The Growing Complexity in School Communications

Posted on by Dana VanDen Heuvel

Complexity650300 thumb The growing complexity in school communications Some recent conversations with school communications professionals have turned to the topic of their profession and the relative growth in the area of school public relations professionals. I realize that many schools still do not have full time PR professionals, but that’s changing. More to the point, schools are employing ever more sophisticated marketing and communication techniques every year. Why is this important? Well, for one, the story of complexity is one that affects us all and like the entrepreneur who plateaus as his business grows because he can’t handle the complexity, we need to all be mindful of the growing complexity in public school (and higher ed…) PR and communications and rise to the challenge.

Why complexity? Why now?

A study on the trucking industry some years ago by Daryl Wyckoff uncovered a “rather strange profitability pattern of trucking companies. Both small and large companies were very profitable, but the medium-sized companies were quite unprofitable.” 
The reason for the odd distribution of profitability: Complexity.

In this year’s Global CEO study from IBM, Capitalizing on Complexity, the top concern of 1,500 CEOs from around the globe is summed up as follows:

The world’s private and public sector leaders believe that a rapid escalation of “complexity” is the biggest challenge confronting them. They expect it to continue — indeed, to accelerate — in the coming years.

That says volumes.  Complexity is their number one challenge.  Outstanding.

Back to our school districts… I see it the same way here. I believe that one of the reasons that we’re seeing an influx of PR professionals and a surge in social media and new-age marketing technique interest is due, in large part, to the growing complexity of the environment that we operate in.

Complexity causes businesses to change in fundamental ways. Entrepreneurs who aren’t prepared won’t know what hit them, says Jonathan Byrnes.

Complexities? Like what?

Well, let’s look at just a few factors that I feel make things more complex:

  1. Politics: Everything has become political.  With the advent of 24/7 cable networks devoted to politics and the heightened skepticism of the American public who sees everything as ‘having some agenda’ behind it, politics affects so many of our decisions.
  2. Options: We now have dozens of venues, outlets, channels, tactics and techniques for everything. It’s newspapers + blogs + video + PR + parent groups + [whatever else comes up in the next 10 minutes]
  3. Fragmentation: In 1965, 80 per cent of adults in the US could be
    reached with three 60 second TV spots. In 2002, it required 117 prime time commercials to produce the same result. (via Jim Stengel, Chief Marketing Officer, Procter &Gamble. 2003)
  4. Changing States: Water flowing from a smooth stream to a spattering all over the sink, the seemingly inexplicable change in traffic from and even flow to a near halt and back again and other similar phenomena are all state changes.  We’re seeing the same thing slowly happen with the communication in our districts. We almost don’t know it’s happening!

These are just a few of the reasons that underly complexity – there are certainly more.  I think that you get the point.

What can we do about it?

The whole point of this post is to tune your frequency to the increase in complexity and what it’s doing to school districts, as well as other types of organizations.  I think that you’ll agree that the factors that are moving us to a more complex world are some of the same factors that are making it ever more critical for our districts to take a leading, proactive approach to parent, student, staff and community communications and dialogue (which is why social media is so important).

From here, it’s all about how you handle the complexity.  Here are a few of ideas:

  • Invest in strategic communication planning, especially in the wake of new and social media.  It’s critical to understand the breadth of all of the stakeholders who need to hear from the district and the depth of resources that you have to reach them.
  • Review and revise your crisis communication plan. A recent book by MIT professor Yossi Sheffi called The Resilient Enterprise highlights how organizations of all types can “manage the unmanageable”.  Now is a good time to think about how you might do the same.
  • Carefully focus on understanding your district’s vulnerabilities. A recent discussion we had with a medical college who does animal research gave us some insight into the importance of doing this type of scenario planning before they went to market with their social media presence. You can’t prevent every attack on your vulnerable areas, but it’s far better to understand possible scenarios than to be caught with your guard down.

As with anything that’s complex, there’s much more to discuss on this issue.  I look forward to feedback on the issue of complexity in school district communications.

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  • Wendy Soucie

    One added point would be to develop a social media policy that fits your organizational culture, allows you to engage, and prepares you for escalation in the social space.

    Wendy Soucie
    (social links

  • Christy Lui, MOD

    Fantastic article, Dana. It seems many of the districts we are working with here in Wisconsin are nearly paralyzed by the complexity of the communications environment. It's never been more important to have a strategic communication plan in place, especially with extreme budget concerns. The challenge is getting schools to make communications a high priority, not a luxury or an afterthought.
    Christy Lui
    MOD for Schools

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