Education professionals are our unsaluted warriors.
Politicians, C-suite executives and celebrities moan how hard their jobs have become because of these busier and more complex times lived under the spotlight of social media.
I wonder how they would fare on the front line of education.
Consider our headmasters, teachers and staff who are increasingly under siege as they try to shepherd Generation Now through a battery of internal and external attacks.
Not too long ago, communications and marketing teams at schools could focus on building a school’s brand and delivering basic messaging.
Now, every day presents a challenge.
Social media is a minefield for schools - as much about how teacher and staff may use it as the students
Let us start with compliance. That will do your head in.
It sounds utterly boring, time consuming and energy sapping, but compliance cannot be ignored. The burden of meeting obligations aside, schools face enormous sanctions and risk if they do not comply. Communications is a part of that process too. It does not make you bullet-proof but it lubricates the wheels of a well-functioning school.
There is no shortage of risks to mitigate in the school environment.
One area that bugs communication teams is the cumbersome process of obtaining parental permissions for students to undertake activities or to appear in communications. (Communication professionals in local government also talk a lot about this as they seek to capitalise on or to promote public events.)
Schools are particularly challenged by social media. Quite simply, social media is a minefield.
And, as schools will tell you, teacher and staff use is as concerning as that of the students.
Another worry is how the “parent conversation”, especially over Facebook groups, can quickly degenerate. At the worst, this can seriously impact upon the school’s reputation, which can be thrashed around with cavalier regard.
The sorts of questions we are asked reflect only a sliver of the daily dilemmas for comms teams in education:
I am sure there are many other issues that trouble schools in the day to day.
Schools are held to account more than most organisations. If they do not have the right comms preparation for a crisis, their reputations can be trashed in a heartbeat ...
Communication professionals face the same three big challenges:
However, schools are arguably more exposed than most organisations.
The are held more accountable - they are looking after our kids after all. But many of them do not have the resources, time, set up and skills to insulate themselves, particularly when confronted by a crisis.
Governments schools have the benefit of a networked system and plenty of policy and bureaucrats to help them out. Catholic and independent schools are more a mixed bag.
Regardless, all schools can have their reputations trashed in a heartbeat.
Sometimes this is of their own making because they have not done the preparation. Other times, they are the subject of unfair criticism which grows legs.
Few situations are inevitable. It has been difficult, for instance, to watch from the sidelines as a wonderful facility like Trinity Grammar, in Melbourne, scores an own goal.
Its “hair affair”, when the deputy principal cut a student’s hair for a school photo, attracted national media attention and brought to a head, so to speak, internal divisions.
Previously, these matters tended to blow over. Today, Google will keep reminding everyone of your worst of times.
Mostly, we trust our schools - and trust is a currency that will surely outlast Bitcoin.
According to the 2018 Edelmen Trust Barometer, education is at the top of the sectors we trust, with 70 per cent of respondents saying they trust education will do the right thing.
This is a double-edged sword for communication professionals in education. How wonderful to have the general faith of the public. But it is an incredible responsibility too.
A good start is for communication professionals to avoid the 7 Titanic Mistakes of Communication.
I believe there are two big ones for those working in education.
Firstly, as I was taught as a Cub, be prepared.
This means thinking ahead and acting strategically. For their part, school boards and leaders need to consider communications as a cross-functional role not as a siloed department.
Anything less, means that when crisis strikes schools are left floundering and having to call in expensive PR firms specialising in “crisis comms”.
Let me tell you a secret: despite charging you a gazillion, most of what these companies offer is nicely packaged common sense - processes and advice that could be put in place before disaster strikes.
There is a process to assessing and mitigating any reputational risks. Building a DIY Newsroom™ is a path to simple, strategic and sustainable communications.
Secondly, schools - and any organisation today - needs to do what they can to control their media channels.
This means being clear about which channels are used for what type of information.
Every school will encounter times of turmoil and trouble. What schools must do ahead of this, is to form their own playbook.
Being organised for chaos, means schools can spend more time and energy on promoting the positive.
Everyone in education would agree that what truly deserves the spotlight is the amazing work our schools do in shaping our young people.
Stuart Howie is a Canberra-based communications consultant. He has worked with organisations, private and public, in Australia and New Zealand, helping them to discover, shape and tell their stories. He is the author of The DIY Newsroom, which won Social Media Book of the Year at the Australian Business Book Awards. Stuart has worked in media, publishing and communications for more than 30 years as an executive, editor and strategist.