This morning, Eduflack led a nearly full session at the ASCD 2009 Conference down in Orlando. The topic? It should be no surprise that I spoke on effective communications in education. If the initial evaluations are any indication, the session seemed to be a hit. There was a real hunger from participants to learn more about successful communications, particularly how educators (especially school districts) could use blogs, Twitter, and social networking to enhance their activities.
Effectively integrating public education and its
impact on the economic opportunity into the culture requires an integrated
marketing and communications effort that embodies the most effective elements
of advocacy and social marketing.
Success is defined by more than just educating key constituencies about
education efforts and their goals.
True success requires stakeholders to take specific action – to
implement effective education efforts in partnership with educators and the
business community to directly improve education and job opportunities for all
students. Such actions require us
to move from informing the public to
building commitment for a solution,
and, finally to mobilizing around
There is a great difference between making
stakeholders aware of a concern like the need for more math or science education
to the more sophisticated level of informed public opinion necessary to reach
consensus and generate a sense of urgency that ultimately leads to the action
of adopting an education platform and integrating the educational and community
needs on such a platform.
The Inform-Build Commitment-Mobilize Action
process can be broken down to understand the steps necessary to move through
this process. Using a seven-stage
model developed by Daniel Yankelovich of the Public Agenda Foundation, we can
analyze the process of engaging a target audience and moving them from
uninformed bystander to an action-oriented group, a group ready to
enthusiastically adopt public education solutions. These stages are:
aware of the issues
sense of urgency
persevering through resistance
In applying these seven stages to our key
audiences, we must recognize that each stakeholder group may be at a different
point along this continuum. Understanding this is critical to designing and
implementing the appropriate tactics to move them to action. Many a plan has failed because it was
based on the assumption that one size fits all audiences.
first two stages occur in the Informing phase.
can get audiences to adopt public education reforms and embrace the portfolio
of research and recommendations available to them, we must first make them
aware of the issues at hand.
research, coupled with stakeholder reaction and interest in education,
demonstrates the concerns our audiences have for workforce preparedness and
opportunity. This data is even
further enhanced by a number of respected business and education organizations. All audiences are looking
for solutions – solutions that can both be easily implemented and have maximum
impact on improving educational and economic opportunity.
many decisionmakers recognize that there are problems in meeting the coming
workforce demands, many do not agree on what those problems may be or what
actions might successfully address them.
And, unfortunately, too many people believe that there is nothing that
can be done to fix these problems.
High school dropout rates and postsecondary education preparedness
issues only complicated the discussion.
Those that are poised to become leaders in true education improvement must
first convince K-12 and postsecondary education leaders, current and potential
employers in the state, state and local policymakers, and the public at large
that there are solutions that will work, and solutions their communities can
get behind and support.
Stage One: People
Become Aware of an Issue
In general, the public recognizes that meaningful
employment in the 21st century requires a basic understanding of reading,
math, and a collection of “soft” skills, often referred to as 21st
century skills. Better-educated consumers are now placing greater scrutiny on
the relevance of secondary and postsecondary education on employment
opportunities. At this first
stage, states should develop messages and materials with clear, concrete
examples spelling out the problems.
We do not need to worry about promoting our solutions just yet. Our goal for this stage should be to
steer the debate on the skills needed for 21st century jobs. This can be done through media
relations, special events, and the successful use of advocates.
Stage Two: People
Develop a Sense of Urgency
When a problem has existed for a long period of
time, people stop seeing it as a problem and start seeing it as a
situation. For years, the public
has been flooded by news coverage that there is little, if anything, they can
do to keep jobs in their community or to gain the skills needed to hold onto a
job. Many see job loss or employer
departure as a fact of life.
We need to instill a greater sense of innovation and optimism among
stakeholders. This increased
pressure on decision-makers can encourage the adoption of new approaches and
programs, such as those highlighted in education improvement efforts.
Leaders like ASCD provide stakeholders a proven
solution to the problems associated with rigorous, relevant education and
preparation for well-paying careers.
With the research and support, most “reforms” are not yet another new
initiative looking to turn our schools into test tubes, using classrooms to
test virtually any available idea while leaving many mandates unfulfilled. Ultimately, leaders need to transform
the general perception that our schools have not adapted for the 21st
century, and thus are unable to prepare students for the rigors of both
postsecondary education and meaningful careers. This effort needs to replace such cynicism with hope.
We can create this sense of urgency by showing the
enormous need for solutions in the communities gaining the greatest
scrutiny. By focusing on past
successes and proven-effective methods, we can demonstrate the critical role of
a strong education, helping make key decisionmaking constituencies understand
the serious risks they face not using proven, comprehensive practice to improve
educational and economic opportunities.
The most effective strategy here is to explain the negative implications
of maintaining the status quo in the context of the concern about economic
vitality of the nation, particularly among the public, policymakers, and the
COMMITMENT: The middle stages help build commitment.
individuals believe in your interpretation of the problem, they are ready to
commit to your solutions. Transforming a general education mission into a
public call to arms will require all involved parties to demonstrate to a
variety of audiences, in dramatic and memorable ways, that these solutions are
the right ones to improve efficiency and success.
Stage Three: People
Look for Answers
Once people feel that an issue is urgent they
begin to demand solutions. If we
have been successful in defining the issue in our terms, it will be easier for
us to state solutions convincingly.
In this stage, people will demand action from policymakers and education
and business leaders. This is a
good time to organize meetings to introduce specific actions that our audiences
can take to help us reach our goal.
Stage Four: Manage
and Persevere through Resistance
Inevitably, some people will reject your
solutions. This leads to the most
difficult stage of the process.
Some audiences will be reluctant to face and accept the trade-offs that
come from choosing a specific plan of action and opponents will try to poke
holes in our ideas. This
resistance may be heightened by the following factors:
Misunderstanding: Some people will (intentionally or otherwise) misinterpret or
outright misconstrue your goals.
They may question the purpose and motivations of both you and your
in our target audiences will miss the big picture and misunderstand the main
elements of the problem. They may
determine that the problems in many communities are a symptom of the times, and
that employers may just improve themselves over time. Here we need to expand stakeholders’ vision and demonstrate
that both the issue and the solution are not what they initially perceived.
may fall into the clutches of those peddling miracle cures or silver bullets
aimed at solving an institution’s problems by simply adopting the next easy
quick fix, ignoring the research, strong partnerships, and impact on economic
development that must accompany such a change. Here we need to inject a note of reality and point out the
logical consequences (and costs) of this line of reasoning.
to Change: People
are sometimes eager to project the problem onto others. There will be some who
are content with the current state of K-12 education or the employment
situation, believing their local community is doing the best it can and does
not need change. We can counter
this by pointing to overall benefits that come from relevant education, reduced
drop-out rates, an improved college-ready rate, and clearer paths to
The best way to avoid this resistance is to ensure
that everyone is involved in the process and that all of their concerns have
Stage Five: People
After moving beyond initial resistance to tackling
the challenge of improving educational and economic opportunities in their
community, people will begin to weigh their choices rationally and look to a
variety of options for moving recommendations into practice. At this stage, stakeholders should feel
that they have a range of choices and a reason to make them. As leaders in this process – with a
special awareness of how decisions are made – we can clarify the pros and cons
of each decision and allow time and opportunity for deliberation.
FOR ACTION: The final stages help mobilize our audiences for
attitudes and informing the debate is not enough. Just as a politician who has convinced 60 percent of the
public to support his/her issues, but who has not succeeded in convincing them
to go to the polls on Election Day, will lose the election, advocates for
improving school and school district management cannot accomplish their goals
unless supporters move from passive acquiescence to active engagement. Public education succeeds when
policymakers and community leaders are actively supporting its solutions. Once our target audiences are engaged
because they believe in the merits of our position, they will need to know what
we want them to do to help accomplish these goals. So it is important that our communications and organizing
efforts include specific actions that supporters can take to help us reach our
goals. In addition, we will also
need to make it easy and feasible for them to take these actions.
Stage Six: Intellectual
In this stage, many people will agree that
education improvement efforts are valid and will produce desired results, but
may not be willing to change their behavior or adopt recommendations. We must recognize that this is a temporary
stage and that, with patience and continued effort, they will get there. It is
important not to expect too much, too soon. The process of moving from awareness to action takes time.
Stage Seven: Full
Given time, incentives, and opportunities to
consider their core values in light of challenges and needs, our audiences
should reach the final stage of full intellectual and emotional acceptance of
the importance of improving educational and economic opportunities. Now is the best time to make sure that
there is a role for everyone to play in the effective adoption of education
solutions that directly impact educational and economic opportunities, giving
stakeholders the tools and information they need to persuasively move
themselves and others from awareness to action.
Of course, different target audiences will reach
these stages at different times and go through them at different rates. We may
need to tailor the same event or materials to perform different functions
depending on where in these stages specific members of our audience stand.
Education is an industry as driven by emotion as
it is by fact. As a result, too
often, stakeholders decide that inaction is the best action, out of fear of
taking a wrong step or alienating a specific group. For that reason, the Inform-Build Commitment-Mobilize Action
model is one of the most effective methods for leaders to educate key audiences
on the need for public education improvement and the long-term impact such
efforts have on strengthening the schools, the community, the economy, and the
nation as a whole.