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Design for Success: the Director of Communications role
Communications can be a transformative function if the foundation is solid
This Friday, I welcome my first collaborator to Talking Out of School. Please welcome Lauren Castagnola. Lauren has over fifteen years of experience in higher education and independent schools, as well as marketing and communications agency experience. She is passionate about education and has a keen interest in organizational leadership that sets up schools of all sizes to thrive. (JF note: Lauren was also an incredible colleague and Chief of Staff during my time at Westover. Just the best senior leader a head could want.)
Lauren and I both feel strongly about the crucial importance of a professionalized communication function for school success and we’ll be collaborating on the series Mission Critical Communications. To begin, we’ll look at the foundations of a healthy and productive communications function - the job description i.e. expectations for the Director of Communications (also known by many other names, but for simplicity’s sake we’re using this one).
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Get us Marketing! And Communications! And PR! And….
We are living in world where the acronym VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) is just another Tuesday,
And who will save us?
From the looks of the job descriptions, it seems that we are placing a lot of hope in Directors of Communications.
Who has not heard at a parent association or board of trustees meeting that “if we could just get the word out,” our problems would be solved? What head with enrollment struggles has not lain awake at night thinking (hoping?) the same thing?
And there is truth to this!
A director of communications who has a clear mandate, reports to the head of school, and has appropriate resources can be the secret sauce to move a school from struggling to sure footed. A talented and well supported director of communications brings together all the elements in their area to compound the effect of sharp and accurate brand messaging, cutting through the noise to make more people excited about the mission of a school, whether it is related to enrollment, fundraising, or constituent relations. And if the director of comms and the head of school both agree on a common vision and have a strong, trusting relationship - then the impact goes from helpful to powerful.
And this really does span from the aspirational to on-the-ground progress.Think about what even just the addition of a handful of tuition-capable families can make. Or increasing participation in the annual fund each year and moving the needle in the right direction for dollars and donors.
Some schools have grasped this fact and it is reflected in the job descriptions posted when filling this position. They are looking for sophisticated senior leaders who can manage a team and a budget to execute all the many functions of communications. These descriptions understand that it takes a team and that communications is a distinct discipline with its own clear and measurable goals.
However, these solid descriptions are in the minority. And if you are starting off with unrealistic expectations, this can lead to a search where expectations are compromised from the start and create an ongoing dynamic rife with disappointment, frustration, burnout, and a nagging sense that a lot of resources have been wasted.
It is perfectly valid to decide you need a one person office who will serve other offices! Maybe that’s where your school or org is at. But it won’t be the full-on transformative power of a complex and multifaceted communications function.
The Head of School, Board Chair, and Senior Team all have to get on the same page as to expectations before the hire even happens.
Reporting structure: who does the director report to and why?
If the director isn’t reporting to the head of school, this should be an intentional decision with a clear rationale and reasonable expectations. And it is a reasonable choice. But be clear on issues such as: is the senior administrator the director reports to ultimately responsible for the communications function? Does the senior admin understand the function or are they willing to learn? You can also expect that an accomplished comms professional is going to be less interested in a position that is situated a level away from the head.
Skill set: Are you looking for someone to run a communications office or are you looking for someone to BE the communications office?
In many descriptions, there is an avalanche of skills required: writing (of all kinds - emails for the chair of the board to magazine features), design, public relations, branding, marketing, crisis communications, publicity, a range of editorial skills, and social media management, web design and management and video production. There were duties that ranged from “differentiate the school” to “send out reverse 911 calls for school closures.”
The chances you are going to find someone who is equally talented and experienced at writing and design and other specific comms functions is almost zero, mostly because the education and training of strategic communicators/marketers, public relations experts, and visual design professionals is vastly different. There is intersection of these areas, but being realistic about the kind of professional you are seeking to add to your community is critical.
There seems to be great confusion about branding, marketing, public relations, publicity, and crisis communications, all of which are discreet specialities. The likelihood your pool will have candidates with multiple expertise to execute in these areas is also very slim.
One example is branding and messaging - this would likely be done in collaboration with a brand consultant. Your brand is much more than a tagline and your primary school colors. Using the brand effectively - or advising you when it is time to refresh or completely rebrand - is, of course, the wheelhouse of the director of comms.
And PR in terms of “publicity” is not a word used frequently in schools but in the wider world of comms, it is often what trustees and other constituents at a distance think of when they say “get the word out.” They dream of that glowing feature story in the New York Times Magazine or at the very least the front page of the metro section in your regional newspaper. Several times during my tenure at Walnut Hill School for the Arts the school engaged the services of a dedicated PR firm given the nature of the mission and the public performance aspect of the work.
Dedicated PR firms have relationships with press outlets although this has changed radically due to the changing nature of media orgs and the rise of social media. Yet more than one job description mentions the comms director developing relationships with “local and national media.” While it is quite reasonable to expect your director of comms to have a cordial relationship with local press, they are not likely to have the network, expertise or the time to be placing stories with the Wall Street Journal.
Really spend time to decide what the priorities are: what you can staff, what you can outsource and most importantly, what is a reasonable budget to make the dream come alive. There is a slim chance that hip new English teacher can take a stipend and kill it as the social media manager, but more likely by November you will have parents asking if the school is still on Instagram.
Scope of Work: Just because it has to be communicated does not make it the domain of the Director of Communications.
There also seems to be confusion as to what a senior level communications professional does and what can(and should) be the work of other offices. Not everything that needs to be communicated needs to come out of the director of communications’ office. There is a danger that the office becomes an admin support function for everyone else. Invitations, an internal “weekly events” e-newsletter, the school holiday card, ghostwriting emails for other admins - these are the work of other offices. Consulting with the director of comms is much desired but they and their office can’t produce everything. That would mean the director would be swamped with the urgent and never get to the important, to borrow terminology from Stephen Covey.
Temperament: Are you looking for a strategic leader or a counselor?
Another pattern we observed was a preference for a specific temperament type that seemed to have more to do with the dream of role the comms professional will be able to fill within the community - and dare I say, it read to us as biased towards stereotypically female traits - rather than actual three dimensional human professionals with experience who have a lot of responsibility on their shoulders. There is a lot of hope wrapped up in these job descriptions - that the new director be empathetic, deeply understand the school and everyone in it, and be able to articulate the magic at work both internally and externally.
A requirement for “meaningful” communication is repeated frequently. (As opposed to “non meaningful”? “Frivolous”? We found this very puzzling.) “A graceful writer.” “An attentive listener.” Someone with a “high energy level.” There are also repeated requests for a person who “thrives in a highly collaborative environment” and can balance many demands from different constituencies. Although we couldn’t find the actual word “warmth” in any of these job descriptions, we could have sworn we had.
We’re not saying that these qualities are not devoutly to be wished for but it becomes even harder to imagine the successful candidate if you pair the long list of skills with a specific temperament.
Paygrade: Somehow, this combination of specific skills and specific personality traits implies that this is a position that is not as highly valued as a professional than revenue-specific positions such as Chief Development Officer, Director of Enrollment Management or revenue managers like CFOs. And they aren’t paid at the same level, either. At a few schools, it is close to what the DEM makes but considerably under the going rate for a top level CDO or CFO.
And some of these job descriptions also outline that the director of comms will also be responsible for student-facing duties such as chaperoning, club advising or coaching to enable them to have first-hand knowledge of the student experience they are selling. Understandable - but reasonable? If you want a high level professional, she may expect to be paid like it and she may not be endlessly open to contributing in areas outside of their expertise. Particularly if you hope to retain your unicorn once you hire them.
Again, it comes down to priorities and a clear vision for what this department needs to accomplish - and what you’re willing to compromise on the school’s end.
Heads, ultimately setting this position up for success is on you. If you want a transformative director of communications, they need to enter an environment where they are treated as a leader, a chief strategist and a professional, and not a support service or the people pleaser in chief for every other department.
Revenue generating admins need to be ready to partner with them and respect their role in promoting and protecting the brand identity. The director of comms can offer guidance with everything from working with an assistant head to redesign faculty comms and faculty meeting structure to creating retention strategies with the dean of students but they can’t be responsible to execute everything. They need to have responsibility for an office that has adequate resources to cover everything the office is supposed to do, including resources for staffing and outsourcing.
Perhaps most importantly, the head of school needs to be ready for a partner in being the voice in chief. If the head of school can effectively communicate how her personal values intersect with the values of school, expressed through the brand, you can build powerful tactics that invigorate recruitment, fundraising, and internal school management and are absolutely invaluable at times of crisis.
Finally, the head needs to be ready to remind everyone that in matters of communications, the voice of the director needs to be heard and respected. Because just because we all communicate and consume communications does not make us all communications experts.
Future topics in the Mission Critical Communications series:
Elements of a strong communications office
Conflict management for comms directors (all that “collaborating” you know!)
Working with the revenue-generators - the different flavors of recruiting and fundraising
Before the crisis - developing a solid relationship between the head of school and the director of communications
Crisis communications - a must as an internal school function
What is your school’s brand? (Hint… it’s not your school seal and a couple of colors!)
Julie and Lauren
I’d like to thank Lauren for a very fun collaboration and I look forward to future collaborative posts over the next few months. I miss colleagues. :)
Enjoy the weekend -
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