The ideal costume for school communicators… – SCN Encourager

… is a fitting one for the best elected officials, too.

Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 6.04.16 PMIt’s been my contention all week that Halloween and political campaigning share many similarities.

#5 in this five part series reminds trick-or-treaters and office seekers alike that it takes more than just relying on all of the respective tools associated with their chosen quest.

Much more.

And this reminder is an appropriate one for every school communicator as well – as sometimes we are prone to place too much faith in the latest and greatest tools of our trade, particularly if they are whiz bang tech gadgets.

What costume best represents this reminder?

It’s the wizard and the wand.

Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 8.14.15 PMAs powerful and magical as the wand may be, it still the wizard that decides and directs its purpose, for good or for “just good enough.”

It’s a simple thought, I know, but that’s my wish for you this Halloween weekend.

Place less emphasis on the wand.

Put more emphasis on the wizard.

That’s you!


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When a disaster strikes, confidently respond with an effective crisis plan.

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 7.29.40 PMA school communicator’s day often feels like a whirlwind.

To prevent activity from spiraling out of control, you need a crisis plan – especially if you’re responding to an actual tornado.

That’s the message Zac Rantz will share with school communicators attending the Michigan School Public Relations Association’s Fall Drive-In the morning of Nov. 14 at the Washtenaw Intermediate School District. Register online at

Zac Rantz, chief information officer at Nixa Public Schools in Missouri, which was selected by the National School Public Relations Association as the best school communications program in North America!

Zac Rantz, chief information officer at Nixa Public Schools in Missouri, which was selected by the National School Public Relations Association as the best school communications program in North America!

Rantz, a former English language arts and journalism teacher, is in his seventh year as a fulltime chief information officer for Nixa Public Schools in Nixa, MO. He and other members of the Missouri School Public Relations Association pitched in to help handle school communications the morning after a tornado devastated Joplin MO in May 2011.

It was the deadliest tornado to strike the United States since 1947. It directly claimed 158 lives and caused more than $2.8 billion in damage.

“People remember the rubble they saw in the news,” Rantz said. “But the devastation is much worse when you’re actually there, looking into the zombie-like faces of people who are completely overwhelmed by what’s happened and everything that needs to be done.”

Overcoming fears, pitching in, defying odds

Zac was studying an ominous green sky at home in Nixa – 1 1/2 –hour drive from Joplin – and considering whether he and his dog should take shelter in the basement on the Sunday night that the tornado struck.

He says he feared storms since age four, when a tornado sucked the doors off his father’s livestock feed and supply store and his mother “performed some crazy Ninja move” to yank him under a desk to safety.

For years afterward, he chose to wait out storms from inside his father’s closet.

Rantz said MOSPRA President Jill Filer’s call the morning after the storm to seek assistance with communications in Joplin required him to confront his fear of tornadoes head on.

Although he hadn’t know Joplin well before the tornado, Rantz said a collective conviction to transform the storm-wrecked town into a place to which families and students would return captivated him and others.

He stayed a solid week, working out of an emergency communications command center set up in Joplin’s North Middle School. The team fielded media requests from around the world.

Rantz returned frequently during an intense,84-day summer in which the community managed to open a temporary high school fashioned out of an empty big box store.

And Rantz returned regularly for years, celebrating with Joplin as it opened its brand new high school in September 2014.

Communicating in the wake of destruction

Information needs to get out, but the Internet is down. Mobile phone service is spotty. Dislocated students and their families have fled to their nearest unaffected relative – wherever that is.

Scenario for a communications nightmare: There are dozens of stories to tell and the communication tools don’t work.

Rantz remembers having to strike an unusual yoga pose to send email messages in the northeast corner of the library – the spot at North Middle School most likely to have a WiFi signal in the days following the tornado.

Hindsight book cover

Hindsight book cover

With his superintendent, Dr. Stephen Kleinsmith, Rantz has written a book titled Hindsight: Lessons learned from the Joplin tornado and other crisis events. They contend that ingraining good communication practices throughout an organization is the only way communication plans will hold up in a catastrophe, weather related or otherwise.

Check for the book at A portion of the sales go toward Joplin’s continuing efforts to rebuild.

“How you communicate now is pretty much how you’re going to communicate in a crisis, “ Rantz said. “That’s why you need to create good muscle memories now. In an emergency, you’re not going to have time to look around for your crisis checklist.”

Indeed, your file cabinet and your office may be long gone.

Rantz’s tips for communicating through a crisis

  • Cloud computing. Critical information required to operate the school system needs to be stored off site, in a cloud, where you can reach it from anywhere. (Without this, Joplin would not have been able to run payroll.)
  • Review and rewrite board policies to allow the superintendent, or principals if the superintendent becomes incapacitated, to have purchasing power in the event of a crisis. (A quorum of the board may not be able to gather immediately to approve purchases for critical repairs.)
  • Use plain language or the same language your local law enforcement officers and firefighters use. (This reduces the risk of confusion. Not everybody knows what a Code Yellow or Code Red is.)
  • Standardize crisis procedures, if possible, throughout your buildings. Protocols should be the same for similar emergencies. Your community, first responders and substitute teachers will thank you for not having to learn different plans for each school.

 Emphasizing and celebrating community

The May 22, 2011 tornado devastated Joplin so severely that the whole town could have vanished, Rantz said.

Good communications before and after the storm are reasons the town didn’t fail, Rantz said.

Kim Vann, Joplin Schools’ community development director, had been engaging community groups long before the tornado struck. Nobody questioned whether ruined schools should be rebuilt or withheld help to accomplish it.

Systematically communicating stories about the rebuilding process assured families who had to relocate that they could return home. More than 90 percent of students Joplin lost after the tornado have returned — a statistic that makes Rantz marvel.

“There is this tenaciousness in Joplin that they are not going to allow outsiders to frame their story,” Rantz said. “They were determined to write their story, together, the way they want it to read.”

It’s clear that Joplin had some help writing its over-comers story from a friend, and fan, in Nixa.

More than counting candy. More than counting votes. – SCN Encourager

Your evening’s really not finished ’til you assess what’cha got.

Halloween Jack o Lantern pail overflowing with candySimilarity #4 shared by both trick-or-treaters and political campaigners alike has to do with “taking stock.”

After a night of trick or treating with the girls years ago, I always had a blast watching them sort and separate their bounty.

They wouldn’t take a bite out of anything until they fussed with it briefly (all while Cindy was conducting her “mom approved” safety inspection).

I had a blast in the way a hovering vulture probably does… ready to pounce on all of the discarded black jelly beans and unwanted chocolate bars containing coconut or almonds.

It’s a good thing my girls were excellent trick-or-treaters because they sure were picky about their Halloween haul in a way I never was.

Not that I’m complaining, though.

Excellent political campaigners are also careful to evaluate and assess their post-election “inventory.”

Naturally, knowing the final result of the election is first and foremost, but not too far behind is assessing the scope of the campaign’s full resource inventory.

Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 8.01.54 PMMuch like my girls analyzed and categorized every type, size, wrapper, and anticipated sweet or sour taste in their candy collection – political campaigners need to analyze the multitude of resources called upon in their campaigns, most of which extend beyond just looking at financial contributions and volunteers.

They must look back and then look ahead to build upon resources like their support group networks, absentee voter touchpoints, opposition research, maintaining the commitment and intensity of their die-hards, and the ability to keep growing local social media influencer buy-in.

Similarity #4 relates to you and me in this way:

As school communicators, we also must keeping expanding our resource inventory.

And one of the most important skills we should be able to offer is effective crisis response planning.

I’m grateful that SCN feature writer was able to connect with Zac Rantz, who will be featured presenter at the MSPRA Seminar on Friday, November 14.

Kym’s article will motivate you to go hear Zac if you haven’t already signed up.

I’m looking forward to attending and asking Zac a “safety ” related question.

Because now that I think about it, I’m wondering why Cindy would always carefully inspect the girls’ candy (every piece!) but never even look at any of the Halloween treat cast-offs that were directed my way.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

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Trick or treat! No, wait. I meant to say, “vote for me!” – SCN Encourager

#3 in the ghoulish five-part series highlighting the similarities between Halloween and political campaigning.

Podium in a spot light on stage over red curtains“Hey, Tom!  Why are you picking on politicians?”

C’mon, Do I really need to explain this?

But I’ll try… just for you.

Despite the fun I’m having this week comparing our current political campaign season with Halloween, I do sincerely hold 93.4% of our office seekers and elected representatives in high regard.

Even Cindy would back me up on this.

Having managed and been active in more 100 election campaigns myself, I understand the effort involved in carrying out an effective campaign strategy.

Also, having worked in the Michigan House of Representatives communications team for nearly 4 years before becoming a member of our tribe of school communicators, I appreciate the role every legislator plays as well.

Every day for them is usually centered around a recurring theme.

Occasionally, I would accompany a state representative for a whole day and it would ALWAYS resemble something like this:
•  7:30 am Breakfast at the senior citizen center / topic: money needed for meals programScreen Shot 2014-10-28 at 5.36.42 PM
•  9:15 am Coffee with county sheriff’s group / topic: money needed for road patrols
•  11:00 am School tour with elementary principal / topic: money needed for more teachers
•  Quick lunch and constituent update / topic: money needed to cover my lunch
•  1:30 pm Meet-up with environmental council / topic: money needed to protect wetlands
•  2:30 pm Farmers group Q & A / topic: money needed to help plant crops on wetlands
•  3:30 pm Elected officials roundtable / topic: money needed for revenue sharing
•  4:30 pm Monthly road commission report / topic: money needed for snow plowing
•  6 pm  Fundraising dinner with supporters / topic: money needed for campaigning

It’s a tremendous burden to listen to needs and concerns, consider the best path, and allocate limited resources accordingly.

If you’re a superintendent or at the school leadership table in some other capacity, you know what I mean.

Now with this tip of the hat to all of our office seekers and ballot question campaigners out of the way, here’s Similarity #3.

Remember the #1 similarity was the necessity to present a clear choice.

The #2 similarity was the necessity to set out a defined target; your candy-on-hand # or your # of voters needed to win.

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 5.56.46 PMToday’s #3 Similarity points out how effective trick-or-treaters and political campaigners all package their request using the same friendly and unthreatening manner.

Think about it.

Whether we are being screamed at for candy or being pressured for our vote, we immediately know the difference between a “reasonable ask” and one that is mean-spirited or unrealistic.

And the most successful trick-or-treaters and political campaigners know that we know.

This is why they are masters of the “reasonable ask.”

It’s not all that difficult.

When you don’t forget how fundamental it is.

Even this three-headed monster can consistently nail it!

That’s why I just signed up for his 75 minute webinar.


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Tuesday Tech Tip: Apply a screencast to your life

screencasting“I need to share this!”

How many times has this screaming thought crossed your mind, only to evaporate in a mist of deadlines, duties, and doldrums?

Consider using a screencast software that records a video of the actions on your screen, then allows you to add arrows, shapes and text to explain your project to others.

Today, I’m test driving Screencast-O-Matic which is only $15 a year (Thanks for the cash advance, Tom!).

We think it’s a tool worth considering by school communicators and one-person-offices.
The video below is the first of a two-part series.

Where Halloween and political campaigns collide (#2) – SCN Encourager

Similarity #2 in a fresh fright-filled five-part series

Zombies in search of brains. Politicians need not worry.

Zombies in search of brains. Politicians need not worry.

Yes, I know it’s “Tech Tip Tuesday.”

But since SCN video and podcast expert Jim Camenga made me look like a cheapskate in today’s short video tutorial, I’m not going to give it the usual whopper build-up.

His tutorial deserves one, of course, but my heart’s not in it.

Jim worked hard on it for you.

But the “non-stop” annoyances brought about by the current Halloween and political campaign season have me a bit more thin-skinned about things.

If anyone on the SCN team thinks it’s easy to sneak money out of the shoebox that Cindy hides in our closet, I invite them to try it sometime.

She’s one tough protector of our daughters’ future wedding funds.

But I usually can manage to sneak out some cash… even though scrubbing that exploding bank-bag ink off my hands later always hurts like heck.

Are we living in scary times or what? – SCN Encourager

This week’s upcoming convergence of political campaigning and trick-or-treating boggles the mind.

Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 1.42.56 PMThis clown came up to me the other day and I couldn’t even tell if he was asking me for my vote or some candy.

Whoa! We sure are living in the midst of some strange days.

So, in acknowledging the prevailing strangeness all around us, I’ve come up with 5 WAYS POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS AND HALLOWEEN ARE ALIKE.

The strenuous intellectual exercise involved with this isn’t as worthless as you first might think.

There’s a clear connection between Halloween and political campaigns that can’t be ignored.

(At least I can’t pass it by.)

The connection between the two gives me the opportunity to share some campaign and election gems with you throughout the rest of this week.

The value of futuristic thinking. – SCN Encourager

Take a close look at the headline above.

Screen Shot 2014-03-20 at 4.52.12 PMFuturist David Zach believes the “.” should be replaced with a “? 

Remember when I wrote about him and futuristic thinking last week?

Well, you might’ve forgotten.

Zach didn’t.

In fact, he sent me several Direct Messages on Twitter later in the day that are still challenging my thinking as we head into a new weekend.

It’s not like I’m not used to having my thinking challenged.

Cindy and our daughters have been challenging my thinking since… well, forever.

But receiving some thought-provoking pings from Zach on my iPhone was a fun new experience.

Here are the five observations he sent me.

Whatcha’ think?

Old books.• We can be too futuristic.

• Historic might be more valuable.

• As G.K. Chesterton asked in the early 1900’s, “Why are school policies so often younger than the children?”

• If we believe that the future is just about change, then it means we have learned nothing.

• What endures is often more futuristic than the next brief change.

As Zach and I corresponded briefly back-and-forth, he indicated his willingness to keep the conversation going with us… somehow, someway.

So I’m going to explore the possibilities.

You don’t think I’m going to do all of this heavy-duty thinking all by myself do you?!? 


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The decision to close down a school permanently is painful all by itself.

And then you must begin to tip-toe through an emotionally charged PR “minefield.”

PE7A0061There’s no doubt about it.

In the life of every school leader and communicator some of the worst days on the job involve the slow build-up to a permanent school closure – and then the immediate let-down that follows.

Hopefully, you’ll be able to fall to your knees in prayers of thanksgiving later if you skirted your way through the minefield without something blowing up.

School closures are rife with conflict because school employees will criticize the decision, community leaders will make late-to-the-table pitches to explore alternatives, and neighborhoods will mourn the loss of a school as a breakdown in social infrastructure.

And there’s usually an outcry from alumni. Even if they haven’t driven by the school in decades, some will feel like their history is being wiped out if the building is closed, repurposed or demolished.

People will rail against the decision-making process – and who can blame them? Seldom is there policy or protocol for making the decision. School boards don’t have to include students, parents, community leaders, neighbors or alumni in deliberations.

Boards may hold stakeholder meetings before closing the school, but it usually feels like one-way communication to those who show up. Rarely is it open engagement over public policy.

Closing a school. Forever.

If you’ve got it, flaunt it! – SCN Encourager

Back when I was in high school, this expression was popular among my friends.

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 7.51.50 PMBut maybe this was just a Flint thing.

I sure hope so – because now it’s only embarrassing.

Really, it is.

If I handed you one of my high school yearbooks and one of last Sunday’s newspaper advertising circulars for a national Halloween costume chain store – and you looked only at the photos of the people – you’d be hard pressed to see much difference between the two.

You’d eventually be able to guess which one was my yearbook, though.

The Halloween store circular doesn’t show anybody smoking cigarettes.

As much as it annoys me now to see so many fond parts of my past turned into laughter-evoking party props, I could never call this a crisis.

It comes close… given what Cindy and my daughters put me through.

But no, as school leaders and communicators, we know from experience what defines a real “crisis.”

This is why I was glad to see that MSPRA is bringing  Zac Rantz to Ann Arbor on Friday, November 14, to lead a full day workshop on crisis communications planning and engaging your community.

These are topics worth growing in what you know.

So take a look at MSPRA’s website.

I hope you’ll join me at the Fall Drive In Conference.

And hey! Maybe we can even coordinate our outfits and flaunt it!

But maybe this was just a Flint thing.


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