• September 2012

How To Lead Schools in a Hyper-Connected World

By Kitty Porterfield and Meg Carnes
Authors, Why Social Media Matters and Why School Communication Matters: Strategies from PR Professionals
Partners Porterfield & Carnes Communications.

The debate about social media in schools—about should we or shouldn’t we—is already over.

Social media is here to stay. The rules of engagement have changed. In one form or another, social media will remain in our lives, because its tools have become the way in which new generations communicate.

In an amazingly short stretch of time, social media and the Web have become the way we conduct business, connect with our friends, order our groceries, do our shopping, research complicated issues, find medical help, stay abreast of the news, and create our recreation.

For schools to pretend that education is somehow not touched by these conversations is more than foolish. It is negligent.

Today, important conversations about our schools are taking place all around us. These used to be conversations that only took place at the grocery store or around the swimming pool in the summer, but now they happen yearround on neighborhood digital bulletin boards, on Internet and Twitter sites, in blogs, and on YouTube.

Schools and school leaders who are not participants in the new media are missing out on what the community is saying about their children’s education.

The consequences can be dire for schools that are not being part of the conversation. They are the same consequences that a school leader might have suffered a decade ago for never being available to meet with parents or parent groups, not responding to parents’ requests, or not maintaining relationships with civic leaders.

The difference today is that the groundswell of discontent grows a whole lot faster and can spread a whole lot farther.

Here are 10 reasons why educators need to get onboard with social media:

  • 1. Social media is a new way to build relationships. It should not be a surprise that the key to good leadership is strong relationships. Creating relationships is an on-going job for school leaders. Used well, social media is an efficient and effective tool to help build stakeholder ties.
  • 2. Communication is no longer about you anyway. It’s about your customers. Parents of our students and school employees are growing younger by the day. They live their lives by a different set of rules than their parents did. They want to work in teams, be part of the solution, and hear their leaders tell them they’ve done a good job with their kids. Today’s parents refuse to be shut out of the education process.
  • 3. People are already talking about you. Join the community bulletin board. Google yourself. Create a weekly Google-Alert search for your school system. Read the newspaper comment boards. You will quickly find out what the neighbors are saying. Social media is our present-day equivalent of the front-porch, back-yard fence, and playground bench conversation. Listen in.
  • 4. Your reputation is at stake. In the end, the school leaders are the ones charged with maintaining the school or school district’s good name. The buck stops on your desk. If you only listen to your department heads and your PTA leadership, you will never hear the real concerns of parents and tax-payers division-wide. Social media can provide the feedback of a dozen focus groups that you didn’t have to create.
  • 5. The response most likely will be positive. School systems that have taken a proactive step to establish social connections like a blog, a Twitter feed, and YouTube postings get high marks from their communities. The districts that feel the brunt of viral venom are those that don’t have digital avenues of conversation already open when a news story goes bad. When there is the will and a way to hold a real-time conversation with the community, leadership becomes transparent.
  • 6. No one has to do it all at once. Maybe all you do is start a Twitter account (free), which just gives you the opportunity to flash (your) headlines in 140 characters or less to your stakeholders’ phones and PDAs in real time. On most days, it will be postings about new courses or test scores, but think of the communication possibilities that would be available during a crisis. Sure, there is some upfront expenditure of time, but the ROI (return on investment) will be well worth the effort.
  • 7. Social media gives you the chance to stay ahead of the curve. Like putting your ear to the train tracks, you can hear the rumble of the approaching train. Social media gives you the opportunity to respond quickly to rumors and dissention, without the filters of the traditional media. Once established, updating a social media network takes less time than writing and publishing a press release. And the effects can reach much further.
  • 8. It’s not going away. The forms that social media take will keep changing as new technologies emerge. Part of the job is staying in the race. People use social media partly because they can—it’s here, it’s new, it’s cool. But social media also helps to fill a deep need in our communities to feel connected, to be in touch. If it didn’t, it would have already gone the way of the 8-track tape and the LP.
  • 9. Social media helps you build community and a sense of ownership among your stakeholders. People only invest in what they care about. In today’s world, you cannot assume that anyone cares about or respects public institutions. People care when they feel cared for. A social media presence speaks to inclusion. It is an invitation to be part of the action.
  • 10. It takes the whole village. We know that kids learn best when parents and the community are invested in what goes on in our classrooms. Social media is a key part of what it takes today to win that investment.

Adapted from Why Social Media Matters: School Communication in the Digital Age by Kitty Porterfield & Meg Carnes, Solution Tree Press, 2012.

Meg Carnes and Kitty Porterfield are partners in Porterfield & Carnes Communications, a practice, based in northern Virginia, committed to strengthening ties between schools and communities. They can be reached at www.porterfieldandcarnes.com.

Meg Carnes is a communications consultant who works with school leaders to translate ideas into communication practices. Her experience in K-12 education as a teacher and central office communicator gives her grounding in the issues and challenges that school leaders face. She worked as a communications specialist for Fairfax County Public Schools (VA) and was co-recipient of the Gold Medallion for communication excellence from the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA).

With Kitty Porterfield, she is the co-author of Why School Communication Matters: Strategies from PR Professionals. She is a frequent presenter at NSPRA conferences and has served on judging panels for communication competitions. She is the president of CHESPRA, the regional chapter of NSPRA. Meg received her Accreditation in Public Relations in 2004. In her spare time, she serves as an advisor to a charitable-giving foundation dedicated to serving students and educators. Meg lives on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Kitty Porterfield was at the helm of the Fairfax County Public Schools (VA) communications and community relations operations on the morning of September 11, 2001. With her leadership, the school system, the twelfth largest in the country communicated effectively with staff members, parents and the larger community to ensure the safety of all district students and employees.

Kitty directed community relations in Fairfax County schools for nine years, building a creative and proactive communication team. Her work has received numerous awards, including recognition from the U. S. Departments of Education and Homeland Security. She is also the recipient of many regional and national awards for print, video, and web media, including the 2004 National School Public Relations Gold Medallion and the 2007 Mariner Award for Exceptional Leadership.

Previous to her work in Fairfax County, Kitty was a communication and program director in both Arlington (VA) Public Schools and Alexandria City (VA) Public Schools. Since leaving Fairfax County, Kitty has been a communications consultant to school districts, schools of education, and education associations and is a speaker at regional and national education and public relations conferences.
She is co-author of Why School Communication Matters: Strategies from PR Professionals. She has published numerous articles about education and education leadership. Kitty is a graduate of Radcliffe College, with a degree in government. She lives in Northern Virginia.

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