The start of a new school year offers a good time to brush up on community relations. After all, the neighbors will probably become acquainted soon with your school’s new parents … if they haven’t already!
A community-relations strategy touches on communications in several ways, even if ultimate responsibility for keeping the neighbors happy belongs elsewhere in your school. So it’s good for the communications director to keep a list of items to review each year.
Each school’s strategy for dealing with its neighborhood will differ, thanks to municipal and zoning laws, idiosyncrasies in operating hours and services provided to the community, and more. Yet every school would benefit from these few steps:
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Know your neighbors: Compile a list of names and mailing addresses for your nearest neighbors, those within a couple of blocks.
The simplest way to do this is to order a mailing list from Data Axle USA (formerly known as InfoUSA), at the cost of a couple hundred dollars. You can also order email addresses from Data Axle, although I’ve found them less reliable than the company’s street-address information.
You also could do this manually, scraping city or county records online. The most friendly route is to mail a letter of introduction and asking neighbors to share their contact information, perhaps through an online form.
This information will help you start a conversation with the community. For example, you could send out a postcard that announces the start of school, the hours of operation, and the best way to reach the school with neighborhood questions. Even the most settled community experiences turnover, and reminding people of this need-to-know information is good PR. (Don’t let a 15 mph speed limit sign be the only way that neighbors know you exist.)
Having names and addresses on hand can also help you engage more readily when, say, a parent late for an event chooses to park in a neighbor’s driveway. (Not a hypothetical scenario.)
Don’t forget the real players: In every neighborhood, some viewpoints matter more than others. Elected leaders are always at the top of this group, followed closely by municipal officials who have the power over whether your school stays open or must close. Create a VIP contact list of these people, and encourage your head to keep them in the loop throughout the school year, rather than only when the school faces a problem or is in need.
Then there are the people in the community whose opinions carry outsize weight. Getting these names requires more work, but you may find great rewards in cultivating these people, too, as friends.
Stay in touch: Resist the habit of talking to the neighbors only when there is bad news to share. Provide your good news, too, as you do with your parents.
Aim for the school to be seen as a real contributor to the community. If your neighborhood has an email listserv, use it to promote the school in soft, community-friendly ways, such as highlighting upcoming student performances and/or sports events.
Consider mailing out an annual neighborhood report with updates on major initiatives that may affect traffic, noise, safety or other quality-of-life factors. This is also an opportunity to brag on your students and detail how their community service makes a difference. You also could include good-to-know information such as the academic calendar, your traffic-calming strategies and opportunities for neighbors to meet with school leaders.
Bring people to campus: Talk to your colleagues whether forming a school-community advisory group, with regular meetings open to any neighbor who wants to come, makes sense for your school.
This type of gathering can serve as a release valve for any tensions in the community and allow a broader understanding. It’s amazing to see how the charisma of a head of school can soothe grumpy neighbors.
Talk to your internal community: Some of the biggest neighborhood tensions can stem from the actions of parents, faculty and staff.
Communications should reinforce at regular intervals — in the weekly newsletter, say — how important it is to keep the neighbors on your school’s good side and how thoughtless actions around parking or speeding, for example, can harm the school’s reputation. Grievances can add up over time and present a major difficulty when, say, the school is looking to expand its zoning limitations.
Create neighborhood touch points: Add a page to your website that details all the school does to cultivate warm relations. This is easy PR that will show up in search-engine results, again making the point softly that your school is a contributor to your community.
Promoting a generic email address (i.e., firstname.lastname@example.org) makes it easier for people to bring you questions and get trustworthy answers.
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Each of these action items can be scheduled well in advance, with many of them needing an update only once a year (the neighborhood addresses, for instance).
This is also work you can brag about to your bosses: Add this to your annual performance appraisal under the heading of “issues management.” In this case, the dog that doesn’t bark (or bite!) is something your supervisor should definitely notice.
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