Key Communicators – It all started at Rowan University

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 It has been nearly half a century since Rowan University Professor Emeritus Don Bagin coined the term Key Communicator. And while Key Communicators are still an authorized grapevine that delivers facts to a community quickly and honestly, the channels used to get those facts to KCs has changed with the times.

            Key Communicators remain a school system’s lifeline to the community – especially in time of crisis or when the district needs public support. KCs – properly “schooled” – can be and are strategic message “carriers.”

            While face-to-face or word-of-mouth is still number one to assure that messages are received and interpreted to produce intended results, other modes of communication have evolved from primarily print and regular mail to cross platforming (sometimes referred to as convergence of distribution –print, Internet, wireless, broadcast [radio/TV]).

            No longer is a printed, hardcopy of such newsletters as Keynotes the preferred, but rather an inline version – which appears on the computer screen the moment an e-mail is opened. E-newsletters and blast e-mails have taken on a life of their own. The cross platforming might include newsletter attachments, text messaging, Podcasts, Vcasts, social media, Blogs and blast voice mails.

            Key Communicators – sometimes referred to as influencers, connectors, consumption pioneers or opinion leaders – are “a collection of individuals who have influence over part of a community,” says Tom Salter, senior communication officer, Montgomery (Ala.) County Schools . “A Key Communicator network is a loose-knit panel of opinion leaders who can shape community perceptions.

            “Nothing moves faster than a speeding rumor, is more powerful than an editorial board or able to leap tall special interest groups in a single bound,” states Salter.

            Three South Jersey school districts established Key Communicator programs years ago – during the 70s.  Heather Simmons, Glassboro (Gloucester County), Jan Giel, Washington Township (Gloucester County) and Susan Bastnagle, Cherry Hill, inherited and have nurtured their programs assuring they would continue to be their lifeline to the community.

            No matter how effective, Key Communicators should be only one of a school system’s feedback techniques. But KC programs serve as the hub of the face-to-face public relations program because “they (Key Communicators) will gladly tell you what they – and their friends, neighbors and local businesspeople – think,” Salter says.

            “No matter how many times we’ve heard it,” says Glassboro’s Simmons, “as public relations professionals in education, we always have to be mindful that we are dealing with the two things that take priorities in the life of a family – their children and their wallets.           

            “Key Communicator groups are helpful as we attempt to communicate to these families and other stakeholders with sensitivity, accuracy and efficiency,” states Simmons who serves as public relations consultant to the Glassboro Public Schools.

            “Key Communicators are valuable because they provide an opportunity to learn or confirm information, which helps us anticipate issues and make educated and researched decisions that relate to the public,” says Katie Hardesty. Hardesty, a Rowan graduate, is in the process of establishing a Key Communicator network for the Cherry Hill Public Library where she serves as public relations and special events director. She is using what is often referred to as the “Rowan University KC model for schools.”

            “KCs will help us gauge the community, give easier access to focus groups and other informal research, and help us counter misinformation that might arise,” Hardesty explains.  

            Like Cherry Hill, Washington Township has about 100 core Key Communicators who receive regular e-mails. Jan Giel, community relations coordinator for the district, reflects that it takes time to develop and maintain a successful KC program. “But it’s worth it,” she says. “In the long run, KC programs save far more time than it takes.”

            To make her point, Giel cites one recent example: “We used it (KCs) for rumor control when two of our middle schools were found to have mold.”

            Like most districts in the country, New Jersey school systems rarely, if ever, bring their KCs together for formal meetings. Two-way communication is accomplished through e-mails, interactive newsletters, phone and face-to-face.

            However, the Glassboro Public Schools have taken the route of bringing their 130 KCs together three times a year to inform and discuss issues of importance and to seek input as the district develops its budget.  The final meeting of the academic year – usually in April – is reserved for a post-mortem following the annual school election and to preview issues that may be coming up for the following year.

            While many think only in terms of influential residents or businessmen and women, a district’s internal family must be included among those who play a vital role in a district’s two-way communication process. One reason is because it’s the right thing to do. Another is because school employees are among the most trusted to tell the truth about what’s happening inside a school or at the district.

            No rule, written or otherwise, states that all Key Communicators must be strong school district supporters – or supporters of public education in general. In fact, it might be best if some are detractors.

            All, however, should be recognized as opinion shapers, community leaders, or just the woman or man next door willing to listen, talk and serve as a liaison (connector) between the schools and those with whom they come in contact. KCs are vitally interested in the welfare of their municipality, schools or the company or organization for which they work.

            No community, company or organization is immune to rumors – and rumors continue to grow unless they are snuffed out in their earliest stages.

“Research is clear,” says Mark Marmur of Makovsky & Company Public Relations, New York City, “Key Communicators, effectively chosen, are the pulse of their community.

            “It is an incredibly successful concept that helps build and maintain relationships and will quickly become an integral part of any organization’s ‘relationship marketing program’,” states Marmur, who holds bachelor and master’s degrees in public relations from Rowan University.

            Marmur notes that it is not only school systems that incorporate Key Communicator-type networks in their over-all public relations plan. Major corporations like Walt Disney World Resorts, Staples and smaller retailers like Hello, Sports Fans! (Cherry Hill) have relied on KCs for years to give them constant feedback and to relay positive and negative stories of their experience.

            Public schools starting a KC program might include PTA presidents and other officers, barbers, beauticians, lawyers, doctors, dentists, bankers, real estate and insurance agents, teachers, support staff, bus drivers, students, shopkeepers, and former school board members.

            While Bastnagel, Cherry Hill’s public information officer, courts Key Communicators, she believes, as does Disney, that electronic communications empowers everyone to be a Key Communicator. “Within minutes,” she says, “we can have a video message from our superintendent or other administrator on our district Web site and I can e-mail the link to thousands of subscribers on our e-mail notification list. 

            “I’m obsessive about sending out my e-news every single week during the school year, so that anyone who sees it is equipped to be a Key Communicator. And even if they don’t read it carefully each week, they know it’s there as an information resource.”
            In Glassboro it’s known as the Bulldog Bulletin, in Cherry Hill’s the CHPS e-news and a number of districts publish their own Keynotes. While they may have started as printed newsletters – one-way communication – all have evolved into e-newsletters with many of the articles containing links to “landing sites.” Many times, those links contain a “casual” survey asking for comments, reactions and other input to certain questions.

            “When I need our Key Communicators for something and send an email to that effect, they are used to seeing my name and know they can trust me,” says Simmons. “You can’t put a value on that.”

            Like many others responsible for coordinating school system KC programs, Bastnagel faces the challenge of “rethinking the entire Key Communicator concept – how to meld the power and pervasiveness of electronic communications with the one-to-one, face-to-face feel of a Key Communicator program.”

            Says Bastnagel: “As with every other aspect of my job, the Key Communicator program has changed as the power of electronic communications has evolved. Ten years ago, we reached out to our 100 or so Key Communicators with letters, phone calls and periodic face-to-face meetings.  But, 10 years ago, I didn’t have a cell phone, lots of parents didn’t have (or didn’t use) e-mail and our district Web site was still under construction.  Today, third graders have cell phones.  It’s a lot harder to stay ahead of the message.  (And, as Montgomery, Alabama’s Tom Salter said) News travels fast and bad news travels even faster.”

            During the recent National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) annual seminar, superintendents agreed, “Communication is a contact sport. If you are willing to mix it up in terms of communication and get close to people, face-to-face human contact, then you and your district will be successful.”

            Well thought out and effective Key Communicator networks should be an integral tactic in every school systems’ communication plan.


M. Larry Litwin, APR, Fellow PRSA,  is an associate professor of public relations at Rowan University in Glassboro and a former school public information director in Washington Township, Gloucester County. He is the 2006 recipient of the National School Public Relations Association’s Lifetime Professional Achievement Award for “excellence, leadership, contributions to the profession, and advocacy for students and our nation’s public schools.” His two books, The Public Relations Practitioner’s Playbook and The ABCs of Strategic Communications, both published this year, have won national acclaim.