Katie’s half-term blog and hints and tips for a purposeful communications strategy

Katie Whirledge of Papillon Communications urges trusts and schools to go beyond the noise of social timelines, and to articulate their purpose – and share their progress and achievements – via the mainstream media. Here, she reflects on her work with trusts and schools in recent months.

“Exams will go ahead next summer” Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced this month. A simple statement with all the conviction of a government that knows what we’ve been wanting to hear. But whilst we all work around the clock to ensure this year’s cohort of pupils undergoing life-determining exams will fair better than last’s, we’re still to hear what Williamson’s “contingencies for all possible scenarios” could be. I very much doubt they have yet considered ‘all possible scenarios, let alone decided what the ‘contingencies’ entail.

So how do we plan for the unknown? Again.

There is a vast number of teachers that are exhausted this half term.  I’ve just spent an hour’s dog walk this morning with a head teacher friend that has spent the last four weeks ricocheting between classrooms and contacting teachers and parents of bubbles that have been caught up in Covid-19. Her strategy – to focus on the next two years – has already been cast aside too many times for the immediate demands on her time.

However, something we do know is the absolute certainty that we will be facing at least another six to twelve months of uncertainty. So how can we keep one eye on the immediate challenges and another on our strategy? 

“So how can we keep one eye on the immediate challenges and another on our strategy?”

This is where we must go back to our communication strategy. In an ever-changing world of Covid-chaos, we must be agile and have the strength to keep rolling with the punches on an operational level. But our overall communication strategy should not bend to the pressures. Indeed, it is one important mechanism, if purposeful and reflective of our wider ambitions for children, that will keep you and your team safe and sane.

Those that have identified every stakeholder relevant to their Trust and put in place a tried and tested communication cascade – who reports to whom, when and how – whether it’s a staff member, governor, parent or the RSC, will feel more in control than those who are feeling they are literally ‘winging it’. They stand by their values, stay mindful of their USPs and know that their decision making – often under immense pressure and without the luxury of time – will be delivered swiftly and coherently.

Meanwhile, we urge those that have chosen to use these times of uncertainty to compound their autonomy, and developed (and communicated) purposeful strategies that will remain steadfast regardless of the various ‘scenarios’, to share their experiences externally, with their peers and the media.

For example, we know the Trusts that have had a strong digital strategy embedded in their schools prior to Covid have found the switch between classroom and virtual teaching fairly straightforward. Most of those schools were ready to go on the very first day of lockdown and have been able to deliver the curriculum and pastoral support necessary for their children to keep progressing and thriving. Unfortunately, there are still many schools that are still struggling now. If we can keep raising this issue in the media – sharing the good news and lesson where schools are making this work, and the bad news where schools are yet to receive the support for laptops or home wifi support and the effects of this on the children – we can help to enforce change.

“We must all stay committed to building an inspiring and compelling narrative for our schools in the media and within our communities…”

It is also important that we stay tuned to the wider issues that will be here long after Covid – inclusivity, mental and physical health, technological change, poverty. We must all stay committed to building an inspiring and compelling narrative for our schools both in the media and within our communities – maintaining the focus on the things that matter to us, our staff and those we serve. There is some incredible work going on within our schools, most of which is being shared on twitter or via forums, but surprisingly they don’t seem to be penetrating our local, regional or national daily news outlets.

The schools we have been working with throughout Covid have enjoyed working with the media – we’ve been able to play our part with BBC, ITV TV and radio, TES, national press and many regional newspapers showcasing schools that have embraced technology, black lives matter, mental health (our pupils, our families, our teachers), the importance of outdoor and extracurricular learning and the free school meal campaign amongst many other great stories.

Please do get in touch if any of the above strikes a chord and you want to chat about the best ways of shaping or fool-proofing your communications strategy – or indeed, putting one in place. Please do also get in touch if you feel you have a story to tell – we’re here to help and would love to change the narrative for the better.

Wishing you a restful week and a positive year – it will soon be Christmas!

Points to consider when creating a purposeful communication strategy

In times of uncertainty effective communication is needed more than ever. Covid-19, like most disasters, has created plenty of reactive communication and endless opportunities to join in the fracas, but purposeful proactive communication that drives medium and long term objectives has not been a priority for many. Balancing daily reactions with ‘big picture’ positioning and proactive prose isn’t easy but it’s essential if you want to keep your people engaged and inspired and ‘together’ throughout.

Putting people and purpose first – It may sound trite, but it is vital to remember it is all about your young people. Putting their needs first is essential. It is easy to get caught up in the noise of politics and social media especially during periods of political turbulence, but it is important to ensure your communication strategy relates to your wider purpose and ambitions for young people and their communities. It must engage and, most importantly, protect your pupils, your families and your staff.

Planning is key – Planning your communications is the most important step. Your plan will detail your key messages, all relevant stakeholders, your spokespersons and those responsible for managing the communication process. All communications need to be considered, from letters to parents and teachers to press releases and statements on your website, as well as how you want to engage on social media. Having a plan in place will ensure you are able to communicate both reactively as well as proactively sharing your positive news and your wider plans and aspirations for schools and pupils.

Consider the current climate – How do stakeholders currently engage with your Trust? Your stakeholders may have strong opinions which could be positive or negative. Understanding your starting point enables you to pitch your communications at the right level and tailor what you say to meet the needs and expectations of your audience. It’s imperative your communication unites not divides where possible.

Sign up from the top – These days everyone thinks they are journalists, with social media providing an immediate broadcast channel and an active audience 24-7. It only takes one disgruntled parent or teacher to spark a wave of discontentment. These conversations will happen whether you take part or not. Instead of looking at online conversations as issues, consider them as opportunities to engage and influence. Potentially, negative views could be changed, with positive engagement and shared information leading to a better understanding.

Listen and feedback – Communication is a two-way street. It is vital to recognise and consider the opinions of your stakeholders. Provide your stakeholders with the opportunity to feedback and feed into your processes. If you provide a listening ear to the thoughts and views of your stakeholders, they are much more likely to feel valued and invested in your schools.

Be open and transparent a successful communication process – where the message is received as intended – relies upon honesty and openness and a shared trust. Many of your decisions directly affect many children, teachers, parents and other stakeholders. Ensure that all your communications are clear, as ambiguity will create an environment of mistrust. Being open and transparent with your communications will demonstrate integrity and add value to your brand.

Be timely and consistent – To keep your audience engaged you need a regular programme of communications. Regular communications will encourage inclusion and collaboration. A lack of communication or confused messaging will almost certainly create uncertainty and division. Invested stakeholders expect and deserve regular progress updates and to be engaged with and inspired about the direction of travel. A steady flow of information about necessary changes taking place, and a timeline if permissible, or an explanation if not. Keep the tone of voice and language consistent. A sudden change in tone or language can lead to confusion and create mistrust.

Manage the process – A managed and considered approach to your communications will give you, your team and your stakeholders a structure that will build confidence and encourage collaboration. It will also create opportunities to influence positively the opinions of others and define a purposeful narrative for your Trust.

Katie Whirledge – Papillon Communications. You can follow Katie on twitter at: @KatieWhirledge

You can find out more about Katie and Paipillon Communications at: www.papillonpr.co.uk