Linda Wacyk knows school communications from many angles.
First, Linda is director of communications for the Michigan Association of School Administrators (MASA), a professional association serving 560 Michigan superintendents, 200 first-line school administrators, and close to 1,000 business partners.
She updates MASA’s Website. Arranges editorial content for the association’s magazine, which is published three times a year. She puts out an electronic newsletter twice a month. She issues weekly electronic updates.
Linda also serves as a trustee on the Grand Ledge Board of Education, which has proved to be her most perplexing communications challenge in 2014.
In May, voters denied the board’s $59.9 million bond proposal by voters by the slim margin of 83 votes.
The campaign had no organized opposition. At countless public presentations, attendees seemed to consider the proposal reasonable.
Had the board missed residents they should have been listening to? Had supporters not made it to the polls?
“All we know for sure was that slightly more than half the voters motivated to go to the polls did not consider our message compelling,” Linda said. “Deep down, it’s a communication problem. We failed to motivate people who want opportunities for kids to take action.”
The Grand Ledge board has announced no subsequent bond proposal.
Not to be a Negative Nancy…
Perhaps it’s not fair to start a story about an effective school communicator with an instance when she feels like she had failed – and fears kids in her community might pay a high price.
But I don’t think Linda will object. She knows the importance of getting readers interested and engaged.
More and more, communications duties are handed to employees with little or no formal training in public relations. Routinely extraneous duties that have almost nothing to do with communications are heaped on school communicators, noted Linda, who is also in charge of MASA’s member services.
“There will be times when you believe you have done the work that is the right work for what needs to be accomplished for kids, then you have to change 180 degrees in a new direction,” Linda said. “The ability to put a setback behind you and continue walking forward — maybe in a new direction – is huge. We won’t survive in this field without it.”
From preschool teacher to premier writer
Linda’s lifelong desire to help children and families led to her decision to study early elementary education. When she had children of her own, she left the formal workplace in favor of providing home-based child care for other families. As her own children grew, Linda started a communications consulting business with a friend. Many of their clients were school districts. She returned to college to earn a communications degree.
When Linda decided to return to work full time, she sought a position that would require a lot of writing, which she enjoyed more and more.
“I have not always won the battle for plain language,” Linda said. “I really believe that our job is to keep the language as simple as possible, yet keep the information rich and meaningful.”
Sometimes academics — who understand minor differences in words — want to load a written draft with education jargon, which will cloud the message for most readers.
Occasionally school leaders will do the polar opposite – they will “dumb down” a message so much that it turn-offs or insults readers.
“The goal is to use words that your audience can connect to the things they care about,” Linda said. “That’s the best way to get from simply telling people what you’re doing to conveying the message that you need their help to get it accomplished.”
5 tips for school communicators from Linda
• Master the narrative of your school system. Become adept at succinctly describing what matters most and how you plan to improve.
• Time and project management skills will be critical to your success.
• Learn to engage people. And remember that “engagement” is different than just telling people what to do. (Her favorite book on the subject is Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change by the organization VitalSmarts.)
• Use online survey tools like SurveyMonkey. They will help you reach parts of your community that don’t currently have students in school.
• You are in charge of your own professional development. Fortunately, this has never been easier. Register for online courses and webinars. Watch TED Talks.
Here is one of her favorite online posts.