The magic behind a good school newsletter


If your school newsletter had magic fairy dust, what would you  like to see happen?  Seriously… WHAT??

Hold that thought for a moment.

This article will explain what makes a good school newsletter and how to write it.  It will outline publication guidelines, advertising guidelines, distribution methods and content as well as some suggested software.

Contents

  1. The purpose of the school newsletter
  2. Audience
  3. Shareholders v Stakeholders
  4. Leadership
  5. Authority and Engagement
  6. Operations and Logistics
  7. Achievement
  8. Publishing Guidelines
  9. Advertising Guidelines
  10. School Speak
  11. Software
  12. Refinements
  13. Templates
  14. Naming Conventions
  15. Distribution Methods
  16. Conclusion

Introduction

Your experience as a leader, community complexity, and school size will determine how you will approach the writing of your school newsletter.  The framework for writing your school newsletter will essentially stay the same.  The execution and style will be different but if you keep yourself to a proven formula then you will quickly consolidate and maximize the impact of your school newsletter.  That’s when the magic happens.

Before we dive into the nuts and bolts I want you to forget about all the school newsletters you have written.  Not because they are inferior but because you may need to shake off some bad habits.  You may need to move out of your comfort zone.  You may need to dismantle some thought patterns and reassemble them.

As with any good communication style you first need to consider your purpose and audience.  Purpose and audience are the key ingredients in crafting a meaningful school newsletter.  Without these your school newsletter becomes meaningless and a waste of time.

Purpose

What is the purpose of your school newsletter?  What value are you giving parents by sending them a newsletter each week?  Most school leaders I talk to look at me carefully when I ask this as though its a trick question.  Usually its met with discomfort and is seen as some sort of test.  More often than not its followed with a nervous laugh, a short answer then a glance to see if the test was passed. Typical responses are : “to inform the school community”, “to educate the school community”, “to show case the school” etc…  All these responses are correct but in isolation the newsletter cannot weave its magic.  The purpose of a good newsletter is a concert of 3 distinct parts:

  1. Leadership.
  2. Operations and logistics
  3. Achievement

There are many more elements that make up a school newsletter… but they can all be grouped in the above three headings.  More about these in a moment.

Audience

Who is your audience?  Knowing your audience will influence content and the way in which its delivered You may also need to apply cultural, religious, ethnic and other sensitivities. You will also need to be aware of political and local factors that will help you deliver appropriate, timely and meaningful content.  Inadequate knowledge of your audience will place you in a vulnerable position leaving you open to all sorts of scrutiny if you newsletter is poorly written.  If you are new to a school community… always do your research first.

Knowing your audience is powerful.  It means you can connect with them in a very personal way. The is is where the magic is.

Shareholders v Stakeholders

I like to think of a school newsletter in a similar way to a shareholders stock progress report.  If you have your own money invested in a company, you want to know that your money is working for you.  You want to know that the leadership of the company will steer it through good times and bad.  You want to know the company operations are sound and you want to see the company grow and achieve its goals.  Sound familiar?

School Students are an investment too.  They are your assets.  Nurturing and maintaining your student assets by educating them will yield results.

This is where your school newsletter can provide updates and “stock” information on the way in which your school is moving to achieve its goals.

Leadership

Goods leaders use their available communication channels to motivate, inspire and lead.  There are more channels open to schools these days than ever before.  Industry for instance, now employs specialized social media experts to work in companies to connect with customers, seek new potential prospects and gauge the market “temperature” using the wealth of social media platforms.

Because the internet has connected us in more ways than ever, the school newsletter reaches more people faster, easily and more readily than ever before too.  This means that everything that is written in your school newsletter can be archived, accessed, searched and read very very quickly. That being said… only those who want to read and have a stake in your school will actually read your newsletter.  Of course this can quickly change if something controversial or offensive is written… then everyone will want it.  So be careful.

There is a difference between “putting something out there” and having the courage of your convictions to follow through on what you have written.

This makes knowing your audience even more important. Do NOT be controversial for the sake of being controversial.  All it does is create tension for no real value. Its far better to be strategic about what you write.  If you know that something will be “bumpy” … then plan for it.  Have a systematic plan for dealing with it.  Otherwise you will just place your school in an unnecessary crisis.

Good school leaders realize that the humble school newsletter is no longer at the finger tips of their school community… but at the finger tips of anyone who wants it.

Imagine the power of your school newsletter if it were well written, easy to read and presented to people who actually want to read it?

So what should the leadership component of a school newsletter contain?

If you don’t know where to begin, have a look at your school vision and the goals that your school has set to achieve its vision.  Your leadership section of your newsletter might report on the journey taken to achieving these goals.  It might also reinforce your expectations on such things as behaviour, uniform, academic rigor, resilience to name just a few.

The most effective school leaders are those who are the most effective communicators.  They know what to say, when to say it and how to say it.  The school newsletter is one of the most powerful tools a school leader has.

Authority and Engagement

Sometimes I hear school leaders say “I’m not in this job to make friends”.

That may be true but there is a clear distinction between friendship and leadership.

Leaders develop authority when people trust and respect what they say.  And when people trust what is said by school leaders, the readers of your school newsletter tend to READ what is written.  Readers will identify with the messages and take action where necessary.  Readers will then… dare I say it…begin to LIKE you.  And when people like you… a greater leadership influence will result.  The school leader may not necessarily be friends with everyone but they may have influence because they have developed authority through newsletters engagement.

In developing authority and engagement, school leaders ought to, but not limited to:

  1. Avoid making empty promises
  2. Avoid waffling on and on and on…
  3. Avoid making the newsletter all about you
  4. Sprinkle some personality
  5. Avoid using school speak
  6. Avoid using clever language   You might be clever but your readers may not have the same education you do.  Don’t dumb it down but re-adjust your language so that its understood the first time its read.
  7. Be careful with humour.  Interpreted the wrong way, it could come across as rude or offensive.  If you are unsure, don’t use humour.
  8. Avoid alienating your audience.  Be inclusive.
  9. Be clear.  Don’t over simplify but don’t leave things out either.
  10. Proof read.  Before publication, have someone proof read your newsletter, preferably by someone who doesn’t work in a school but at the very least by someone who will give you honest feedback.

Obviously there are more ways… please share your experiences in the comment box below.

Operations and Logistics

This is the part of the newsletter which makes the school operate smoothly.  Your school of course will have its internal timetables etc… but the school newsletter will often be the reference point to marshal students and parents when things are happening at school.  It means that logistical elements must be:

  • easy to find in the newsletter
  • easy to read
  • easy to understand (which is different from easy to read)
  • accurate
  • contactable (ie have the name and contact details of a staff member)

Achievement

Schools are all about achievement so celebrate it!  A good school newsletter will have a section dedicated to achievement because invariably this is how parents measure your school success.  Think back to your shareholders report.  Those who have invested in your school (parents) want to see achievement.  Even if its a perceived achievement… parents still want to see it.

Achievements can be things like, but not limited to:

  • Placings in academic competitions such as spelling, writing, maths, science and technology competitions etc…
  • Sporting teams
  • Arts and music competitions, eisteddfods and exhibitions
  • School exhibitions in shows, shopping malls etc…
  • Outdoor education camps
  • Student awards
  • Teacher professional development and awards
  • Bronze medallion
  • NAPLAN results
  • Volunteer programs
  • Community engagement programs

Please leave more achievement examples in the comment box below.

Publishing Guidelines

If you don’t have a set of publishing guidelines for your school newsletter… then you really should develop one.  Without publication clarity, messages get lost and buried in clutter.  How many times have you heard a parent say “I never saw that in the newsletter”.  If you are hearing comments like this regularly, then

… its probably not about what is written… its about how its presented.

A publishing guide standardizes everything so that the newsletter is themed and easy to read.  Too often I see newsletters that have been assembled my multiple authors all using different fonts, different colours, sizes etc…  It looks awful and its difficult to read.  These newsletters tend to be skimmed and core messages are missed.  A publishing guide is very important.

Your publishing guidelines ought to contain, but not limited to criteria on the following aspects:

  • Font.  This includes headings, paragraph, list, and caption size, weight, font family and colour.
  • Layout.  ie 1 columns, 2 columns etc… with padding, spacing, line height, line spacing etc.  Photos  should accompany segments where possible.
  • Clip Art: this should be banned.  We have much better visual ways to convey meaning these days eg photos.  Clip art makes your newsletter look like it was produced in 1989.
  • Contact information.  Should be on the first page only either at the top, the footer or in a side column that is easily seen.  Each author of the newsletter should have contact info at the end of the segment.  For instance if the PE teacher is writing a segment, include their name and how they can be contacted.
  • Images.  Need to be a particular format, file size and dimension. (eg JPEG, 100KB or less,landscape) I tend to use landscape images because they don’t require further editing ie rotating etc…  High density images also require editing and scaling.  If you stipulate 100KB images… all the editing has to be done by the person submitting the images.  This will save you time.  Images should also have an appropriate contextual caption.  Don’t just place an image in a newsletter for the sake of inserting an image.  Make it mean something.
  • Photographic permissions: this is where students require parental permission for their photo to appear in the school newsletter… or any media for that matter.  A database would make the lookup of students quick and easy.
  • Tables: column headings, borders, padding
  • Achievements: each should have an accompanying photo with caption.
  • Dates: ought to be in consistent format eg Day, Date Month eg Monday 8 October.  Writing the date in long format like this forces staff to check dates so that there are no errors.  This minimizes the publication of corrections.
  • Links: ALWAYS send parents to the EXACT page of a website that you are referring to.   Remember you are providing convenience as well.  Sending parents to a site home page and expecting them to find it is NOT convenient.
  • Positioning: leadership items ought to go first, followed by logistical information them achievement items.

Advertising Guidelines

Adverting ought to be supplementary to the newsletter.  The core purpose of your school newsletter is school related content.  Advertising should not clutter the core messages being presented to the school community.   A structured advertising system will make it clear to everyone who wants to place ads in your school newsletter that there is a distinct process to follow.  This makes it fair for everyone and will prevent ongoing complaints.

There are a few advertising issues that ought to be considered when formulating advertising guidelines:

  1. Should advertising appear on your front page?
  2. What types of advertising should be accepted.
  3. How is advertising prioritized?
  4. How is advertising handled?
  5. How is advertising presented?

Advertising Structures

  • Inline: This is where advertising is completely removed from the newsletters itself and is displayed alongside the newsletter.  This can be done electronically using a rotational technique that allows schools to have more advertisers than a traditional newsletter might have.  This allows the newsletter to be entirely school content without the clutter, yet still provide quality advertising opportunities.
  • Size: This is where advertising is ranked according to size eg full page, then by half page, quarter page etc…  Have a look here for international standard ad sizes for the internet.
  • Slot: this is where your school newsletters has the same sesize standard slots in strategic positions in the newsletter that do not change.
  • Banners: this is where the school newsletter runs banner ads horizontally across the top or footer of the page or smaller square ads or vertical ads at the side of the newsletter.
  • Text Ads: this is where ads might be smaller and compiled into a single page similar to a classified ad.
  • Random: this is where ads are distributed randomly across the newsletter wherever space is available.

The following needs consideration

  • Approval.  Make it clear that ads undergo an approval process.  Not all industries should be accepted such as alcohol, tobacco, gambling, pharmaceuticals just to name a few.  Make sure that all ads are appropriate and are a good fit for your school.  Ensure that if you reject any ads, give the advertiser a reason why and how they can adjust the ad.
  • Positioning.  There are several ways to position ads in your school newsletter.   See above.  Positioning is important to every advertiser.  Having a clear statement on the way positioning is organised will reduce the number of phone calls requesting clarification.
  • Images: To make things easier  all ads ought to be an image.  This way images can be simply dropped into the space in the newsletter without having to manipulate any text.  Images ought to be JPEG, 100KB or less in a specified dimension eg 300px x 300px.  This way all ads are sized appropriately by the advertiser and do not required sizing, rotating etc which save the school valuable time.
  • Spam: Do Not place ads such as get rich quick, free quotes, be a winner etc… It will cheapen your newsletter and make the newsletter trashy.
  • Rates and pricing: be clear on pricing and post it your your school website.
  • Frequency:  Explain to advertisers how often your newsletter is distributed
  • Distribution methods: Explain to advertisers how your newsletter is distributed.  eg via email, print, Facebook,twitter etc…
  • Readership: explain to advertisers how many families your newsletter is distributed to.  You might also outline your community demographic so that advertiser have a good idea of their market.
  • Submission Dates: be clear on cut off dates for ads to be submitted and don’t provide exceptions.  It needs to be a hard and fast rule for everyone.  This will prevent complaints.
  • Parent associations: be clear to your parent associations where they can advertise.  A dedicated segment in the school newsletter might be the best place to keep all parent association news together including their promotions and notices.
  • Refunds: develop a clear refunds policy.  This might be for advertisers who have submitted and paid for a place in the newsletter only to find later they don’t quite fit the school criteria eg the ad might be about alcohol etc…  This way the school can reject the ad, provide a refund and minimize complaints.

Assembling the Newsletter

Often the school newsletter has multiple contributors and in these cases contributions need to be managed to make the newsletter easy to compile.  To make compilation more efficient, all contributions  :

  • should submitted electronically either via email, network folder or external storage device.  No exceptions.  This makes an easy copy and paste.
  • should be spell checked and grammar checked BEFORE submission
  • should adhere to the publishing guidelines.
  • images should NOT be embedded into the submitted document.  All images need to be submitted separately from the text document and adhere to the publishing guidelines.  This way no further editing is needed and can be easily placed into the newsletter.

After receipt of the newsletter submission, invariably the contributor has added their own formatting to the document somewhere.  You don’t want this.  You need to open the document in MS Word (or something similar) and clear all formatting.  To do this, select everything in the document (control A) and then MS word provides a button in the font toolbar to clear all formatting.  All text becomes plain text.  This is whats needed.  Copy and then place the text into your newsletter as plain text.  Then apply the necessary formatting outlined in the school publishing guide.

This is particularly important when publishing a HTML newsletter.

TIP: Add all text to the newsletter FIRST and then do all the formatting in ONE go last.  It will save a LOT of time.

School Speak

Avoid school speak.  Because schools are immersed in what they do, often they use school speak in newsletters.  This causes a level of frustration because not everyone understands the terminology of schools.  It places parents in a position where they are almost expected to know what it all means.  Break down the school speak or at the very least explain to parents what the terms mean… every time.  This will make the school newsletter more enjoyable to read, reduce anxieties and the level of understanding will increase.

Interaction, Comments and Surveys

The wonderful thing about electronic newsletters these days is the ability for parents to interact and leave comments.  Parents can fill out micro polls, vote and a gamut of other ways to provide feedback for the school.  Managed properly, schools can measure the mood of new changes and other innovations across the school.  The best platform to do this is WordPress which allows schools to build in feedback components right into the website.  Wordpress is free.  Its used by millions of sites around the globe.  If you can use MS Word… then you can use WordPress.  If you are looking for a new school website… wordpress is the only way to go.

Software

There is some great desktop publishing software on the market.  Adobe In Design is the industry standard followed by few others such as Corel Draw, and QuarkXpress.  The best of the free software available is PagePlus Starter Edition and Scribus.

Notice that MS Publisher is missing.  Its not considered an industry standard.  Far from it.

The problem with dedicated publishing software is that requires a level of specialized skill.  Even MS Publisher requires a different skill set.  This becomes a very BIG problem when that person leaves your school.

Schools are much better off sticking to MS Word or Open Office.  This way the expertise needed is easier to replace if and when new people begin working in your school.

Better still is Google Drive which is the old Google Docs.  Google Docs are known as SAS  (software as a Service).  This is the future.  Google Drive is free to use.  It doesn’t require software  to load locally and everything can be done in a web browser.   Multiple collaborators can edit the document and it can be made public by emailing a link that Google provides to open the document in a browser.

Which ever software is chosen, it is best to first consider how easily it is to replace the skills needed to produce your newsletter.  If people resources are limited, avoid the temptation of fancy software that makes your newsletter look like a magazine.  It will be short lived and a headache when forced to make the transition to another platform.

Templates

Templates can be reused over and over again so it makes sense to make a newsletter template.

There are plenty of templates sites on the web.  Microsoft has one here 

There is no need to reinvent the wheel… but really you should make your own template.  Its very easy to do.

Before we start, its easy to get carried away with fancy stuff such as columns and range of other things to make the newsletter look like a magazine.  Resist the temptation for a moment.

Multiple columns can be a headache when pressed for time.  Some times the photo won’t fit in the column properly or the text won’t flow into the next column properly… you get the idea.  Too much time is spent formatting and aligning things when it should have been distributed 15 minutes ago.  Sound familiar?

Start with a single column.  There is a lot of research that suggests columns are easier to read and that’s why newspapers do it.  Right?  Well… how often is the newsletter read as a paper copy these days anyway?  You will notice that news web sites are a single page width rather than columns.  Single columns are much easier to read on mobile devices too.  There are some good reasons to stay with a single column.

There are several ways to make a template.  Often each software application has an inbuilt template function to save templates.   Because all schools are different, shown here is a universal “Old School” way of creating a template.

To get started on a windows computer:

  1. open a blank word processing document.  Do NOT format anything yet.
  2. Add you school header logo at the top
  3. Add all your major headings eg Principlas Report, Event Calendar, Achievements, PA and C section, Advertising etc… leaving a line in between each.
  4. In the blank line between the heading type in “insert text here”
  5. Add a coloured page border themed to the school colours.
  6. Format the headings according to your publishing guide
  7. Format the lines that say “insert text here” according to your publishing guide.
  8. Save the Document as SchoolNewsletterTemplate.docx to folder where is accessible by those who need it.
  9. Browse to the folder.  Right click on the file SchoolNewsletterTemplate.docx
  10. Choose properties
  11. In the attributes section at the bottom, check the box read-only.
  12. Click OK
  13. This means that the document has to be saved as a new file name, leaving the original template document always in tact.

Mac an linux platforms will vary slightly but the methodology is the same.

Naming Conventions

This is important.

Newsletters should have a consistent naming convention so that they are easy to find and organise.   Include the date in the file name eg 20121009Newsletter.pdf

Notice that there are NO spaces in the file name and a capital letter is used to delineate the beginning of a new word.  This is deliberate because when placed on the internet, some web browsers DO NOT like SPACES and the page breaks and the parent receives an error page.  Not good and very embarrassing.

This goes for images too.  DO NOT put spaces in the file name. eg 20121001SchoolSportsDay.jpg

Be consistent with your naming convention.  eg DatebackwardsIdentifier.pdf

Distribution Methods

There are lots of ways these days to distribute your newsletter.  Traditionally a photocopy of the newsletter would be sent home with the student.  Technology has introduced more ways to distribute such as, but not limited to:

  • Website.  post the newsletter to the school website
  • Facebook.  Add a link to the newsletter on a school facebook status update
  • Twitter.  tweet the school newsletter link via Twitter
  • Email.  Sent the newsletter link via email or Email the entire newsletter as HTML.
  • SMS.  Send the newsletter link to phone or mobile devices.
  • YouTube.  Video newsletter posted to YouTube
  • iTunes.  Audio newsletter posted to iTunes
  • SlideShare: Add the newsletter as powerpoint slides
  • RSS (Really Simple Syndication)

Please list further ways in the comment box below.

Refine

There is a skill to writing a good school newsletter.  It comes with practice but nonetheless… its a learned skill.  One that can be mastered over time.  The good news is that with a few simple cues we can speed up the learning curve. And when you do, you will have a new rigor to begin the task of writing your school newsletter. Just remember NOT to:

  • write a newsletters for the sake of writing a newsletter!
  • fill your newsletter with out of context guff
  • pimp your newsletter with advertising
  • add content with out first verifying its source, reliability and accuracy
  • use fancy software with a high learning curve and specialized skill set.

Conclusion

There IS magic in the school newsletter.  Once leaders grow into a writing style and set a standardized method for producing and distributing the school newsletter, schools will find that readership engagement will increase.  In other words parents will READ the newsletter… not just skim it but actually read it.  It will be pinned to the fridge rather than dumped in the bin.  Confidence in the school will grow and the magic will follow.

For more information on distributing your newsletter via email and SMS, visit Safe Newsletters

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1 Comment

  1. RAKESH KUMAR

     /  October 22, 2013

    The magic behind a good school newsletter is a good article which explains what makes a good school newsletter and how to write it. It provides us publication guidelines,advertising guidelines,distribution method and content as well as some suggested software which are very useful.The purpose of a good newsletter is a concert of 3 distinct parts : Leadership, Operations and Logistics,Achievement.It reflects the school’s vision and the goals that school has set to achieve its vision.The most effective school leaders are those who know what to say, when to say it, how to say it.Leaders develop authority when people trust and respect what they say. This tells about writing skills which comes with practice.Once the readers read the newsletter, confidence in the school will grow and the MAGIC of DEVELOPMENT will follow.Thus it a good article not for a school newsletter but to develop leadership quality also.

    Reply

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