Strategic Communications

The Strategic Communications KnowledgeBase is an online resource to aid those leading or supporting communications in education in understanding the history, value, framework, planning, and execution of effective Strategic Communications to nurture and build strong relationships in education. Strategic Communications is essential to engage stakeholders and achieve goals at the state level. The elements, activities, and tasks in this KnowledgeBase are designed to better prepare communications professionals within state education agencies (SEAs) to plan for and respond to communication challenges and support implementation of education policy. Click here to see a quick introduction to this KnowledgeBase.

Element 1: What is Strategic Communications?

Purpose: To implement a Strategic Communications process, it is important to understand the key principles of Strategic Communication first. This element explores the definitions, descriptions, history, benefits, and major functions of Strategic Communications, as well as what distinguishes Strategic Communications from daily communication activities. Although the focus is on how to apply this information within a state education agency (SEA), background information often comes from other disciplines as well as other educational organizations.

Activity 1: Understand the Principles, Definition, and History of Strategic Communications

A variety of definitions, descriptions, and frameworks have been given for Strategic Communications by experts in the field. Many of the definitions and descriptions included in this activity come from disciplines other than education, but have transferable value. These include the United States Armed Forces, business, public and governmental relations, and higher education. 

Activity 2: Explore the Benefits of Strategic Communications

Strategic Communications can be viewed as an umbrella term that pulls together many communications and related functions from other disciplines under one process to implement an agency’s strategic goal or priority. Although this can be a time- and resource-intensive process, it can also have significant benefits to connect these various core functions with the agency's strategic direction.

Element 2: What background information is needed to develop a Strategic Communications approach?

Purpose: Before developing a Strategic Communications process, it is important for an SEA to research the organization, including its vision, mission, values, and desired outcomes; its history, leadership, and structures; its various audiences, including both internal and external stakeholders; and its goals for Strategic Communications. The SEA should also explore promising practices of Strategic Communications that are likely to be successful based on the information gleaned about the organization. This element explores each of these components and provides resources for how to conduct research or collect the background information needed before designing or improving upon an existing Strategic Communications process.

Activity 1: Establish background context and current reality of the SEA

This activity explores the context and current situation of SEA through the strategic direction, history, leadership, structures, strengths and weaknesses, and cultural norms of the SEA.

Vision, Mission, Values, and Goals: Some might ask, “What if an SEA does not have a formalized vision, mission, values, and goals? Can Strategic Communications exist without those?” Based on the definitions, descriptions, and principles of Strategic Communications identified in Element 1, it is clear that a Strategic Communications approach is one that connects communications activities to the agency’s larger strategic direction, either holistically or for a particular initiative. If the agency does not have a formalized vision, mission, values, and goals, or if the agency does not follow these as a course of direction, it will be more challenging to implement a Strategic Communications approach. It is possible, however, for an SEA to articulate a strategic direction to which communication processes are tied without that strategic direction being formalized through a vision, mission, values, and goals. In this case, a Strategic Communications approach would be based on the articulated strategic direction.

History, Leadership, and Structures: Organizational culture, which is influenced by history, leadership, and structures of the agency, will drive various aspects of a Strategic Communications plan. It is not possible for any SEA to adopt another organization’s Strategic Communications plan because they are situated within different organizational cultures. The culture of one organization may lend itself to cross-divisional conversations without formalized structures, for example, whereas another organization may rely on formalized structures to ensure that cross-divisional conversations are productive. Similarly, leadership of one SEA may include a large number of people whereas another may defer to only a few people as decision-makers. These pieces of background information will shape the overall Strategic Communications plan because they shape the overall strategic direction as well as the specific components or activities included in a Strategic Communications plan.

Activity 2: Determine your audiences and understand their perspectives

Understanding the various perspectives of audiences and stakeholder groups requires research and information gathering.

Audiences, including Internal and External Stakeholders: Some have described the key to Strategic Communications as understanding the various audiences of the SEA and determining the best activities for engaging them in the strategic direction.  In most cases, every person, organization, and entity within a state and some outside of the state are stakeholders of the education system – either as a financial contributor, recipient of implemented learning experiences, employer of graduates, or provider of educational services.  It is important, then, to understand a broad array of perspectives and determine the scope of stakeholders for varying levels of intensity in a Strategic Communications plan.

Activity 3: Determine the purposes, objectives, strategies and tactics of your SEA Strategic Communications Approach

Writing specific goals and objectives for the Strategic Communications plan assists with selecting the most meaningful strategies and tactics for implementing it.

Purposes of Strategic Communications: Not every activity that is considered communication is part of a Strategic Communications approach. Understanding what the agency intends to accomplish with its Strategic Communications approach will assist in determining which activities need to come under the umbrella of Strategic Communications. For example, one SEA may choose to use a Strategic Communications approach to build support for one new initiative while another SEA may desire to use Strategic Communications for all activities related to a new set of goals for the state.

Promising Practices: When selecting specific strategies, activities, or tactics for a Strategic Communications approach, SEAs will want to conduct a review of proven and promising practices to maximize the likelihood of success for the strategies.

Task 3: Review examples of effective communication strategies and activities

Guideline: This task is designed to provide examples of successful strategies and tactics of Strategic Communications that can be adopted or adapted to meet the needs of an SEA.  It is important to match the selected strategies with the skillsets of those assigned to execute the plan or to build their capacity as needed.

State Education Agency Communications Process: Benchmark and Best Practices Project

This 2014 Building State Capacity and Productivity Center Benchmarking project report explains the major processes associated with strategic communication and details the communication approaches employed by five SEAs to support the adoption of new state standards, a major education policy change in those states.

Arkansas ESSA Stakeholder Communication Page

This Arkansas Department of Education webpage offers an explanation of Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), as well as a summary of community input and feedback. This site also provides advice for stakeholders to stay involved. Arkansas selected webpage development as an appropriate tactic for engaging stakeholders in a conversation about ESSA.

Arkansas Reignite: Teach Again! Campaign

To alleviate some of the pressure caused by educator shortages, Arkansas launched the Teach Again! Campaign, which encourages retired or no-longer-teaching educators to reignite their passion for education and return to the classroom. In conjunction with a social media strategy, this website uses video, statistics, and step-by-step instructions to reengage educators in the pipeline.

Colorado Stories of Promising Practice

The Colorado Department of Education highlights the great work being done in Colorado at schools and districts, Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), and other education-related organizations through video clips, stories, blogs, and newspaper articles.

Kansans Can Postcards

This is one example of the Kansans Can Postcards associated with the Kansans Can Vision for Education.  Additional postcard examples can be found at Kansas Can Brochures.

Kansans Can Vision Website

Following development of the Kansans Can Vision for Education, the Kansas State Department of Education collected all resources related to the vision into one web portal.  Resources on this website include the vision, outcomes to be measured, video, presentations, printables, fact sheets, graphics, and stakeholder engagement tools.

Louisiana Believes Introduction Video

The Louisiana Department of Education developed a video to introduce all stakeholders to the state’s strategic plan, Louisiana Believes. The video explains the key strategies and goals of the plan.

Missouri Top 10 by 20 Public Service Announcements Playlist

Missouri’s Top 10 by 20 is a major improvement effort that aims for student achievement in Missouri to rank among the top 10 states by 2020.  More than a ranking, the initiative is about the entire state coming together for a common purpose of improved student achievement. This video playlist pulls together some of the public service announcements created for the initiative.

New Mexico Common Core State Standards Website

The New Mexico Common Core State Standards website provides critical information about the state’s academic expectations with differentiated messages for each audience: students, parents, teachers, and administrators.

Oklahoma Fast Facts Brochure 2016-17

The Oklahoma Department of Education selected education statistics that relate to the state’s strategic goals to report in an easy-to-understand format for the general public, educators, and policymakers.

Smithville School District Science Curriculum (12 Step Process)

This 2014 Power Point by Sarah Potter, from the Missouri Department of Education, is a case study about the Smithville School District (Chicago school district of 5,000) Science Curriculum. This presentation is from an APR online study course given on July 1, 2014.

Element 3: What are the processes for developing, implementing, and evaluating a Strategic Communications Approach?

Purpose: The iterative process of developing, implementing, evaluating, and revising a Strategic Communications approach is critical to its success. All steps of the process must be considered before implementation to monitor the effectiveness of the approach.

Activity 1: Explore examples of Strategic Communications plans and templates

In this activity, a variety of Strategic Communications plans are presented, including examples from inside and outside of the education field.  Examples of specific strategies and activities are provided to illustrate how a plan gets turned into actions and deliverables.  Additionally, templates, checklists, and guiding questions for key components of Strategic Communications plans are shared. 

No magic formula exists for Strategic Communications approaches, so the variety of plans presented are intended to be instructive and provide opportunities for SEAs to modify promising practices to meet the context of the agency. Remember: Stay true to the word "strategic." These samples and templates reflect the principle of proactive, impact-focused Strategic Communications. Resisting the temptation to be reactive and tactic-focused can be difficult in the fast pace of state agency work, but it is essential to successful outcomes in this arena.

Activity 2: Monitor and measure the success of your Strategic Communications Plan

It is imperative to monitor implementation and measure the success of the SEA’s Strategic Communication approach. Decision-makers need to see evidence of expected impact and, where necessary, which elements require adjustments for improved outcomes. Additionally, audience feedback is critical to communications success. Listening to stakeholder input, and reflecting changes based on it, will enhance and accelerate the work.