Mike Wetzel and Frank Valdez are on the communications team at the Colorado Education Association, leading the association’s outreach to its diverse membership of teachers, administrators and education professionals across the state, as well as its communication to media, partners, legislators and prospective members.
We asked them how their team uses technology to communicate to their diverse range of constituents, and how they predict those tactics will change in the coming decades.
SE2: How do you measure success as a communications team?
Valdez: One measure of success for us is the quality of our content. If we’re not doing it well, our audience won’t be interested. And often, it’s the issues we’re communicating about that drive our engagements. Some issues get more comments and feedback – such as school funding and evaluations, currently – and other issues are less pressing. Social media gives us some good benchmarks of success as we try to communicate with members about the issues that impact them.
Wetzel: We’re a member-led organization, so our president and vice president and board are all members. As a communications team, we try to prioritize what they want us to do. They set the agenda on what’s important in elections and the legislative session. We’re growing in our professional development offerings, with programs like our CoPilot online learning platform, so people are seeing CEA as a place where they can get meaningful professional development as well as advocacy. Our leadership sets the tone and priorities for the whole staff, so our success stems from that.
Another key way for us to gauge success is for us to ask our members what support they need from us. “What interests you? What can we be doing as an association that’s valuable to you?” We try to equip our members with valuable tools so that they can do the work they do best every day. Their dues pay our salary, so our success is measured by whether or not we are providing value to them.
SE2: When it comes to communications, technology can be a blessing and a curse. How does technology support or hinder communication with your members? Can you give an example?
Valdez: Technology can both help and hurt when it comes to communicating with our extremely diverse membership. Our members are teachers, guidance counselors, support professionals and everything in between, and we have a mix of people from rural and urban settings statewide. Technology helps us reach them, but we have to be strategic in using our channels to convey the right message to the right audience.
We are active on social media, we have a couple mass email platforms, and we have a texting service that we use to communicate with members. One of the first mass text messages we did was a short survey that got over 2,000 responses, and we’d never seen that good of a response rate with email. However, some people felt that the texts were oversaturating our members with messaging. So, I’d say technology is a blessing and a curse, challenging us to constantly balance when, where and how we send messages.
Wetzel: We have the same issues as others in the donor or membership world for staying in touch with our members. People have very good reasons in this day and age to guard their personal information. To that end, our communications will always be somewhat limited by people choosing not to grant us their cell phone or personal email in the first place. Also, not every member communicates on every platform. For example, CEA has a large number of members who are retirees – many of them may prefer receiving info from us in a printed membership magazine instead of emails or texts. So we have to keep communicating in all the traditional ways as we integrate new methods. As soon as you turn one thing off, you will stop communicating with someone.
SE2: What are your biggest challenges today as you use communications to raise awareness and advocacy around issues that matter? What do you foresee as future challenges?
Valdez: The diversity of our issues is a challenge for us as communicators. It is hard for us to be able to rally our membership around any one central issue. There are a couple central issues that all educators will care about, but there are just some issues only city teachers or only rural teachers will care about.
Wetzel: The biggest challenge today is that people are busy and have a lot of communications thrown at them. And, in education, our members are doing wonderful things in schools, so they are busy. If they get an email from CEA or a request to call the legislature on a bill, they can only participate sometimes. We go into it with an expectation that we’re going to get some of the people some of the time and that’s a win. Capturing people’s attention will only be more challenging in the future and will require more strategy on our part.
Valdez: In the future, especially depending on the political climate, communications will need to work even harder to meet members where they are, whether that’s on social media, email, robotic calls, or something else we can’t even predict yet.
Wetzel: In the future, I think we will need to be more and more creative in how we communicate with young professionals. It is challenging to keep people in the education profession. We want to support teachers in the beginning and help them in the long term. What will that require? Potentially even more professional development, outside support, networking or resources. Plus, young educators are following in the footsteps of teachers who have always been very inquisitive and socially aware. The traditional labor issues, like bargaining fair contracts, will still be important for them, but they also want to rally around social justice movements, giving others a voice and helping students in marginalized communities. We’ll need to keep asking questions on what they need to be successful, and how can we help them refine and elevate their professional voice. That will continue to change as our membership is constantly changing.