Control the Narrative

You probably found your way here after sitting in on a session this summer with Dr. Jeremy Earnhart. Welcome!
Below you’ll find an extended version of the information I shared in the video. Scroll to the bottom of the page to learn more about the podcast.
Dr. Earnhart asked me to share with you today my advice for using social media and digital communications to your advantage. So here it is…

The number one piece of advice I would share with you is to control the narrative. That’s a popular phrase bandied about in public relations circles, but it’s absolutely true. Let me tell you how this applies to the world of music education.
As you well know, in today’s society too many people still view music education as optional, or a frill. That’s not an idea you’ll break someone of overnight. The key to changing hearts and minds about that is to slowly erode that position with a steady stream of a carefully controlled narrative. The story doesn’t exist until someone tells it, and usually the first person to tell the story from their perspective is the one who controls the narrative.
So what would that look like? Let’s take a step back to get a bit of perspective. As I’ve learned over the past couple of years by hosting the Marketing Music Education podcast, there are several groups of stakeholders who need to be “sold” on the benefits of music education:
  • Students. Music education is typically an elective, so you have to convince students to not only study music, but to study music in your particular ensemble.
  • Parents. Every successful music student has supportive parents behind them, and you want to make sure that they understand the benefits of music education, as well as what will be expected of their child and why it will be expected of them. Show them how the study of music benefits their kid, and you will have an ally for life.
  • Administration and guidance counselors. This may or may not be an uphill battle at your school, but even if these people are less than supportive, you still need to kill them with kindness and thank them profusely for the support that they do give your program. If it’s well-deserved, great! If not, maybe a bit of shame might help grease the wheels.
  • School Board. The next group you need to sell on the benefits of music education is your school board. All too often, the only time the school board hears from any music teachers, students, or parents is when the budget axe looms overhead.
  • I recommend scheduling a yearly state of the music program report, where you talk about all the successes that your program has had each academic year. We know that music education sets students up for success, but your school board may not connect those dots. Make sure they understand this by sharing success stories from your students, recent graduates, and alumni. If it all possible, encourage your students to perform for the school board. It’s a lot harder to make a decision defunding the music program when they’ve recently looked your students in the eye and applauded for them appreciatively. Look for opportunities to involve your school board and administration members in your performances, like offering them the opportunity to emcee, or give a short welcome speech to the audience. School board members are elected officials, after all, so you might as well use that to your benefit. Make sure each of them owns a current band tee shirt or polo and any other cool swag that your students and parents might be buying up this year. Will this cost money? Sure. But create a new line item in your budget called advocacy and file the T-shirt expenses there. School board members and administrators should be treated like VIPs of your music program. Make sure you extend invitations to them when your band travels. If the school board member sees just how much your students learn on trips, he or she will be that much more likely to support future band trips.
  • Community. The last group that your music program needs to win over, but certainly not least, is your community. Ultimately your community is made up of the voters who elect your school board and in turn decide how the school budget is spent. Remember to carve out time and energy to regularly delight your community with local performances. If your music program has other priorities, you may look at yet another local parade as a necessary evil, but it can really be a way to win over the hearts and minds of everyone in your community. If you’re looking for a way to break that fourth wall and really personalize the experience, check out this blog post on meeting the crowd.
Now, that’s a lot of people that you need to communicate with. But fortunately, you want all of them to get the same message. You want to show them the concrete benefits of music education for your students. We can do this by staying relentlessly positive, and by blasting that positivity all over your community using social media. For free!

Budget Battle

Imagine, if you will: a battle breaks out in your local community. At the heart of it is a proposal to raise taxes, and to cut the music department budget.
Now if you’re like many other directors and administrators, who are overburdened, overscheduled, and utterly overworked, maybe you kept your nose down at the grindstone, put out fires, and just tried to make it to the end of the school year. You’ve been doing great work, which your students know, and hopefully their parents have a pretty good idea of what their students have accomplished under your direction.
But you haven’t done much in the way of communicating with your administration, your school board, or your community. In the local paper, an article is published about the proposed cuts and the proposed tax hike. Residents are angry, and they demand fiscal accountability from the school board, which in this case results in a cut to the music department budget. Because we all have to make sacrifices.
Now imagine that same scenario, but you have put some effort and energy into communicating with all of your constituents.
You have a blog which is updated regularly with all the latest successes your students have enjoyed. Your most recent community performance was a hit.
In fact, virtually every positive thing that has happened within your music program has been documented on social media: through blog posts, Facebook posts, Instagram posts, Periscope live streams, video testimonials from current and former students on social media, and much more. When that same local reporter goes to write a story about the impending cuts to the music program, she has a rich treasure trove of material taken from your own website and social media accounts showing the unbridled success of your students and your program. Pretty soon the tenor of that article will address not just the school board’s fiscal responsibility—or lack thereof—but will address the importance of your music program to the students, school district, and the community at large.
So don’t let your story be told by anyone else. Be proactive and decide early and often what your stakeholders need to know about your music program.

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Kathleen Heuer

Kathleen Heuer is the host of Marketing Music Education, the podcast that encourages music educators & boosters to increase the reach, influence and “relentlessly positive” perception of their programs. By day she is a social media & digital marketing consultant, content strategist, community manager, and graphic designer for Broken Chord Communications, working primarily in the field of music education. Married to an engineer she met while she was in college marching band, she’s a proud band and orchestra parent twice over. You can check out her website at and follow her on Twitter at @KathleenHeuer.

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