Session Summary: How do we Communicate During These Pandemic Times?

Pegge Erkeneff, Director of Communications, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District

Drawing upon personal experiences, Pegge Erkeneff explored effective methods—and challenges—of communicating with the public during a pandemic.

The key factor in good communication, she said, is “grace;” with ourselves, with one another, and with our communities. Erkeneff framed her interactive presentation around the letters in the word “grace,” using each letter to illustrate different aspects of communications.

She began with the letter “G” and showed words beginning with G that encapsulate some of the things she has observed her school board, leadership team, staff and parents go through:

G The Gravity of the times we’re going through, with differing opinions creating a lot of conflict. Social media has been particularly challenging, and the first sentiments expressed about a particular topic can tend to drive the rest of the discussion. A positive comment will draw out folks who have positive things to say, while negative comments cause people who may want to say something positive not to, because they don’t want to be bullied. It may take years, or even decades to unpack all that has happened this year, especially the impact on students. Some students have had a “gap year,” while others have thrived. Parents are also struggling. These are challenging times for school boards, and there is a call for us to be Gracious, and Genuine. There is also a call to Greatness for us to step into, in the way that we use our words to communicate during this time.

Erkeneff invited board memberss to come up with their own G words that illustrate their experiences this year: Gratitude, Grit, Guts, Grind, Growth.

R The Resonance tone that we set in our communications sets the stage for what happens. Good communicators are Responsive. Emotions can run high during public testimony at board meetings and she sometimes found herself thinking, “Are you kidding me, Really?” at some of the harsh comments people have made to board members. Boards need to shake off those comments and keep going, she said. This year has taught us to be Ready to deal with anything that comes our way. When the Recovery starts, we will need to help students close the growth gaps many have experienced this year. Boards are Rising to the occasion we’re living through.

Board members suggested additional R words that pertain to communications: Rest, Relax, Respect, Research, Relevant, Rational, Receptive, Realistic, Reflect, Rigor, Reassurance, Risk, Resiliancy, Resources, rewards, Reliant, Reality, Restless, Responsible, Radical, Retain, Reach, Remain.

A One of the primary roles of a board member is to be an Advocate for the mission of your school district, students, staff, and community. With the level of budget cuts districts are facing, in addition to legislative advocacy efforts, boards will need to have an even greater focus on advocacy at the local level. Analyze what is important to convey, using statisitcs, data, and storytelling. Allow people to express themselves, and allow yourself not to have all the answers. I have found myself needing to Apologize more this year than ever before, because I have not been able to complete everything people need from me. Despite everything that is happening, we still have to Advance our mission.

Board members suggested some additional A words that illustrate grace in communications: Approachable, Attention, Attendance, Awards, Attitudes, Amplify, Accept, Adknowledge, Appreciate, Align, Accountable, Acclimate, Amazing, Ardent, Appreciation, Adversity, Ad hoc committee, Academic, Affordable broadband.

C The “loud voices” don’t always represent everyone’s viewpoint, and there are some interesting platforms we’re are rapidly learning to use to help us communicate better, such as videoconferencing. So we are learning to be Creative in our communication methods. The Culture we create in how a board meeting is run, and the difference in Cultures among us. We have schools that can only be accessed by boat or plane, as well as neighborhood schools on the road system, which can be Challenging. As board members, we need to respect all of the Cultures within the different schools and communities we represent. there is a lot of Criticism coming at elected leaders right now, especially school boards. There is no “right decision” for everybody. Dr. Michael Johnson has said, “We now have to make decisions. We don’t have the luxury to figure it all out, and you’re going to be criticized, so get used to it.” You’ve all been criticiszed for decisions you made as a board, and that’s just part of how it is right now. So we have to stay Calm and Connected.

Board members suggested some additional C words: Care, Capture, Cooperation, Collaborate, Captivate, Careful, Caring, Children first, Consistency, Connections, Courage, a Caring staff, Caring for our staff, Celebrate, Community, Concern, Cheer, Calming, Compassion, Clear, Compromise.

E Elected officials serve in a role on behalf of kids and education. We do that Every day, and it takes Energy. Our communication is constantly Evolving. What is an E word that defines how you show up in the world as a school board member with your communications? Equity is really important and this pandemic has brought that out. When schools are doing 100% remote instruction, it becomes evident what resources people have and don’t have. Elevate.

In our communications there is one core element that is really important: the Intent of what we want to communicate, and the Impact it has on whoever is hearing our message. Sometimes these two elements are not in alignment with each other. We may intend to communicate something that impacts someone in an unintended way.

When working on district communications to speak to the public, staff, legislative information packets, responding to media, talking to people who are angry or happy, there is a marketing concept to keep in mind: ”WIIFM,” which stands for What’s In It For Me? I try to frame our district communications in a way that is answering urgent unmet needs, or creating a solution for someone. I try to anticipate who the audience is and what they need.

Communications often have to do with safety. Your school district is making safety decisions on how instruction is delivered, who comes into the building, what happens if there’s a positive COVID case, contact tracing, quarantining, and deciding how to operate your schools in the midst of a pandemic. The best communications are as simple and succinct as they can be, solve a problem, share a solution, or delivering delight.

Three areas for the best communication: Stats, Stories, and Social.

  • Stats – What are the most important facts and data that your publics need to know? Keep it simple and to the point. Different groups of people want information delivered in different ways. For example, legislators require statistics.
  • Stories – What and who do you celebrate? What is the emotional spark that people will care about? Statistics are best shared with the general public through stories about celebrations and what’s going right in our classrooms and schools. Stories about successes build goodwill and help people understand the need for funding education and support legislative advocacy. Images can tell stories in ways that words can’t.
  • Social – Multiple platforms, delivery methods, ways to connect. How can you generate positive sentiment? Our district doesn’t use social media as much as we used to. Instead, we’ve switched to the School Messenger platform that allows us to communicate directly with our families. This minimizes the negative comments that tend to accumulate on social media platforms.

“Your story can be a reminder to ask the big questions that will guide you, and make the small choices that will sustain you.” – Bernadette Jiwa

A district can use stories to share their mission, vision, strategic plan, and the needs you have, so that you can provide a quality education.

Erkeneff asked attendees to reflect on the following question: What is an unmet expectation or need in my school district, or for the people I represent?

School boards are having to say no to a lot of things lately, and the quality of your “yes’s” is only as good as the quantity of your “no’s.” There is no possible way to meet everyone’s needs these days. Saying “No” can be valuable, and gives us the space for saying “Yes.”

In closing, Erkeneff asked attendees to to come up with an answer to this question: What is my G.R.A.C.E. word that will guide me in the coming months?