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The Art of Strategic Communications

Laurie Schell • AdvocacySeptember 2022 • September 5, 2022

The term “strategic communications” describes a messaging plan linked to overarching goals. It sits at the heart of advocacy success —the art of communicating effectively with targeted audiences to move decision makers with the use of mainstream, social, new, and paid media. Here are some tools of strategic communications and suggestions for how music educators can put them into practice. Whether you are preparing a policy agenda at the state level or a budget request for your school, thinking strategically in your communications efforts is essential.

I was first introduced to the idea of strategic communications in 2007 when leading a campaign to secure $105 million dollars for arts education in the California state budget. Social and online media was in its infancy in 2007. Blackberrys still existed and iPhones weren’t that smart. The size of your listserv was a measure of effective communications. At one point in the campaign, I got a call from then Governor Schwarzenegger’s communications chief to be “ready to go to the mattresses.” (Godfather reference meaning “get ready to go to war”). The implication being that we would expand public advocacy efforts by engaging the media and grassroots level advocates in addition to cultivating high level legislators. So, while tactical considerations for 2022 are a world apart from 2007, the concepts described below have enduring value. 

Decisional Steps in Strategic Communications

The Smart Chart 4.0 from Spitfire Strategies is an invaluable communications planning tool for advocacy purposes and it’s free to the public. It moves from vision to action, describing the decisional processes along the way. The chart highlights equity and racial justice and incorporates brain research on decision-making.

According to the Spitfire Smart Chart, a communications campaign has five major strategic decision steps:

1. Decide what the organization wants to do. What is your goal (e.g., visibility, policy change, budget allocation, etc.)?

2. Identify the context of your work and understand what you have to work with. Are you working at the local, state, or national level? What are your assets (e.g., people, revenue, media sources, data, etc.)?

3. Make strategic choices about your audience and messages. Who are the ultimate decision makers? Who can carry your message and have an impact on outcomes? What messages will resonate with your intended target audience? 

4. Determine high impact activities to reach audiences with clear messages. What high value activities will yield the most impact (e.g., personal connections with decision makers, high volume grassroots turnout, data and research, paid advertising, etc.)?

5. Create measurements of success. What will success look like (e.g., policy change, greater awareness of an issue, increased number of active advocates, etc.)?

Nest Your Communications Strategies Within the Larger System

Most school districts have a communications department that handles district-wide announcements with staff and parents as well external outreach with the community and media.

Many also have a published vision, mission, core values, and a description of how they will achieve them. For example, Metro Nashville Public Schools states the following on their website:

Vision: Metro Nashville Public Schools will be established as the premier large school district in Tennessee and beyond by ensuring every student is known.

Mission: We deliver a great public education to every student, every day.

Our Core Values: Whole Learner, Literacy, Excellence, Relevance, Innovation, Talent, Collaboration, Equity, Diversity. Focused outcomes include the areas of literacy, numeracy, attendance, social-emotional learning, transition preparation, and graduation.

As mentioned in an earlier article in SBO, communications departments at school districts are hungry for good news. Use the language of the district when crafting stories about your groups– internal newsletters to administrators, school board briefings, concert program notes, media briefings, etc. Be the go-to good news person for the district communications team as a great way to leverage your opportunities for visibility and support. 

Create a Mini-Communications Campaign

A key to a successful communications campaign is having a concrete objective and being disciplined in your tactics. Beware of vague objectives, such as “increase public awareness.” Public awareness is a step on the road to changing behavior, not an end itself. SMART objectives are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time bound.

Here’s a scenario for how a campaign might unfold for a band or orchestra director, following the five decisional steps mentioned above.

1. Objective/duration: My program needs to replace aging instruments and augment instrument access for students who cannot afford to buy or rent. The campaign objective is to increase the school budget allocation for musical instruments. The timeframe for budget decisions is typically from December through April. My campaign will begin with the winter concert season and end with the school board vote on the budget.

2. Context: I work in a high school in a suburban district with total enrollment of 50,000. My high school is one of five comprehensive 9-12 schools in the district. I have 200 students in my program. My assets include people (parents, students, administrators, teacher colleagues, community leaders) and data (equity studies, research showing positive correlation between music study and engagement and achievement in school).

3. Strategic choices: 

a. Targeted decision makers: The Board of Education is the ultimate decision maker. However, my building principal and district administrators are also key in the budget process.

b. Audience (the messengers who move the decision makers.): Band parents, students, and select administrators understand the need for updated instruments and would be effective messengers for the targeted decision makers. I can also tap business, philanthropic, and community leaders. 

c. Message (use language they want to hear.): Our music programs support the district’s priorities of literacy, numeracy, relevance, collaboration, social-emotional learning, and diversity. All students need and deserve high quality instruments to enable cognitive, social, and emotional benefits beyond the music classroom.

d. Positioning/Frame (a values-based mental frame to move your position forward, such as equity.): My high school is a Title I school. We do not have the community/parent resources needed to fill the gap between need and district funds. Other schools have those resources. This is an equity issue in my district.

1. High impact activities: 

a. The winter concert, a community favorite, will launch the campaign. Communications tactics include program notes, testimonials from students, short video previews, and invitations and follow up to targeted decision makers and media. 

b. Ensemble performances at school board meetings will showcase student engagement and demonstrate need. Tactics include a short brief for board members on how the need for more instruments supports district priorities, testimony from a student, parent, administrator, and social media video clips.

c. Parent email campaign. Have a parent leader who is willing to coordinate an email campaign to targeted decision makers. Emails will be brief, respectful, and adhere strictly to the message of the campaign. In-person visits might also be encouraged.

Measurements of success: The ultimate measure of success is increased financial support for instrument purchases. We know it may not happen this year. Secondary measures of success are equally important. They provide a boost to future campaigns, including: 1) increased numbers of audience/messengers who can speak knowledgeably about the issue; and 2) expanded awareness among targeted decision makers about the need for instruments as well as the benefits of a strong music program.

Link Communications Strategies with Goals

Effective advocacy campaigns link communications strategies to the overarching goal of the campaign.

In the 2007 campaign for K-12 arts education in California, the goal was to secure dedicated funding for arts education in the state budget due to historical under-funding of the arts. The communications strategies employed were top/down and bottom/up. Meaning we identified several well-placed advisors and legislators (messengers) at the top levels of government. And we mounted a grassroots campaign for advocates to contact their legislators (targeted audience). The print media proved an effective communications ally and messenger, with key editorials in major newspapers across the state, thanks to the assistance of the NAMM Foundation.

Fast forward to the end of the story– the California state budget was approved with ongoing funds of $105 million for arts education, and an additional one-time $500 million to be shared with physical education, to be allocated equitably across all districts on a per pupil basis. Though the funding line item didn’t last, it gave a substantial visibility boost to the California Alliance for Arts Education (now CreateCA), the nonprofit that spearheaded the campaign, and gave new energy to an expanded group of stakeholders.

I hope this is a helpful way for you to think about ongoing strategic communications and your next budgetary or policy ask. If you need instruments, sheet music, uniforms, or time in the schedule, consider the communications strategy and tactics that will guide your efforts. After all, you never know when you’ll be asked to go to the mattresses! 

Laurie Schell is a lifelong advocate for music and arts education. She is founding principal of ElevateArtsEd, providing consulting services and issue expertise with a focus on arts education.

This article is derived from a post originally published by Creative Generation and ElevateArtsEd in July 2022.

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