Schools, parents should be tapping in to social media

A Time to Lead
February 5, 2014
Parents: Be a Facebook friend but don’t act like it
February 5, 2014
A Time to Lead
February 5, 2014
Parents: Be a Facebook friend but don’t act like it
February 5, 2014

School administrators had already told teachers not to respond publicly no matter what showed up on social networking sites, which crisis communications specialists say was a good initial move.

But interviews with those specialists and other experts reveal a general understanding that if that school – or any other – had an existing and authoritative social network presence, the message and the truth might have been more easily shared, and volatile gossip defused. Slowly and in many cases cautiously, schools throughout the nation are establishing accounts on Facebook and Twitter, not to replace existing communications protocols but to augment them, as well as to better monitor what students and in some cases parents are doing and saying.

“Use of social networking is a primary distribution channel now and it is pretty much expected in every scenario,” said communications consultant Charles Gainnie, whose firm W.L. Gainnie and Co., provides social networking integration for local businesses and government agencies. “It is like having a telephone number.”

Terrebonne Parish schools chief Philip Martin says his district is working on adding a Facebook component to its communications strategy, a move prompted by last month’s crippling freeze.

But like other school systems testing the social networking waters, Terrebonne is making its moves slowly and carefully.

Caution is wise, media mavens say, from a variety of standpoints. But school administrators and parents should not be intimidated either.

They add that while local initiatives have more to do with how information can be shared from the school system to parents and students, there is a wealth of reasons why schools and parents may wish to be more social media-savvy.

“Schools have to have a social media presence and a strong communications strategy far before any crisis incident occurs,” said Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, who sponsors seminars for educators and develops security plans for individual school systems throughout the U.S. “That allows them to develop credibility and a reputation for transparency with their school community. When an incident occurs the community will turn to them first for the facts and the school’s version on a matter, rather than turning to the social media channels and rumor mills, or getting it from text messages and other sources.”

Both Lafourche and Terrebonne have information-sharing strategies in place, relying to varying degrees on email, websites, texts and other means of communication.

“We have a Facebook site under construction but we have always been leery about doing that,” said Lafourche schools spokesman Floyd Benoit. “Internally, we have a method of doing things where we can get in contact with students, the people that need to know. We already have a built-in mechanism to get in touch with parents, students and employees over which we have control. If I put stuff on Facebook, they could go out of business tomorrow. Our website will not.”

Lafourche gets good marks from the experts because of its proactive method of sending out information.

But the strategies many school systems are adopting – often on the advice of consultants like Trump – also incorporate the more widely-used social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter.

If an emergency occurs, the school’s presence on Facebook or Twitter can direct anyone talking about the situation to the school Web site.

Trump said some schools have set up a “rumor mill” page on their Web sites. Educators seeing a rush of Facebook posts containing misinformation can simply make a posting directing users to the school’s rumor page.

If looking to incorporate social media, Trump and others say, then a wide range of channels should be considered because of the changing landscape.

Lately, Trump notes, more youngsters are using Twitter.

Parents are becoming far more adept at using Facebook and have a presence there.

Pinterest and Instagram are other trending sites.

There is no reason, Trump and others aver, that a communications officer in a school system can’t maintain the presence on all sites locals favor, as a component of the school’s native communications platforms like email and text.

Monitoring student and parent presence on social media is also seen as an important facet of incorporating the, into a school system’s strategies.

Developing problems, evidence of bullying, parent dissatisfaction, emotional issues involving individual students and other information can be divined from monitoring the networks.

“Teachers and educators have a very high sensitivity to a lot of nuances of their students and that’s why they are teachers,” Gainnie said. “That behavior is also replicated in an online setting. Behaviors in a virtual setting are shockingly personal in terms of what they reveal. It absolutely is something they should be versed in and aware of; it allows them to tap into information that is relevant to educators in all settings.”