Team: (verb) To come together as a team to achieve a common goal.
The definition of a team is easy to look up, but in practice, it really does take a village to achieve your goals when it comes to public relations and communications work.
I asked PRSA San Diego/Imperial Counties member Music Watson, APR, to share her wisdom with us. Her communications team – the San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE) – was the PRSA San Diego/Imperial Counties 2021 Team of the Year at the annual Edward L. Bernays Awards.
Q: Your team won the PRSA SD/IC 2021 Team of the Year Award. Congratulations! What does the word “team” mean to you?
A: In the big picture, the San Diego County Office of Education exists to be a team player, supporting the region’s 42 school districts, 131 charter schools, and the approximately 500,000 students they serve. The pandemic gave us the chance to shine as a partner on everything from creating template communications messages to ensure a unified voice among schools to crafting planning assumptions and recommendations to support the safe operation of schools, and from the state’s first comprehensive dashboard showing school reopening status to implementing a COVID-19 vaccination program for school employees.
The SDCOE Communications team had a key role in that work, especially our special projects coordinator, three communications strategists and communications support assistant. The coordinator was our subject matter expert on COVID rules. The strategists handled internal communications to SDCOE employees, social media posts and our COVID-19 website. The assistant translated our materials into Spanish.
With something like the pandemic, it’s all hands on deck. To me, “team” means people committed to the same vision, working to achieve a shared goal. We all bring different strengths to the work, so it’s about creating an environment where people can do good work and support each other.
Q: Your team had to work through unprecedented times. What made you successful? Any tips to share as it relates to crisis communications?
A: As it relates specifically to the pandemic, I think we were successful because, from the very beginning, we had a cross-functional approach. We used the National Incident Management System to organize our response. My role at SDCOE is chief of staff and chief communications officer; I also served as incident commander for our COVID-19 response. That meant I was able to access and draw on our subject matter experts on child care, internet connectivity, distance learning, food service, etc. Having visibility into all those areas was helpful for PR because then our team could highlight and amplify SDCOE’s work in our communications to audiences like school leaders and elected officials/policymakers, and in messages to parents, on social media, and in media interviews.
In terms of public relations in educational settings, we must respond to crises often. We have tried, as a team, to prepare for as many scenarios as possible. I literally have a document with two dozen crisis types and initial talking points for each of them. That way, we can respond quickly while also buying ourselves a little time when something happens. We also have written procedures that outline our processes for a variety of crises, so that anyone on the team – even if it’s not usually their area of focus – knows what steps to take in the face of that situation.
Q: In your opinion, what should managers do today to prepare for the unknown?
A: One thing that’s become very clear to me over the last year in particular is how important it is to build team members’ capacity in order to prepare for the unknown. I’ve been in PR for 20 years, so I have a lot of experience to draw on, but that doesn’t do anyone on my team any good if I’m not available. I’ve been thinking a lot about, and am working on implementing, more intentional ways to walk my team through the how and the why of my decision-making process. When something happens, what do I think about it? How do I decide what to do and in what order? We’re doing more debriefing as a team and I’m trying to create opportunities for team members to take the lead, so that the next time something happens, we’re ready.
Q: If you knew then what you know now, what advice would you give yourself?
A: When schools closed in March 2020, we all thought it would be a short-term thing, two or three weeks max, just until the community could get COVID-19 mitigation measures in place to “flatten the curve.” The days leading up to closure and the weeks after felt like a sprint, but it turned out to be a marathon. I don’t know that we could have slowed down – the media was calling, school leaders needed help, and parents were hungry for updates – but I would have paced myself differently, knowing this was going to be a multi-year crisis. It sounds cliché, but I’d tell March 2020 me to take more walks, to lean on the team, and to get comfortable with constantly changing public health guidance.
Q: What should every strong team do more of? Less of?
A: Especially after the last two stressful years, I think every team should make time to celebrate their accomplishments (because, really, just getting through the height of the pandemic is a pretty big accomplishment) and to (re)assess their work in light of the changed conditions. During the pandemic, PR professionals have worked in different environments, tried new tactics, and enjoyed a greater recognition of the value of communicating with publics. But that doesn’t mean that everything we’ve done needs to keep being done. This is a good opportunity to go back to our organizational goals and communications strategies, and to build in time for reflection and evaluation moving forward.
About the Author
Barbara Cosio Moreno is an award-winning senior communications professional. Her passion has always been telling a good story and overcoming a challenge. Barbara has served as a lead on crisis communications plans, security planning for high-profile civic events and provided counsel to C-Suite leadership and Board of Directors. She currently serves as Public Affairs Manager for Caltrans.