If you have any doubt among your fellow school administrators as to the sheer power and potential of social media, thumb up the recent tragedy at The Cincinnati Zoo. A toddler made his way into the gorilla exhibit and zookeepers had to ultimately kill ape. The need to assign blame for this tragic loss of an endangered species created a literal firestorm of social media buzz.
In less than 48 hours, hundreds of thousands of people weighed in. Facebook pages were created supporting and opposing the zoo, the gorilla, the mother of the toddler. Last I checked, over half a million people signed an online petition to hold the parents responsible.
This kind of volatility is what many school superintendents, school board members, school communicators and other administrators fear as they sit on the sidelines and merely watch the power of social media. Some even cower in fear as they merely dabble with social media for their school.
Schools fearing social media, however, are not approaching it with the proper understanding, perspective and planning. A recent conversation with Kathy Brant, director of communications for Schiller Park School District 81, explains how some schools are acknowledging the gor, er, um, the elephant in the room.
Social media lesson for schools: fear not.
Fear of the unknown, is what many school administrators cite as reason for either just tip-toeing into or virtually neglecting social media.
While recent school social media usage surveys by the Campus Suite Academy indicate that more schools at least now have basic social media accounts in place at the district or school level, the degree to which they're using the channels varies greatly.
“In our district, we hesitated initially to get on Facebook because of the fear factor,” says Kathy Brant, who authored a Campus Suite Academy blog article on 5 steps to launching a superintendent's blog. “You can’t run from social media. Everyone in and around the school is using it, so the schools themselves have to get past the apprehension. “In our district, each school has its own Twitter account, for example, managed by the principal. Our superintendent has an Instagram account, and countless teachers Tweet routinely.”
“The biggest thing to grasp is that if you’re not on social media, you know someone else is going to be,” says Brant, referring to the community members who are participating in the dialogue surrounding the school. “So if you (school or districts) are out of the conversation altogether, you’re missing some great opportunities to engage.”
Brant said that she and her fellow school communicators discussed this very topic at a recent meeting of the Illinois chapter of the National School Public Relations Association. School PR professionals are agreeing that the positives of using social media far outweigh the rare negative comments that might spring up.
Let your followers tell your school story.
“Social media gives us a great forum to provide our perspective; to get the facts out – the real story, so to speak. Not only that, but it serves as a public documentation, of sorts, really,” said Brant. Then, through sharing, the’ community’ of users will spread the story.
A la the old town crier, your school's social media accounts can display your official stance and perspectives. This open forum of sharing information creates a transparency and accuracy in school policies, academic achievement, school performance, event information and the human interest aspects that are all part of school communications.
A la the old town crier, your school's social media accounts can display your official stance and perspectives.
When school administration uses social media as a strategic communications tool, your followers can extend your reach, add credibility to your messages, and make your communications more authentic.
Brant says what she and her colleagues are learning is that if you get out in front of social media proactively, should that rare negative comment surface, the community will rally in support of the school. “When others are out there telling your story, it makes your school messaging even more powerful,” says Brant.
School officials, in fact, may not even have to participate at the point, given you’ve done your due diligence up front. Rather, school supporters can carry the conversation.
Plan to engage on social media.
Providing you’re getting the right information out initially through your social media channels, the viral nature of following and sharing makes the job of galvanizing your community easier than ever. Make it a part of your overall communications strategy.
Social media can be a big ally in helping spread news and school info, and generally can make all kinds of school content more accessible. Through social media sharing and search, for example, parents and your entire school community can find answers to questions or learn about the issues being discussed.
The lesson learned here is the power of having a following of supporters.
“You have to be out in front of it and proactive,” cautions Brant. You have to get everyone rowing in the same direction, so it’s incumbent on the school communications lead to get the accurate information out there in a timely fashion.
“One news release, one image, one video clip can go a long way down the social media trail, says Brant. “The goal here is to empower your constituents.”
Brant admits that she is not alone among professional school communicators who are, “Figuring this (social media) out as we go along," but it’s a powerful force and a necessary part of a school or district’s communication strategy.
Get followers before you need them.
The gorilla tragedy at the Cincinnati Zoo provided a dramatic lesson in how quickly social media can work for or against any side of a story. While I certainly hope any potential crisis that befalls your school doesn’t reach that scale, the lesson learned here is the power of having a following of supporters.
School communicators need to build their social media followings and arm them with the right content. Take a positive approach to social media and make it an important, strategic part of your school communications planning.
A college communications professor of mine once told me that a big part of public relations and organizational communications is making friends before you really need them. With the reach, power and speed of today's social media, that advice resonates more than ever.
Marketing director and content strategist for Campus Suite, Jay’s a former school public relations specialist who’s helped businesses, schools and colleges use the power of web communications to improve their image, generate support, and optimize relationships. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him @jay4schools.