Where to Learn More About Digital Communications Tools

Lifelong learning and professional development is just as important to school public relations professionals as it is to teachers, principals and superintendents. Even with a limited budget, you can learn more about using social media and other digital tools by attending conferences, tuning in to webinars (many of them free) or taking in-person or online classes. Here are some good resources if you’re feeling left behind at the 21st-century station:

The NSPRA Seminar:

The National School Public Relations Association, as many of you know, holds its annual conference — an important event for anyone in school communications and leadership — each July. This year’s seminar, to be held in Baltimore July 13-16, is a must for anyone trying to sort their way through the complex social media landscape. Dozens of related workshops are on tap for this year’s seminar, and you can still register. You can also register for day-long pre-seminar workshops on Saturday or Sunday, including Shane Haggerty‘s “Strategic Social Media: Taking Your Social Platforms and Content to the Next Level,” or Jake Sturgis’ “Video Boot Camp.” Go to the NSPRA website to register for the Seminar.

NSPRA PR Power Hours:

This popular series of audio and webinar workshops is held throughout the year by NSPRA and almost always on Fridays. This year’s topics have touched on many topics, including social media and mobile apps. They offer an economical and convenient way to continue your professional development and provide a conversational and interactive forum for learning best practices from top experts in school communication. What’s more, registration is just $59 for NSPRA members. For another $10, registrants can get audio files from the PR Power Hours. 


The organization is not exactly geared toward school communications professionals, but rather technology directors, teachers, school librarians and superintendents. But many communications colleagues who have attended the annual ISTE conference have come away with mountains of great information about technology, social media, mobile apps, website maintenance and other issues that some of us confront every day. A whopping 18,000 educators and education leaders attend the ISTE national conference every year, so if your superintendent has room for you, it might be worth asking about. The 2014 ISTE Conference and Expo will be held this year at the Georgia World Conference Center in Atlanta from June 28-July 1.

National School Board Association:

The annual conference of the National School Board Association just passed us by, but this year’s event was held in early April. Again, you may not be a school board member, but you can tag along (if finances permit) and learn. Just a sampler from this year’s workshops prove that digital communications remains a hot button: “Digital Citizenship in the Age of the Common Core,” “Engaging Stakeholders: Paperless Agendas are a Win-Win Solution,” “Branding and Marketing Your School With Social Media,” and “In the Cloud: Demystifying the Journey to the Cloud.” What’s even better about NSBA is that you don’t have to attend the conference to reap the benefits. The organization has put all presentation handouts on its website, where you can look through them and print them out. Here’s the handouts link.


Just want to take a class on your own time? Then visit MediaBistro, one of the best lifelong learning portals around. More than a decade ago, I took an online MediaBistro class about social media that changed my life. The great thing about MediaBistro is that it offers a multitude of options, including on-site classes (only applicable if you live in New York), and everything from one-time online sessions to full multi-class courses. If you’re a social media newbie, then MediaBistro can help. Upcoming classes and workshops include a five-session course called “Social Media 101,” a six-session Twitter Marketing class, a four-session Writing and Editing for the Web class, a two-session class called “Pinterest: Market Your Brand,” and and a four-session course, “Public Relations: Build Your Portfolio.”


EdSocialMedia is an organization of technology directors and communications professionals at private, independent schools that has been around for some time. I frequently visit the EdSocialMedia website to learn more about how social media is being used in private education. Even though the group hosts numerous social media boot camps each year, those events tend to be geared toward private schools (some of the best in the nation, by the way). But I like this group because they’re happy to share the knowledge and make many of their webinars and workshops available to watch online for free. I once watched a live, free webinar taking place in Boston, on what ended up being snow day for me in New York. For a taste of EdSocialMedia offers, take a look at webinars like “Instantly Actionable Ways to Leverage Twitter”or “What’s the Interest in Pinterest?”

Make a travel blog an education experience

Some adventures are so powerful, they should be shared. Does your school district have a robotics team headed to the national championship, a history teacher spending the summer touring Holocaust sites, or a superintendent studying education systems abroad?

Sharing a unique travel or education experience through a blog is one way students, parents and educators can participate in the adventure and use it as a springboard to learning in the classroom. It can also be used to entice your local news media to cover the story.

Recently, my district had the opportunity to try this when my superintendent joined a group of Oregon educators for a two-week education shadow experience in China. Bob was excited about blogging, but being a technology novice, he needed my help formatting and posting the blog text and photos he sent daily from China.

This is Bob’s travel blog. Here are some strategies we used to build and publicize the blog:

1)   Test the technology: Before your blogger begins the trip, make sure the traveler has the tools needed to transmit text and photographs. Can he take and send a cell phone photo? Could there be any government censorship of his communications? Is his cell phone plan set up for international communications?

2)   Provide a pre-trip photography lesson: Encourage your traveler to take and send lots of photos. Remind her of the importance of zooming in for a close-up of her subject. Stress the importance of variety – from street scenes, action shots and home life to tourist attractions and food.

3)   Suggest topics: With the needs of your audiences in mind, send the traveler questions from the community and ideas on what to write about. A copy of the travel itinerary will help the blog poster anticipate what’s next.

4)   Establish a routine: Aim for daily posts, if possible. Be sure to anticipate the time zone and date differences.

5)   Edit text and enhance photos: Travelers are jet-lagged, busy and tired, so take a few minutes to edit their blog posts to focus on high-interest topics. Cropping and lightening is an easy way to boost the quality of photos before posting.

6)   Link to more information: If your traveler blogs about a location, a custom, a food or an art form, link the text to a website on that topic. That way students and other blog readers can easily learn more about it.

7)   Clarify travel funding:  If the travel is grant funded or personally funded, say so. Stating this multiple times will prevent the misperception that district staff are traveling abroad at district expense.

8)   Publicize the blog: Make your community aware of the blog through school and employee newsletters, Facebook, Twitter, list serve news and the website.

Grow professionally, network with social media

Social media as professional development sounds a bit tricky when you first consider it. We talk a lot in the education space about how to enrich teaching and learning with 21st-century tools, including social media ones. Most of the time, we’re talking about students, but these tools don’t have to be used just for students’ benefit. There are plenty of ways we can sharpen our skills and learn something new, all through online peer communities.

Follow, Follow, Follow

Twitter is brimming with a wide variety of personalities and expertise. And there’s plenty to learn, even if you aren’t ready to start tweeting yourself. The best way to begin? Just start following. Find a handful of education pros, PR experts, writers and leaders, and follow their feeds. Not only will you be tuning in to what they have to say, but because of how Twitter is set up, you’ll quickly see their interactions with others. Your circle will widen to include new voices—and new opportunities for learning. The same can be said of blogs and education RSS feeds (Feedly is what I use).

Chat It Up

If you’re ready to utilize Twitter in a more strategic way, keep an eye out for Twitter chats. These events turn Twitter into a chat room for participants. A date and time is designated for the chat, and all who wish to participate use a hashtag on their tweets, for easy indexing. A simple search for the hashtag allows anyone to read along and watch the tweets scroll in real time. A good platform to utilize during these chats is Tweetchat.

Some good education-related chats to check out include #PTChat, #EdChat, #EdTechChat, #SuptChat.

Leave Comments

You can participate in comment dialogue almost anywhere these days. Pinterest posts, online articles, Facebook and blogs all have comment sections that take on lives of their own. Real dialogue can occur—and in the best cases, though not always, it stays respectful and productive. These dialogues are a great way to make connections with like-minded individuals.

Take advantage of distance learning

Webinars, archived presentations and YouTube videos can all be fantastic resources when you want to learn something new or sharpen your skills. It’s amazing how much free, high-quality content is out there for the taking. There’s no need to commit to a full online course (though those are certainly available) to get the benefits of a distance learning scenario.

It can take some sifting through the junk, but there’s a wealth of resources available online for professional development and learning. Social media and 21st-century tools make it easier than ever to broaden your knowledge and networks.