Report: Website, crisis outreach need improvement

By: 
Scott Girard

Photo by Scott Girard. Verona schools have already begun sending text messages to families automatically, but the audit suggests adding mobile apps, too.

As the Internet has expanded to Twitter and Facebook in the last decade, it’s become easier for companies to directly reach their consumers, bypassing the middleman of advertising or news outlets.

But many public school systems haven’t been taking advantage of the same ability, including Verona.

That was one of the main messages from a communications audit for the Verona Area School District done by David Voss of Voss and Associates, a professional communications company.

“You can no longer spray and pray,” Voss told the board at its April 7 meeting, referring to the practice of throwing loads of information out and hoping something will stick with interested parties. “If your audiences are demanding more … you have to communicate strategically.”

One of the more immediate needs, Voss found, was an improvement in the district’s crisis communications plan, something that was put to the test last May when every district school was put on lockdown because of a manhunt that involved the FBI. The district ended up apologizing for not keeping parents better informed.

The audit, which included focus groups of staff, school board members, district administrators, business owners and parents, found the current crisis plan was “inadequate” as a result of being excessively complicated. Voss suggested outlining a clear plan of who communicates with whom and when during a crisis and ensuring that however the district chooses to get its message out to people during a crisis, it’s loud.

A key to that, Voss said, would be rehearsing the plan once it’s in place.

“A plan won’t do you any good without rehearsal,” he said.

The plan also called for overhauling the website and improving its online presence, as well as tweaking the district’s internal and external image through outreach activities and publications.

Website and outreach

The website overhaul is something superintendent Dean Gorrell said was already in the process, with the district’s current site contract running out in June.

“It really was a good verification of things that I’ve been thinking about … for awhile,” Gorrell said of the audit.

Voss said the overhaul should aim to improve the site’s navigation, access and functionality. He also suggested features such as improved individual pages for teachers for more direct access, a single access point for parents and an alumni portal to keep them connected.

While the site and crisis communications plan are immediately workable and can be done by the district itself, many of the other goals the audit outlines would require outsourcing or a new staff position.

That includes a plan for the schools themselves to create individual online identities.

“The lion’s share of any school district is what happens at the (individual schools),” Gorrell said. “Their presence on the website and their presence on any kind of communications is critical.”

Voss pointed out that the district also does not have much of a policy for social media use, and that hurts the schools as well as the district itself in using the tools available to them.

“It’s really not that complicated, (a policy) just needs to be crystal clear,” Voss said.

He also pointed to a district mobile application as a potential vehicle to reach low-income residents who might not have access to Wi-Fi, but may still own a smartphone and could keep up with the district better through an app.

He also recommended reaching out to the community through more business partnerships, establishing a “citizen’s academy” that offers tours of the schools, increasing financial transparency and creating a brochure or other print document that truly represents the district.

Gorrell said he expects the district to look into hiring a communications professional to focus on putting together some of those solutions, though he expects to still outsource some of the larger strategic decisions or plans to companies like Voss.

“There’s so many things that are going on in our school district,” Gorrell said. “To have somebody whose job is to … push it out … that just takes somebody dedicated.”

A VASD ‘brand’

The audit included an a summary of what people both within and outside the district think of when they think of VASD based on responses from the focus groups.

While both had more positives than negatives, there were a few points the district will likely look to improve upon.

Externally, the positive feedback ranged from “successful,” “community” and “excellent” to “varied opportunities,” “high standards” and “cutting edge.”

But a couple of the words weren’t as positive, with “high cost” and “too much technology?” also registering.

The cost problem, specifically, is one Voss said he sees across the country with public school districts, and thinks is an extremely important criticism for schools to fight.

“There’s always issues with the perception that you spend a lot of money, though we know … school districts are far leaner than corporations as far as overhead,” Voss said.

Within the district, the responses were more mixed, from “desirable,” “excellence” and “innovative” on the positive end to “disorganized,” “disproportionate” and “inconsistent” on the negative.

Solutions for that include better communication from the administration to staff around the district, who often hear different messages from different places and can be unsure of what is actually happening.

Voss added that overall, it was a “very, very good reputation” internally, even with the negative terms that did come up.

Voss said impressions of the district, both from within and outside, are a key to keeping successful districts moving forward with community support.

“They create a rallying point, something to gather around and hold onto,” he said. “That’s what you need for the district and also for individual schools.”

 

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