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Public Advocacy: Social Studies

Social media can be a useful tool, but #becareful

Daniel Kaufman

The explosion of social media over the last decade has fundamentally and permanently changed the way we communicate. Only 15 years ago, Facebook didn’t even exist, and now it boasts 2 billion monthly active users as the most popular social network worldwide, according to the website statista.com. 

The microblogging service Twitter, though its growth has slowed in recent years, still has more than 300 million users and remains a destination of choice for pushing out information and discussing (or arguing about) issues and policy. Instagram has now exploded to 800 million users worldwide, and Snapchat is now the most often used social media and networking site for youth ages 13 to 24. 

That’s just scratching the surface of the exponentially growing social media landscape: From YouTube and live video streaming services such as Periscope and Facebook Live, to professional social networking site LinkedIn, to a dizzying array of messaging apps increasingly accessed from mobile devices, options for communicating are endless.

This proliferation of communications channels opens unprecedented opportunities for your district, and you as one of its leaders, to interact with your key constituencies. While the traditional avenues for communicating still matter, and there is no substitute for talking in-person to students, parents, staff and community leaders, the name of the game is no longer just about pushing out valuable information. It’s also about engagement—responding to questions about student programs, requirements and opportunities; sharing achievement data, taking the community’s pulse and soliciting feedback, and helping mobilize your stakeholders in support of your district’s initiatives. 

For you as an individual board member or superintendent, leveraging your personal social media accounts professionally can also be an effective tool for sharing news, engaging with the community, and putting a human face on what can sometimes seem like a faceless bureaucracy. You can play an invaluable role in alerting students and families about important deadlines and upcoming district events and activities, putting a human face on district policies and procedures, and highlighting your district’s outstanding students and success stories. 

There’s a catch

Despite the many positives of social media, there are some downsides from the standpoint of communications. Your external audience is bombarded with so many messages and distractions every day from so many different directions. It can be a challenge to break through the clutter for more than a few seconds. 

In addition, half-truths or outright lies about the district can spread like wildfire and tax the capacity of you and your district’s communications team to respond rationally and set the record straight.

Moreover, there’s a lot of potential for trouble if you don’t handle your own accounts properly. In recent years, a number of school board members have been called out in the media and landed in hot water for using inflammatory, foul, or even racist language; sharing or being tagged in photos of themselves engaging in racist actions; or making threats over social media. 

These are certainly extreme examples. The vast majority of board members and district leaders would never even think of behaving this way. But the incidents do serve as an ugly reminder of the potential dangers of social media when it comes to responding online without thinking or inappropriately mixing one’s professional and personal lives. 

What to do

So here are some do’s and don’ts to keep in mind, whether you are a novice user or a seasoned vet already engaged across one or more channels.

  • DO make a habit of posting on your various accounts regularly, as you don’t want to set them up and have them lie dormant. But DON’T feel you need to post more than once a day. That’s about the right level of activity and will make keeping up easier. 
  • DO use your personal voice. It makes you more accessible and appealing. At the same time, while setting up a clear firewall between your professional and personal life is no longer essential, DO make sure to decide how you are going to use social media for professional and personal reasons—and follow your own rules. For example, Matt Miller, superintendent of the 16,000-student Lakota Local Schools, does a nice balancing act: He uses his Twitter handle @LakotaSuper almost exclusively to promote district achievements but does so in his own distinct voice, while employing his Facebook page mostly for his personal life, occasionally intermixing district highlights.
  • DO follow and engage with like-minded people and organizations, especially ones with greater followings than yours, so that you can build your own following. Make a list of target influencers, follow them, and engage with them regularly—message @ them, retweet them, like their posts, and do anything else you can to build that relationship.
  • DO follow your local media, share their stories with your followers, and tweet at them in reaction to their stories. Reporters are often judged on how many clicks their stories generate and will appreciate anything you can do to share their content. That will build and strengthens your relationship with them.
  • DO use lots of visuals—photos, videos, charts, and infographics. The more visuals you use, the more likely your followers are to respond to your posts and share or retweet your content. D.C. Public Schools’ Twitter handle @dcpublicschools is a great example of how you can use compelling visuals effectively with almost every tweet, including photos of smiling students and staff in a wide variety of learning situations, maps highlighting school investments, inspiring pull quotes from the chancellor, and graphics featuring invitations to events.
  • DO highlight real people and positive stories from your district featuring students, staff, parents, and other audiences at least once a week.
  • DO live-tweet panels and events when you attend conferences as doing so will help you quickly build your following. And DO use the conference hashtag in all your tweets, as well as include your district’s handle. 
  • DO use hashtags whenever you can. Remember: A post or tweet without a hashtag is like the proverbial tree that falls in the woods when no one is around. You can research and insert yourself into conversations at the regional or national level by using specific hashtags focused on the education issues you care about.
  • Finally, at the risk of stating the obvious, DO make sure to follow your state or district’s public meetings act requirements and DON’T post anything that hasn’t been released publicly or discussed in open board session. Also, DON’T post anything you’re not certain is accurate or that you have permission to post, including photos of students. And DON’T use any inflammatory and vulgar language or engage in personal attacks. It’s important to use discretion and always remember that you are a public figure.

Keeping these general rules of thumb in mind should allow you to harness the power of social media to enhance your own voice and help your district better connect with target audiences. Now, get out there and start engaging, and #goodluck!


Daniel Kaufman (dan.kaufman@finnpartners.com) is a senior partner at Widmeyer Communications, a Finn Partners company. He served on the Prince George’s County, Maryland, school board from 2013 to 2015. 

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