Key Communicators: Strategic Community Engagement
Engaging with their public in a meaningful way has proved to be one of the most daunting challenges for many of the boards we have worked with over the years. We have struggled to understand why that is. It almost defies logic to think that a public board whose members were elected by the public are challenged to simply sit down with those who elected them and engage in meaningful dialog. And yet, this can be one of the most important and beneficial components of CG implementation.
The desired outcome of this work is to build focus on student achievement and support for district and board efforts. One of the easiest and most doable strategies we have found for boards to engage with their owners is Key Communicators.
What are Key Communicators? A network of key people in the community who can serve as a continuing, two-way communication link between the board and the citizens. Second, KCs are people who talk to—and are believed by—others throughout the community with whom they interact. They are not necessarily the formal power structure people. Occupationally, they may be the café owner or waitress, barber, beautician, librarian!
What does it cost? Only 1-1/2 hours of board time—once every other month or so. Once members are identified and confirmed, they will be asked to meet with the board periodically to engage in two-way discussions about topics important to the board and identified by them! Light refreshments help people relax and engage. We recommend holding the gatherings in a school.
What’s in it for community members? First-hand knowledge of what’s going on with the Board and the district—information is power!
What’s in it for the Board? Build greater understanding and insight into the issues the board is grappling with.
Access the grapevine—the most credible source of information in any community. Get the good news out, surface emerging rumors before the embers become a firestorm, increase brainstorming as challenges are identified.
- How are people identified and invited? Board brainstorms names of those individuals who are listened to in the community when they talk. Cross reference names. Those who show up as top “vote-getters” are invited. Send an email or letter of invitation, signed by the Board, and follow it with a phone call. Target a max of 30 people. Ask invitees not to delegate their invitation to someone else to attend in their place. Include a list of those invited to all so they understand they are in a “select” few.
- What does the board do? Set up a 1-1/2 hour breakfast or lunch—whatever most likely will be attended. Explain the board role, the participants’ role, why they were chosen, the kinds of problems the district is facing, and most of all, the board’s desire to know “What’s Your Opinion?”
- Ask if they can meet once a month or so, what their preferred time would be, and whether they allow you to send them information by email to keep them informed. Some districts have established a private link on their website for their KCs.
Some critical advice:
- Try to get the full Board to participate. Consider rotating the role of facilitator among the Board members.
- Limit participation so all will have the ability to talk and to be listened to. Remember, you are asking for their opinion and advice—these influential people who will go out and talk about what they have learned and influence others’ opinions. Board member as recorder: Use a flipchart or screen to record what you hear and assure all that you “got it right.”.
- If the group does get large, structure small group conversations with Board members facilitating—then report out to the full group.
- The questions you ask will determine the quality of the responses you receive. Carefully construct questions about topics of urgency. We have samples.
- Send participants a thank you note after the meeting with a summary of the feedback. Tell them how you will use what you have heard.
- Ask KCs to give the Board or Superintendent a heads-up if they hear of news in the community that you would want to be aware of—the lousy rumor, the under-appreciated volunteer, the student who achieved something great and no one knows about it, the potential for business support if contacted by a Board member. Remember, this is grassroots advocacy.
Board members across the states use KC’s to inform their thinking, to leverage their influence, to build community understanding and support, to help the board demonstrate to constituents that it is in touch and cares about community opinion. Equally the gathering allows KCs to hear the diversity of expectations amongst themselves and the difficulty the Board has playing Solomon. Their conversation and concerns influence each other’s appreciation for complex public opinion.
A final word: While Key Communicators is a great linkage strategy, it is only one. We are FIRM believers that Boards must have their own Strategic Communications Plan with a diversity of strategies. IT IS BIG WORK! Do it and reap the results. Talk to us for more information.