Communicating in a New Education Paradigm

It wasn’t that long ago that professionals in the education space thought communications efforts were fairly easy.  Talk with the education reporters at some of the big dailies.  Engage a little with NPR.  Sit down with Education Week and Education Daily.  Maybe a quick call over to the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Get someone to publish an oped or commentary.  Then the job was done.  Success was a piece in a daily like USA Today, WSJ, or New York Times, with support coverage coming from EdWeek or a specialized trade (like e-School News).

How times have changed.  This shift can probably be traced back to 2004, when InsideHigherEd was launched.  InsideHigherEd changed the way we viewed higher education journalism.  No longer did we wait for that cellophane wrapped tabloid known as the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Instead, we got daily news updates on what was happening on our college campuses.  And we got those updates delivered directly to our email inboxes, with many even unaware of the website that hosted them.
As we gained greater interest in what was happening in states and school districts across the nation, we saw the value of local news on local education issues.  Education News was one of the first to take advantage of the shift, providing us with education headlines from across the country and around the world, usually delivered to our email box before we even got the morning paper from our driveways.  EdNews information is now supplemented by similar distributions such as ECS’ mid-day headlines and ASCD’s afternoon briefing.  And then there are specialized newsletters like the daily Fritzwire to update us on the latest in events, reports, and happenings about time.
Looking at the landscape today, we see the evolution continues.  We are relying more heavily on blogs — both professional and amateur — for information.  Information from Education Week, for example, is far more useful coming from its portfolio of content-based blogs that are updated daily than it is waiting for Wednesday’s print newspaper.  The introduction of online journalism such as Gotham Schools demonstrates the power professional reporters can have operating in a new medium, even if it is by necessity, and not choice.  And let’s not even talk about the contributions — the good, the bad, and the ugly — that us amateur bloggers are making to the public discourse. 
All of this forces us to look at how we effectively disseminate information, particularly as we focus on topics of education improvement.  We know several statements to be true.  It is harder than ever to break through public education’s white noise and have your message heard.  A one-time media hit in a daily newspaper no longer wins the day; stories with meaning need legs, meaning they need multiple hits in multiple media.  The traditional print media is dramatically scaling back its coverage of education issues, with many former “education beats” being absorbed by general assignment or metro reporters.  Put simply, the old-school clip packets that defined success a decade ago no longer cut it and are no longer a measure of effectiveness.  We need to integrate efforts, explore new media, and take advantage of unfiltered communication vehicles for our message to take hold and for our issues to take hold.
So what does it all mean?
* We need to establish lasting relationships with reporters.  Monthly press release dumps no longer get the job done.  If we want to effectively engage the media, we must understand the issues that are important to them, follow what they are covering, and see how our issues fit in with their priorities.  We must also be conduits for information, making the media’s job easier even if it doesn’t mean specific news coverage for us at that moment.
* Our websites must be used as more than glorified filing cabinets.  Websites should not be a dumping ground for all information related to our organization or our issue.  They must be an extension of the organizational brand, providing a clear roadmap on the important issues, the facts and figures behind those issues, and what the organization is doing to move the ball forward.  And at the end of the day, such sites are to give us just enough information to ask more questions and seek more answers.
* We must use blogs as tools to build discussion and ask questions.  In their earlier iterations, blogs were used as promotional billboards for organizations and companies, nothing more than promoting the latest press release.  Those times are over.  Blogs must have fresh content (meaning updates several times a week) and they must be contributing to the public discourse.  They are a tool to give an organization a real voice, an ability to distinguish themselves from the others on the horizon, an opportunity to demonstrate innovation and fresh thinking in an era of status quo and same old-same old.  They must also welcome discussion and dissent.
* We should use online communities and social networking to expand our reach and deliver resources to members and other interesting parties.  By now, we all know Facebook and the power of its reach.  Groups such as SREB and Hechinger Institute and others have done a strong job tapping the power of Facebook to broaden their message and amplify their reach.  What constantly amazes Eduflack, though, are those organizations seeking to build their own proprietary social networks.  Why invest the time and resources into building a new mousetrap when Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google Groups already offers you a superior product that gets the job done?  With so many venues for information, it is far more effective to master a delivery system that millions are already using (like Facebook) than to try to build something new and force individuals to juggle multiple platforms for multiple purposes.  
* We need to embrace the new.  A year ago (heck, six months ago) Twitter was a new vocabulary word for virtually every education organization.  Now, groups like ASCD, ABCTE, and CER have mastered the art of the Tweet, using microblogging to build networks, share new data, and build excitement for progress and movement.  Tweets can become an enormously powerful tool to direct individuals to the latest news, research, and developments coming from your organization.  Used correctly, it can be the perfect compliment to ongoing web and blog developments.  
For a long time, Eduflack has preached that effective education improvement is a multi-step process.  The culmination of this process is the changing of public thinking and public behavior.  That begins, though, by informing.  Simply put, we need to continue to adapt the way we are informing audiences of our work, our contributions, and what we are doing to innovate.  That means communicating to multiple audiences, with multiple messages, through multiple mediums.  It means recognizing there is no one-size-fits-all approach nor is there a single silver bullet that will get the job done.  We need integrated communications efforts that embrace both old and new media.  We need to work through filtered sources such as daily newspapers and supplement it with unfiltered sources such as blogs and Twitter.  We need to realize relationships — with reporters, bloggers, and influencers — can be just as important as the information itself.  And we need to embrace the believe that a steady stream of ongoing information is the only way to effectively inform.  A dozen slivers of effectively delivered information will beat out the perfect press release each and every time.
Most importantly, though, we need to view our communications tools as dialogue and engagement builders.  Dissemination no longer wins the day.
 We can’t simply shoot out a press release and assume that it will be read and it will be acted on.  We must continually provide fresh content on the issues important to us, demonstrating relevance to the larger discussion and real impact on real people.  We must use our communications to demonstrate our unique value proposition, our unique contributions, and how we fit into the solutions-driven world we now live in.  We must show how we are making a difference, and not merely contributing to the white noise or shoring up the walls of the status quo.
Yes, we must be careful to distinguish between what is useful and what is merely trendy.  Those education institutions that invested so heavily in Second Life two or three years ago are probably ruing that decision these days.  But innovations in our educational infrastructure require innovations in how we communicate and how we engage.  Those that are unaware of the options before them or those that are afraid of what is new or different are those that will be left behind.  
It is a new era for public education and public education reform.  Those groups that want to be part of the solution (even if that just means a part of federal funding) must demonstrate their relevance and their impact.  And they only have one chance to get it right.  Knowing what to say is often the easy part.  Effectively delivering it can be far more challenging.  Success, at least as we define it in 2009, requires an integrated approach that calls for ongoing communications and multiple touches through multiple mediums.  Those that figure it out and maximize their resources will be the leading voices in the coming years.  Those who rely on a communications model circa 1990 or even 2000 will be left behind.  It may be cruel truth, but it is the truth.  

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