Choosing the Right Hat: Marketing, Communications, Both?

A head of school hired Independent Thinking to run a search for a new director of communications for his school. When we sat down with him, our first question was, “What is it you most need from this person?” He looked at us baffled and responded, “What do you mean? I need a director of communications.” I said, “Well, some schools use that title but are looking for someone with marketing expertise. Some need a writer and editor. Others are looking for a strategist, someone who can put together an overall communications plan and oversee its implementation. Some schools are really looking for a webmaster and social media guru, while some heads are looking for a speechwriter and PR professional. What is it you most need?” This head wisely said, “Wow. I guess I really need to give this some more thought.”

Independent schools are great at expanding jobs and “allowing” people to wear multiple hats. There is virtually no area in an independent school that wouldn’t benefit from the expert touch of a communications professional. But unlike many other organizations, most independent schools have one or two FTEs devoted to communications… and that title has now expanded in many cases to include marketing—because now it is OK to admit to marketing.

In my experience, independent schools can rarely afford a pure strategist; schools need tacticians—doers. Smart, strategic doers but doers nonetheless. There is no one person who will possess every skill and area of expertise that can be encompassed in the title director of marketing and communications, and so, heads of school, be ready and be really thoughtful about prioritizing what it is your school most needs before you set about looking for it. Candidates, don’t over-promise in the act of self-marketing because you will under-deliver in the job. Together discuss the goals and priorities, and then, newly hired director of marketing and communications, put these down on paper, develop a plan, start executing, keep communicating with your head of school, revisit priorities and goals, and nicely resist taking on all the tasks that other administrators will want to send your way if they don’t align with the agreed-upon priorities and goals.

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Jane Armstrong

First independent school job: "triple threat" at the Peddie School, teaching English, coaching and dorm-parenting; later serving as Dir. of Publications

Other school work: Assistant Director of Alumni & Parent Programs at Amherst College (her alma mater), Dean of Students and Dir. of Residential Life at Garrison Forest School, Dir. of Development at Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall School

Probably relevant: parent of 5 independent school students or graduates, one of whom is now teaching!