Developing a communication department for an organization does not happen overnight, and it took me a few months of working for the Environmental Charter School (ECS) before realizing the need for a more strategic approach. ECS prides itself in education innovation, but oftentimes, that means we must build the plane while flying it. This concept is exactly how I established an official communication department.
A Step- by- Step Process to Developing a Communication Department
To begin the development process, I thought it would be helpful to conceptualize the creation of the department as one large campaign. The diagram below focuses on my main steps.
Step 1: Identify the Challenge
Imagine a room filled with four filing cabinets, all of which are empty, sitting ajar. Papers are scattered on the floor, and some have fallen behind the cabinets, just waiting for rediscovery. This is how it felt walking into an organization that did not have a defined communication department. The elements were there: brand guidelines, access to a website, email system, social media platforms, and a binder full of printed documentation that had previously been sent to stakeholders.
Other departments at ECS requested communication materials such as designs, monthly communications, and website updates, but completing these tasks was similar to a ticketing system. Once fulfilled, I moved on to the next task. To combat this check-box style of work, my supervisor gave me three goals:
Build connections to the organization and its mission.
Create stability and consistency for growing each year.
Utilize third-party validation to get our brand into new areas and arenas.
From these goals, I identified the need for storage of all communication items, goal-oriented campaigns, and systems and processes that would track success.
Step 2: Know Your Organization’s History
To fully understand the scope and sequence of the work ahead of me, I began to sift through the already provided documentation and systems. I sought to learn about these materials and the why behind them from individuals who were veteran employees and familiar with the organization's unique mission and history of continual growth. Through this process, I identified yearly projects and spaces that needed content creation while fully immersing myself in the ECS experience and discovering what it meant to be an “ECSer.”
Step 3: Conduct Research: Ask How, Why, When, Where, and Then Find Out
Once I gained a greater awareness of the organization itself and what communication was like historically, I began conducting internal and external research.
Internally, I had a lot of questions regarding when and how our stakeholders absorbed the content. To better understand ECS’s constituents, communication surveys were deployed with equity and accessibility taking center stage to determine what channels, content types, and times were most desired for communications. Through cross-departmental collaboration, surveys were provided in a variety of ways to accommodate individuals and reach a diverse population and ensure marginalized communities had an opportunity to voice their thoughts.
Externally, I began to look at other schools, specifically charter schools in Pennsylvania. With education laws varying from state to state, it was important to fully ascertain the barriers education institutes face and how to overcome adversities. Recognizing that school district communications are imperative to the student experience but may include difficult and hard-to-digest information was key to gathering examples. With each piece of information came another question that forced me to ask “How? What do I need to make this happen?”
Step 4: Create EVERYTHING: Storage, Procedures, and Templates
As I said, I built the plane while flying it, so I would do one thing and realize that I needed another. Or I would start a project only to discover I did not have the tools or support to finish. These “successful failures” resulted in a communication renaissance. A shared drive especially for the communication department was created for digital documentation and storage purposes. I recorded all of my tasks in a newly developed production schedule and created social media content calendars, templates, and platforms to build unique URLs and track website, email, and social media analytics. Keeping the goals set by my supervisor in mind, I determined that all ECS communication efforts fell under the umbrella of Integrated Marketing Communications with four primary buckets:
Internal Public Relations
External Public Relations
While some objectives are strictly categorized into one of the buckets above, others take a multi-purpose form, and each has its own subcategories used for audiences, measurable objectives, and tactics that will help the department achieve its goals. Through this slow and mistake-ridden process, ECS’s Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) Department was born.
Step 5: Evaluate: Review the data!
Recognizing the hardships and shortcomings of your work is never fun, but having that honest conversation is crucial to growing and having a greater impact on your stakeholders in the future. Not only was I able to uncover the level of success of each campaign through quantitative data analysis, but I also brainstormed considerations and ideas for the future. I developed an IMC Dept. annual report to document statistics and recommendations going forward. This work leads directly to the next step: evolve.
Step 6: Evolve: Data-Driven Change
The IMC Dept. annual report paves the way for the next year’s strategic planning and allows us to make data-driven decisions based on learnings from the previous year. . For example, I spent the first year at ECS going through these steps and recording everything I did in the event I would repeat it for the next school year. However, as time went on, the need for creative briefs became apparent to streamline cross-departmental projects and maintain their key messages until the end of the project.
With this example in mind, the data proved the need for additional processes, policies, and revisions, all of which continue to change even today. Finally, developing a sustainable department beyond myself was a top priority, and while it might seem a little eccentric, I often thought “what would happen to all this work if I got hit by a bus tomorrow?” (Don’t worry, I thoroughly look both ways before crossing the street.)
As a contingency plan and to ensure the ongoing evolution and growth of the IMC Department (with or without me), a fluid internal Communication Handbook was created that includes helpful links and templates, and it can walk any new communication employee through this yearly process.
Step 7: Repeat.
Finally, tenacity and being unremitting are essential to this process. Just as the communication field is ever-shifting, so should a communication department. Remaining stagnant in this profession is not an option. It may seem draining, but there is no ceiling to the work that needs to be completed. Repeat. And repeat again.
Working in communications is a difficult space, especially if you are in a niche field. Even if you are the only communication professional, ask your peers and coworkers for help. It's overwhelming to build out a department, make decisions, and create procedures and thought partnership adds valuable perspectives.
As you adjust, know that not everyone will agree and want to follow the changes made. What works for the communication department isn’t necessarily the protocol other departments want to follow. Enforce the parts that are necessary for the department’s successful completion of the project, but remain flexible for individuals that might need a little help adapting to the new system.
Finally, expect the unexpected and both its positive and negative impacts. It is impossible to foresee every outcome or possibility, but it's important to remember that anything can happen. I worked at ECS for approximately six months prior to the COVID-19 pandemic hitting and feel as if I never got a full understanding of what a normal school year looks like. However, the unexpected opened new opportunities for growth and development that might have fallen short if it hadn’t happened. The unexpected challenges each of us in a unique way, and aiming high when barriers present themselves, even in the darkest times, will only further reignite your passion for the field and the important role communication plays at every company.