Out Of An Abundance of Caution

My work as a school public relations practitioner often has me trying to figure out how best to communicate exactly what it is I do. A few years ago, I started telling students, teachers, and parents alike, that I’m the one who calls your house to cancel school. That answer usually gets a few laughs and is a great icebreaker for public speaking.

Stakeholders associated with my school district claim that there are six words they long to hear when school officials determine school should be canceled due to inclement weather. Apparently, my catch phrase letting people know that the decision was made was done so “out of an abundance of caution.”

I now have my very own catchphrase mug that I plan to use in the event of inclement weather.

That phrase became so popular that I stopped saying it for about three years, fearing it was a joke. Recently a colleague gave me with my very own catchphrase decal as a gift, which another colleague placed on a coffee mug for me.

The phrase is now back in the rotation. Earlier this month, I used a mobile-first strategy to cancel school for families and employees, sending messages to their voicemail, text message, app, Facebook, Twitter and our website at the same time. In less than five minutes, I sent that message to more than 10,000 stakeholders, including members of the media.

In this week’s Modern Retro PR, we’ll examine the means of the messaging and how organizations can use it as part of a mobile-first strategy.

Modern: Predictive Dialing

In just over a decade, the number of Americans with a cellphone of some kind has increased more than 30 percent, according to Pew Research Center. That number now stands at 95 percent! Beyond that, the same survey found that almost eight in 10 use a smartphone. For communication practitioners, these are key pieces of data. This means communicators have the ability to reach audiences nearly instantaneously!

Predictive dialing is the technology behind automated phone messages.  It is the very same technology school districts around the nation use to cancel school in the event of inclement weather. Recently, there has been a rash of winter weather, which prompted many school districts to cancel school using their automated phone messaging systems.

An organization’s representative can log into web-based system, determine which people associated with the organization need which messages and the means in which the messages can be disseminated.

This (some-times annoying) technology got its start in the late 1980s.  This technology has morphed into being able publish content across multiple platforms simultaneously to specific audiences.  Additionally, communicators can use the technology to identify a geographic region in which to broadcast a particular message.

Retro: Calling Trees

As a child, I remember well what the experience was like to get the call that school was canceled. My parents, who were both schoolteachers at different schools in my hometown, would each receive a phone call from a designated coworker and then be expected to call their own small groups of coworkers. Not terribly efficient, but it could be effective as long as the message was relayed correctly.

Because branches of the phone tree can be broken (i.e. contacts leave the organization or no longer want to participate), it’s advised to test the phone tree at least once per year make sure it works effectively and to fix any broken connections.

This is about as low-tech as one could get.

But as an elementary student, I didn’t care: the message got through loud and clear that we had no school that day.

Curious how to build your own phone tree? Learn more.

Final Thoughts

In this day and age, organizations should include a mobile-first strategy in their communications efforts. There’s good reason, too: interconnectivity. Author Priya Viswanathan summed it up this way in a 2017 blog post: “The mobile user is always online and can access the Internet from wherever he or she may be.”

This level of connection allows audiences to build trust with an organization, and trust can build brand loyalty by improving the level of customer service offered. Additionally, organizations are finding that mobile-first is a “necessary means to communicate and remain competitive.”

So, why not embrace it?

The trends point to mobile-first capabilities as becoming big business to include mobile commerce. A 2016 survey by Business Insider “forecast that m-commerce will reach $284 billion, or 45% of the total U.S. e-commerce market, by 2020.”

This is a huge opportunity for business: to be in the back pocket (or pocketbook) of their consumers. These kinds of mobile-technologies offer real-time data points for businesses: likes, location, demographics and more.

Fifteen years ago, some consumers were wary of mobile technology in favor of bricks-and-mortar businesses. Today, my family and I visited the local mall where many of the storefronts and food court restaurants were empty and dark; one of the anchor stores was having a going-out-of-business sale offering upwards of 60 percent off the regular price.

Times are clearly changing. While it was once understandable that consumers were cautious about this trend, it’s time for businesses to cast the caution to the wind and fully embrace mobile first. Failure to do so could mean those businesses and industries will find themselves in their last days.


It goes without saying that mobile-first technology can be an effective strategy as part of crisis response. Just this week, I had an emergency at work that including my need to call multiple families at once to make them aware of the situation and to provide an update to the status of their children. Thankfully, all was well, but that was the most terrifying call I have ever had to make.

In that moment, our public relations department, which has a solid reputation among our stakeholders, needed to determine how we communicate this very important message and quickly. We ultimately decided to use the automated messaging system to call multiple families and text them with the basic details: their children were safe and my direct line phone number.

The parents, with whom I spoke, appreciated our communication efforts and the fact that we reached out to them through a variety of means.

2 thoughts on “Out Of An Abundance of Caution

  1. Out of an abundance of caution, I will respond to your blog post, Lesley. I agree that we both must work extra hard to break down the nuances/complexities of our careers to those who lack understanding. Your point regarding mobile technology and its increasing role in our line of work is not lost on me. As school communicators, we are most certainly the primary information conduit to our stakeholders (and you and I have tens of thousands of diverse stakeholders, collectively). In our positions – we must say it first, say it fast, and say it right; mobile technology assists this effort in a large way (and by extension, helps us show others a component of our roles in school PR). School PR practitioners who blazed trails well before our time utilized contemporary technology (e.g., fax machines). We also use contemporary technology; contemporary for us. In this space and time, contemporary technology for us proves to be social media. You and I most certainly can close all schools and turn a city upside down with one tweet. Unlike our predecessors, we do not rely on fax machines – or even email – to alert mainstream media to our school closings; we simply have to tag media in our school closing tweet. It’s an amazing day and age of rapid technology; platforms which continue to evolve. The generation after us will likely have communication technology which we cannot yet imagine. Clearly, a lot of our readings this week pointed to mobile’s ability to enhance the monetization of various companies. Though we can’t leverage mobile technologies in the K12 realm for fiscal gain, we most certainly see gains elsewhere. As our families “shift screens” – so must we. School public relations practitioners continue to see the value of crafting their communication for “mobile-only” households, a segment which has been growing for all of us (for years).
    Though we cancel school “out of an abundance of caution,” we must be careful not to use the same approach when it comes to adopting new, innovative mobile technologies germane to our very important field.


  2. Lesley,

    It’s interesting that you mention about the calling tree. In the military we also use a “recall roster” in which our names, phone numbers and addresses are listed. It works in much the same way: the commander will call the chief, the chief will call all section heads, section heads will call all shop leads, then each shop lead is responsible in ensuring their workers are contacted and information is passed to them. We also have to then report from the bottom up to calculate the percentage of people that we reached. It seems inefficient yes, but in times of crisis or national security sometimes simpler is better. We wouldn’t want to chance any information being released to the wrong people and as a result, the “old school” recall tree has become the most appropriate means of communication in certain instances. It can be argued that money could be appropriated to different projects to ensure higher security so that we can take advantage of many other options to ensure faster,quicker spread of information, but for now we are limited, much like your K12, fiscally and also according to other government restrictions as well.

    Thanks for sharing!

    -Laura Morales


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