Today’s Lesson: Communications Require Humanity

At Fenton, we’re lucky to work with clients who are leading the way for social change at all levels, from national political organizations to local community foundations — but rarely do we get the chance to fully embed ourselves in a community as we’ve been able to do in Battle Creek, Michigan, where we have been close partners of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation and the Battle Creek Public Schools district for nearly four years. Our engagement with this community has taught us an important lesson, particularly in these trying times filled with uncertainty: building trusting communications means being proactive, approachable and sometimes, admitting you don’t have the answers. 

Trust needs to be at the foundation of it all. 

Our relationship with Battle Creek Public Schools (BCPS) began in 2017, when the district was awarded a historic $51 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to support a five-year plan to transform the district, in recognition of profound gaps in educational outcomes for students of color. The transformation is at its core an equity-driven effort to ensure positive outcomes for all students. While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought unforeseen challenges to the Battle Creek community, it also highlighted why the BCPS approach to equity is so important, and how community trust is essential to its success

In trying times, transparency and vulnerability pay off. 

Beginning in March, COVID-19 forced schools to close, bringing about a cascade of other issues for the community, including food insecurity and economic hardship. The situation was evolving quickly, and BCPS leaders were struggling with the fact that they had very little information about what the remainder of the year would look like. In all communications to the community, the district communicated openly — sharing answers when they had them, and making it clear that they didn’t know when they didn’t. They didn’t pretend to have answers to questions that were unanswerable. What they did make abundantly clear was that no matter what, BCPS would be there for its community. 

In our role as strategic advisors and in assisting with rapid response crisis communications, the Fenton team saw how the district was willing to make themselves vulnerable. They were ready to admit they weren’t “experts” on how to handle this — because no one was — and they were willing to speak directly to the collective struggle their community was experiencing. In a series of blog posts updated almost daily, and in Q&A style Facebook Live chats with the Superintendent, BCPS leaders were sincere and caring. In turn, the community began considering the school district as one of the most trusted sources for updated information within the community. Although they faced some criticism in light of difficult decisions, parents and community members also praised the district’s humanity and flexibility in the midst of a time that was difficult for all.

When building trust, approachability is essential. 

It wasn’t enough for BCPS to just to tell families that they were there for them during this difficult time; to really build trust, they had to show they were listening. BCPS leaders knew that the pandemic was likely to exacerbate existing educational inequities for many of their families. Students and families faced multiple challenges — many experienced financial stress, social isolation, the loss of family members or friends, food instability, lack of resources for home learning and more. The first step to coming up with an action plan was listening to the community’s needs — and responding accordingly. 

At the start of the pandemic, BCPS leaders were clear that providing for students’ basic wellbeing came first, before any at-home learning could even be considered. BCPS moved quickly to provide wraparound services for students and families, including a free meal distribution program that quickly deployed their fleet of buses to distribution centers across the community. In our communications, Fenton made promoting the distribution sites a top priority. We knew that many members of the Battle Creek community were typically “hard to reach,” meaning we had to think creatively about how we could get this vital information out to them. As we advised the district on the top messages to communicate out, one priority rose to the top: making sure families knew who to contact with what questions. Approachability was a top concern. With in-language materials for BCPS’ English learner, Spanish- and Burmese-speaking families, online information, mailed letters home, print advertisements in local papers, phone calls to each family and more, the message was impossible to miss: BCPS was there to help. 

We don’t have all the answers — and that’s not a bad thing. 

As we move through the first few weeks of the school year, like all districts around the country, BCPS is facing many difficult decisions. As we worked with BCPS leaders on a plan to return to the classroom, it became clear that no matter what the options were, the solution would not be perfect — there is no singular right answer for how to safely return to school in the midst of a global pandemic. But no matter what the school year would look like, one thing remained true: BCPS was always a trusting partner for its community. 

This uncertainty is not unique to schools: millions of Americans are unsure of what lays ahead, in terms of both the pandemic’s course as well as a major election looming in November. The lesson we’ve learned from BCPS is clear: be honest, be approachable and be vulnerable. Whether you’re a transforming school district trying to boost enrollment, a nonprofit working to engage new funders or an advocacy organization driving voter turnout, the lesson remains. Centering trust in communications requires being human — being open, vulnerable, candid and heartfelt.

Photo credit to Battle Creek Public Schools