currently, according to Pew Research Center, more than half of U.S. adults use social media, primarily to connect or reconnect with family, friends, hobbies, and other items of personal interest, which could include their children’s schools or their own alma maters.

From a communications standpoint, it’s important to match social media sites to audience preferences and needs. The short bursts of information and mobile nature of Twitter, for example, is perfect for crisis communications. It’s faster than eMail and easier to use. Twitter also represents an effective way for public officials to stay in touch with constituents, despite some famous political meltdowns.More than half of all U.S. adults now use social networking platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, and a new report by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project finds that users value these sites primarily as tools to stay in touch with friends and family members. More than six in 10 users cite staying in touch with family members and connecting with current friends as a “major reason” why they use online social networks. Reconnecting with old friends and acquaintances also plays a significant role, as half of social media users say that connecting with people they’ve lost touch with is a major reason behind their use of these sites.

3. Focus more effort on Millennials, your next generation of parents and employees. First identified by generational researchers William Strauss and Neil Howe, Millennials were born between 1982 and 2002. The children of overprotective “helicopter” parents, Millennials are racially and ethnically diverse and technologically savvy. Politically progressive, Millennials voted for Barack Obama over John McCain by 66 percent to 32 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. They are less observant in terms of religion but more trusting in terms of institutions and authority than previous generations.

Millennials don’t use cell phones to talk; they text. As such, mobile communications that can be accessed quickly and easily while on the go—think Twitter and Tumblr—make the most sense for this crowd. Ironically, given their preference for digital communications, they crave personal relationships with their bosses and aren’t afraid to speak their minds.

Having experienced more organized play and sports growing up, Millennials find more comfort in structure and timelines than the freewheeling Gen X-ers, so frequent and ongoing communication is going to be even more important. Just make it fast. They hate to waste time, too. As one of my Millennial employees told me recently, “Why watch a 30-minute broadcast for something easily found online in less than a minute?”

This same employee loves it when I text; something I personally abhor but do out of necessity when I want to reach my younger employees or my children. (Apparently, I’m missing some key aspect of manual dexterity—I’m all thumbs when I text, and not in a good way.) My employees, by the way, tell me they only use the cell phone to talk to their grandparents and boomer parents.

4. Try something new. As a communications strategist, I believe smart communications require solid research, careful planning, thoughtful execution, and data-informed evaluation. Sometimes, though, you just need to try something new and figure out if it works later, especially in today’s accelerated world.

Take QR codes, for example. Frankly, they irritate me. I’m a boomer and a grandmother. I value aesthetics and precision. I like well-crafted words, images, and colors. I never scan QR codes into my smart phone, which I use primarily for eMail, web surfing, and talking, not texting. Truth be told, I like my simple cell phone with the big number keys the best—it has all my stuff in it, I can read the numbers without my glasses on, it is simple to use, and my disabled daughter has the number memorized. She recognizes “mom” when it pops up in her cell phone.

So why did I recommend using QR codes? I am not the target market for most school and district communications, other than to ensure I remain supportive as a voter or get involved as a volunteer. Millennials and Gen X-ers have grown up in an all-digital environment. What seems revolutionary to boomers is simply daily life to them.

My communications coordinator came up with the idea to use QR codes for school lunch menus. Thankfully, I am still smart enough to recognize a good idea when I see one, so we’re expanding this to other uses and are publicizing our approach as just one more way we’re staying in touch with parents and other constituents.

This story also illustrates why it is also important to have a diverse employee group, including different generations. Our publics and target audiences today are more fragmented than ever before. One size doesn’t fit all and likely will fail as a communications strategy. We need a robust mix of personal, digital, and experiential communications, backed and supported by more limited printed documents.

The goal is to build relationships that benefit you and the organization, and to create communications and experiences that inform, engage, position, and—ultimately—foster behavioral change. The goal is not to create and distribute a lot of stuff, or win a bunch of communications awards, although we sometimes lose sight of that. Relationships will always matter most; but how we maintain and strengthen those relationships will vary greatly based on new technologies and communications preferences driven by age, ethnicity, race, gender, wealth, and other demographic factors.

5. Adapt. During 2011, the earth shifted for public schools, although I’m not sure most educators noticed. The 30-year movement to privatize and deregulate public schools finally reach the tipping point, with top leaders of both parties calling for more parental choice and charter schools.

Now, I must admit I struggle with charter schools, primarily because they drain resources from traditional public schools, don’t want to pay teachers well, and typically do not serve all students—particularly the homeless and those who receive services for English language learners and special education. Frankly, I never really thought we needed them, and I saw charters as a way to use public dollars to subsidize white and socioeconomic flight from needy public schools.

And yes, I write this while acknowledging there are some fine charter schools that are exceptions to this school of thought, just as there are some fine traditional public schools that are beating the odds and serving high-need children well. I would point out, however, that many of these fine traditional public schools are doing this without the high attrition rates and counseling-out processes that are well-documented in the research literature, particularly research literature that wasn’t funded by one side or the other of the charter school debate.

I also have not seen compelling research that points to increasing competition in schooling as improving performance. What I have seen is vast amounts of data and research that paint a dispiriting picture of a two-tiered system of haves and have-nots. Since we tried this once before in this country, with abysmal, immoral, and inhumane results, I think we can predict with a fair degree of certainty where this will lead, especially if good people do nothing.

Sadly, from my vantage point, we are where we are. Charter school caps have been lifted nationwide. This is no longer just an urban school challenge—charter schools are now competing with highly successful suburban schools for students, parents, and community support, at the same time that public school budgets have been pillaged and burned, almost to the ground.

And, like the utility companies before us, we are being held to a different set of standards, regulations, legal and ethical obligations. The playing field is not, and likely will not be, level for some time—if ever.

We have passed the tipping point, and now we must find a way to make sure the children we care so deeply about get the education they deserve—regardless of ability, socioeconomic status, immigration status, language barriers, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, race, or other social constructs and systemic challenges that have created the achievement gap and continue to sort, sift, and categorize children as if they were widgets on an assembly line.

As H.G. Wells famously said, “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is Nature’s inexorable imperative.”

We know children are more than test scores. Let’s start acting like it. We know African American males are suffering; where’s the outrage among educators? Why do we keep blaming students and their parents?

We know we live in the information age. Why do we make children leave technology at home and cling to paper-and-pencil processes that were designed hundreds of years ago?

We know charter schools and public school choice are here to stay. How do we work together to hold each other accountable for serving all children well? What if we shared professional development, bulk purchasing, insurance cooperatives, curriculum expertise, and joined together to fight against union-busting tactics, budget cuts, and resegregated schools?

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant,” wrote Albert Einstein. “We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

I believe that our nation’s public schools, free and open to all, are also sacred gifts—not only to our democratic society, but to the world. For me, trampling on public education is like trampling on the flag.

As a public good, education is too vital, too fundamental, to democracy and national security (let alone global competitiveness) to be left to the vagaries and greed of the marketplace. Like democracy, public schools have not always lived up to their stated ideals. Yet the world, thus far, has failed to discover a better alternative.

Business entrepreneurs, billionaire philanthropists, and nonprofits serving as fronts for political lobbyists are not going to create schools that work for all children. I don’t want public schools to become a cash cow for entrepreneurs. I don’t want public schools to simply churn out better workers, although I do want more people to have good-paying jobs.

When did public schools get reduced to job training programs and become important only for their contribution to economic development? When did we stop wanting to develop leaders, thinkers, and humanitarians? When did we stop caring about people other than ourselves? Whatever happened to the notion that a democratic society requires an educated public, and that shared as well as individual responsibility is the flip side of freedom? Can you imagine what would happen if we ran our military this way?

With Einstein, I believe it is only our intuitive minds, our imaginations that will find a way out of our current mess. Our rational minds will simply lead us to create more of the same, and expecting different results—Einstein’s classic definition of insanity. We need to imagine a new future for public schools; our children, our communities, and our nation depend on it.

Award-winning eSchool News columnist Nora Carr is the chief of staff for North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools.

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