Two students interacting

Communicating with Students: Reaching a Forgotten Audience


Recently, I was in my childhood closet at my parents’ house digging through what was apparently a time capsule of my life. One uncovered artifact included a notebook containing detailed instructions on how to use a new piece of technology called the Internet. The year was 1996, and I was about to start my senior year in high school. I had written down instructions on how to conduct a web search. My notes began, “Type”. With those instructions, I could access a world beyond my small town to learn more about whatever interested me at 17. Hit that link today and you’re likely to get a 404 page not found Error.

Just like how we search the internet has changed, so has so much of how we communicate changed, and The truth is, I am still learning about how to communicate in a digital age.

Challenging Our Notions

As school public relations practitioners, this new era of communication can be a challenge. We have spent the last few generations trying to increase parental and stakeholder engagement—reaching those people who have the capacity to affect our organizations with their feet (by leaving) or with their vote.

As students increasingly become leaders of their own learning, we have to think about how we directly communicate with them. Many of the assumptions on which we base the selection of communication strategies for parents and families may not work for all students and in particular high schoolers. When we assume we know their preferred method of communication, we run the risk of getting that dreaded 404 page not found error. 

Just because we consistently see students with their heads down looking at their phones, we can’t assume they will find us on our preferred channels of communication. The places where we as practitioners are comfortable, Facebook or Twitter, aren’t where students spend their time. Nor can we rely on the backpack fliers that work for their parents.

When it comes to parents, the research doesn’t indicate that social media is where we should place the bulk of our efforts. The same holds true for communicating with students. If you have a teen’s cell phone on your monthly bill, then you see this every month. Teens text. A lot. Research from Common Sense Media shows that teens increasingly prefer texting over face-to-face communication with others. It makes sense, too, since 90 percent of teens have smartphones. This is something that our peers in higher education have already figured out and are  using it to their competitive advantage. Research shows that 92 percent of accepted and confirmed college applicants opt-in for texting with admissions counselors.

As adults, we have been designing campaigns based on what we think the kids would like; meanwhile, they’ve been swiping left on our efforts. The reality is that the most effective communication channel will vary depending on your location. Using the industry-standard best practice of the Four-Step Process (research, planning, implementation, and evaluation), we can work to better understand this crucial audience in our local communities.

Learning Directly from Students

In a focus group I recently held with high school students, I learned some of my assumptions were completely wrong. Here are my top takeaways from the focus group:

  • Students Are Primed for the Message. Students want to be in the know about everything from scholarships to school activities and opportunities.
  • Peer Pressure Is Still a Thing. Despite our efforts to pass messages to students through their parents, it didn’t work. They found the opinions of their peers comparatively more important than their parents. The good news is that peer pressure can work in favor of your school communications goals.
  • Leverage Their Social Network. Among a heterogeneous group of students, all were able to identify peer leaders to whom they looked for confirmation. This held true regardless of the demographics of the students. Find out who the influencers are, and you can leverage the network by which you can pass messages.
  • Know What Works. Information should be communicated through the channels they use and understand. In my case, it wasn’t Instagram or Twitter. Focus your communication efforts on what works and eliminate channels they don’t use.
  • Avoid Puffery. Information should be clear, concise and accurate or else the channel will be abandoned or deleted. Be consistent in providing relevant, audience-centered content.

This group of digital natives bypassed the formal training I gained when learning how to use the Internet. But, the lesson I learned in 1996 still holds true: We must teach students how to access all the communications tools available to them and use them consistently.

By learning more about your target audience, you can design more effective communications efforts which integrate a variety of communication tools at your disposal.

Join me on May 8 from 12:00-1:00 PM ET for a webinar with even more of my tips for making students a primary audience for district communications. Register today.

Guest author: Lesley Bruinton, APR, Public Relations Coordinator, Tuscaloosa City Schools, AL