By EMILY RAMSEY
STRIVING FOR EXCELLENCE: Union Public Schools’ Communications Department is, from left, Video Producer Beth Turner, Associate Chief Communications Officer Chris Payne, Webmaster Michael Vore, Chief Communications Officer Gretchen Haas-Bethell and Graphic Designer Bre Willard. Not pictured is Executive Administrative Assistant Beverly Thummel.
EMILY RAMSEY for GTR Newspapers
Since forming in 1919 with just four students in its first graduating class, Union Public Schools has shown itself to be responsive with the changing technological times. That aspect couldn’t be more evident than in its communications department.
“Communication styles, parents, the scope of the district have all changed a lot over the decades,” says Chris Payne, associate chief communications officer, who will take over for Chief Communications Officer Gretchen Haas-Bethell, when she retires June 30.
Haas-Bethell came to Union in 1990 with a broadcast journalism background. She was hired to oversee the school district’s public relations, with the charge to tell the story of the district on a consistent basis and to systematically communicate with its audiences, she says.
Previously, the district’s communication efforts had been delegated to school administrators and board members.
Haas-Bethell remembers, in the beginning at Union, working with an electric typewriter before transitioning to one of the earliest versions of a desktop Mac computer.
“We mailed out press releases or hand delivered them to news people,” she remembers. “We were making videos on 16 millimeter film.
“Before email, we appointed representatives at each school site to send us photos and information from their individual schools.”
Since those early years, Union’s communications department has grown to include Executive Administrative Assistant Beverly Thummel; Webmaster Michael Vore, who also oversees social media and photography; Video Producer Beth Turner; and Graphic Designer Bre Willard.
Yet, despite the changes that continue to take place in the department and in the communications field, “what hasn’t changed is our knowledge of each of our audiences and their needs, wants and expectations,” Haas-Bethell says.
Those external and internal audiences are wide and varied and include district employees, the many clubs and organizations, students and parents, school district residents, the Oklahoma State Department, other school districts, and others.
In order to remain current with the changing communication styles, the department saw the need to focus on its website to expand its information offerings and the ways the information is disseminated, such as through social media and videos.
When Vore came to the school district in 2002, the website was in its early stages. “Since I’ve been here, we have updated the website about eight times with substantial changes,” he says.
Vore also began to think about how he would stay abreast of current news and activities at Union’s many school sites. He often utilized teachers and parents to help keep him informed as well as increasing his efforts to visit various school sites on a daily basis to keep Union’s publics informed.
Vore’s reliance on community-provided information is still very alive and well today, though, thanks to social media.
I am constantly reposting and retweeting information that comes from social media pages of Union clubs and organizations, he says.
Union was one of the first school districts to create a Facebook fan page, and, soon after, it added a youtube channel in order to offer more engagement opportunities with its publics.
“As those platforms became more acceptable, we did more with them,” Vore says.
While endeavoring to remain current in its communication methods, the department also has to remain focused on what is fiscally responsible for the district, notes Haas-Bethell. One such situation, a few years ago, involved the question of whether to create an app for the district as mobile devices and smartphones grew in their all-purpose use.
“When attending school events, I would see all of the parents on their mobile devices,” says Vore, driving home the point that mobile device compatibility was the way of the future for online content.
However, “an app would have cost us a lot of money and created double the work for us,” Haas-Bethell says.
Instead, the department saw as its best option to create a responsive website that “responds” to individual users’ mobile devices by adapting the website’s size and other factors to their device.
The school district’s responsive site launched two years ago, along with its video section on the main page that highlights school news, extracurricular activities and reminders of upcoming events.
Previously, videos had been included with individual stories on the website, says Vore, but this feature allows individuals to access videos separately.
The bottom line in all of Union’s communication methods is flexibility and willingness to adapt, says Haas-Bethell.
“It’s not one size fits all,” adds Payne. “We can’t stop using the old methods, but we have to find new ways, too.”
That, as Haas-Bethell sums it up, is the epitome of all that Union stands for: “It’s all about the Union Way: striving for excellence in all we do. As a department, we try to portray that.”