Innovative thinking, practical tips and some crazy ideas

Empathy & the new abnormal

We are moving from one phase of COVID reality to the next. That may have school leaders and other professionals thinking about how they should be communicating and marketing in this the new normal (really it’s new abnormal) stage. What’s the right tone and focus of our messaging? How do we capture parents’ attention? What’s the best way to build trust with parents? The answer is simple. Now, more than ever, school communication should be guided by empathy.

Sounds easy, right? Just put yourself in other people’s shoes. But the reality is, as Seth Godin says, empathy is difficult. Here’s how he defines the empathetic imperative. “If you believed what he believes, you’d do precisely what he’s doing.” So, how exactly can we figure out what parents and prospective parents believe? How do we discover what’s in their minds and their hearts? And what do we do about it? Here are six suggestions.

Connect with parents in every way possible – individually, in groups, online, by phone. Aside from the fact that parents are craving connection these days, every contact point is an opportunity for parents to talk to you about their experiences. Surveys are also an important way to tap into parents’ sentiments. Be sure to leave lots of room for open-ended responses. Survey questions ask parents what you want to know, but their open-ended responses are what they want to tell you.

Meet parents where they are. You may want to talk about how your school is being creative, adaptable and innovative through the use of online platforms, but your parents are thinking about 24/7 parenting while working from home and figuring out how they are going to survive the summer, not to mention what they are going to be able to afford next month. In your discussions with parents leave room for them to tell you about how their kids are really doing, about coping and managing and about their fears and anxieties. In a recent conversation, a head of school told me that she believed that for parents, the value of the educational content of online learning may be less important than the role it plays in allowing them to work from home.

Practice story-listening. We all understand the effectiveness of storytelling in our marketing efforts. We know that mission, brand, values and achievement can all be embedded in a good story. But we need to be equally adept at the opposite – story-listening. As Ryan Burke wisely advises in a recent Leadership + Design post, “Don’t ask people what they need. They don’t know. Ask them to tell you stories about their Covid-19 life and then listen for the underlying needs embedded in those stories.” You will need to do become practiced at listening to parents’ stories in order to uncover the deep concerns parents are holding.

Talk to parents, not at them. Yes, there are tons of things you want parents to know about all of your Covid-learning successes and all of the initiatives you have created to meet the needs of students and parents. Guess what? Parents may not be as interested as you think. In many ways they are in survival mode and your credibility is linked to your ability to address those basic concerns. A great example of this comes from Blue School in New York City who recently launched a podcast. As opposed to many school-based podcasts that explore educational trends and innovations, the Blue School effort has educators and thought leaders helping parents find balance as they deal with their kids and their lives.

Use language that is authentic and human. Nothing kills a sense of empathy like a good cliché. “In these unprecedented times” or “we are here for you” are not going to cut it. Use language that gets to the heart of what parents are telling you. Also, be careful about what you borrow from other campaigns or other schools. Your messaging to needs to be uniquely yours, imbued with your school’s brand, mission and values.

Actions speak louder than words. Your success at empathy will be measured more by what you do than what you say. Yes, that applies to the many support and community-building initiatives your school has put in place. But also consider that every interaction a parent has with your school is an opportunity to convey empathy. Teachers, administrators, admissions professionals and business officers all have the opportunity to deliver an empathetically responsive message in their words and actions with parents.

If you feel like marketing & communications has been challenging in the past few months, I’ve got news for you. It’s not going to get any easier as we move to the next Covid phase. But to achieve effective messaging that gets attention and builds trust with the right tone and focus, be guided by empathy and these words from Theodore Roosevelt: ““No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

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