Member Spotlight: Longtime EWA Community Member Reflects on His Journey From Reporter to Education Communicator

“Slow down to speed up” urges veteran communicator Juan Elizondo

Despite working in many roles, jobs and industries, Juan Elizondo says a few important consistent guidelines have enabled him to move from reporting (for the Associated Press) to editing (for the Austin American-Statesman and, later, Dallas Business Journal) to communications for an energy company and then for education nonprofits.

The longtime Education Writers Association member, who serves on EWA’s Community Member Advisory Board, says he focuses on helping others, tailoring communications to different audiences without altering the fundamental message, and encouraging the use of active verbs.

Elizondo said those career guidelines helped him land his most recent job. In January, he was named partner of internal communications at TNTP (founded as The New Teacher Project). Elizondo, who is based in Dallas, says that being fully remote during the pandemic has shown how important it is to get everyone in the organization on the same page.

“When you have such dispersion as we’ve all come to experience over the past two years, internal communications become even more critical to ensure that we’re not playing a game of telephone when the CEO says one thing, by the time it gets to that 600th person, it’s a totally different message.”

In this member spotlight, Elizondo shares how service leadership, clear writing and consistent communications are universal for all kinds of EWA members.

The below Q&A was edited for brevity and clarity. 

What does your usual workday consist of?

My new role is completely focused on my colleagues within TNTP, and my workday consists of really two things: One is looking at messages that are intended to go out across the organization and giving them a critical look to see what is the intent of the message. If I’m a very busy person on my computer doing a whole bunch of things, am I going to get that message [out] clearly and effectively? Do I know what’s expected of me, or am I having to search through a document to understand what are you asking of me, or why are you sharing this with me? The other big part of the work is informing the organization how to go about drafting things so that there’s less editing and there’s less revision on the back end, (emphasizing guidance such as) use active sentences, consider using bullet points, explicitly connect the information to our work or our mission so it’s clear why it’s important.

What are the best or the worst parts of your job? 

The best part is working with teams when there is the opportunity to slow down. There’s that concept of “slowing down to speed up.” So we know that if we take the time on the front end to be very mindful and thoughtful about what we’re communicating and how we’re communicating it, we’re going to move so much faster, and people won’t be asking us for clarifications because they’ll understand from the outset.

The challenging part comes when someone knows their intent, but they have their head down in the work, you know, doing the thing. And then they remember, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve got to communicate about this,’ and we don’t have that opportunity to be really mindful and thoughtful about how we’re communicating. So that does become a challenge.

How has the communications profession changed, and what is behind those changes?

More than ever, communications now need to include additional media, such as visual and audio clips.  During and coming out of the pandemic, we spent so much time in front of our computers, and even away from our computers, we’re on our cell phones. We’re just constantly being bombarded by information. And so as communicators, we have to ask ourselves, ‘How are we delivering, and when are we delivering our messages?’ so that they are really effective.

What are the key differences between working in education communications and other communications fields?

There are a lot of distinct audiences for my colleagues who work in external communications; they are talking to teachers, students, principals, administrators, families, and communities. When I worked for a power company, we generally talked to policymakers and customers. So it was a relatively smaller set of audiences [than] in the education field. Whether it is internal or external communications, we have to segment our message. You want to be consistent across those audiences, but also tailor the message so what we say to a student is relevant to the student, versus if we’re talking to the community leader or a colleague. We’re trying to get across the same message, but we definitely have to use different languages for different audiences.

You’re one of our long-standing community members. Do you remember why you decided to join? 

I remember I attended an annual conference and really appreciated all of the content and the very thoughtful aggregation of the different speakers. There were really good opportunities for the community groups to get together. I, like others, saw the opportunity to continue looking for ways that we can bring our community members and our journalist members together to learn with and from each other and to raise up the community side of our organization. That really drove me to say, “How can I contribute to that consideration?”

Are there any key things that you’ve learned so far as being a community member?

The biggest learning experience has been how we try to balance our service and engagement with our members. From what I’ve learned, we have to remember that our ultimate mission is to support our journalists so that they can tell stories. And so how do we, as community members, support and contribute to that? Striking that balance has been eye-opening for me. It’s been a good opportunity to have that conversation about how we should increase service for everyone and create value for all members, regardless of how they come to the association.

How would you say the roles of a comms person have changed over time?

It’s not enough that somebody saw my ad or saw the communication that I’m delivering. It is how many people took the action that we were trying to achieve. So did they buy the thing, or did they fill out the form that’s required, or whatever it is? So measuring and illustrating the effectiveness of our work has been a huge change, and it’s really been evolving for a while. But that just continues to increase. And luckily, the tools for measuring also have gotten better over time.

What are some education problems that you’re concerned about? 

One of the things that’s been so pervasive from when I was a student to when I was a journalist to today is equity in our school systems. Ensuring that students, regardless of their identity, regardless of their place, are getting the education that they need and deserve to be successful in their life and to have a wide array of choices in their lives. For journalists, it’s getting even more difficult because different policies and different practices in school systems are making it harder to see what is happening, not only on the policy level, but in the classrooms to ensure equity across all students, regardless of their identities and where they live.

What would you like to see be covered on the education beat right now?

I recognize it’s really hard to do, but the impacts marginalized students are facing, such as historically underserved students who are feeling erased because we can’t talk about certain things in our schools. You’ve got CRT, book bans, and policies related to gender identity. It’s difficult, but would be really valuable to get to the students to say what’s happening to their ability to learn and ultimately their ability to be successful and contributing members of our communities. What’s happening to the teachers in all of this? What does that do to their ability to teach and learn so that they’re successful in life? That’s the story that I think is incredibly hard to get to and would be so valuable for us to hear.

What is the best professional advice you’ve been given that you would like to pass along right now?

For me, the best professional advice really supersedes communication, and that is that when there are conflicting inputs and there’s a challenge to get to a decision, the best advice I’ve ever gotten is to do what you believe is right because you can explain that you can defend that.