Principals, it’s time to own your school on social media

Without a sustainable long-term focus on social media, ‘slut shaming’ and ‘sexting’ will be cementing itself in schools and normalising in the minds of parents.

When it comes to social media in schools, now more than ever principals need to take direct, strategic action. Owning a school’s online presence is not sending a member of the development team to do a crash course in social media. Nor, is it delegating the responsibility of social media to a beginning teacher because they come out of the womb with a mobile device in one hand and a selfie stick in the other.

Unfortunately, this approach is common practise in too many schools.  It is a fast track to diluting a school’s brand and significantly increasing the risk of a reputational crisis. Too often principals race to access the benefits (and there are many) of social media without balancing the risk it always presents.

This type of decision making falls short and principals must be aware of the latent risk which awaits igniting fingers. Like the flick of a match, the light touch of a finger across a screen can send a raging, reputational online bushfire on its way.

Schools must, ‘own the space, participate or others will participate for you – and without you.’

Schools hold a very special place in the hearts and minds of our society. International, private, government, profit or non-profit a school’s existence is built on ‘bums on seats’. Schools are operating in a competitive market where online hearsay can influence enrolment and sustainability.  With sustainable enrolments comes teachers, programs, corporate knowledge, financial stability, and a positive buzz creating demand.

Social media can make or (sadly) break the positive perceptions of a school. How so?

Before the internet was mainstream (pre 1995) the principal, the community development officer, the local newspaper, radio and TV could either manage and/or influence a school’s reputation. If a story was newsworthy the metropolitan media and/or a radio shock jock could give a story wide spread traction. At best a dozen people could seriously influence the perception of a school. School leaders and the traditional media had a share of control in this era.

Today there is internet ubiquity and the communications landscape is vastly different.

Take a middle school of 1 100 teenagers, 250 staff and 2 200 parents. Each has a mobile device and internet access. The school now has 3 500 individuals who can potentially write and comment about their educational experiences – good, bad and ugly. This is a massive spike in the numbers and a dramatic shift in the control of the narrative of a school.

School communications are now flatter, faster and borderless. This creates risk and opportunity.

As a medium, social media is a great story maker and a myth breaker. It is also a reputation wrecker. While it is important to acknowledge the negative impact, it is just as critical to find the positives and promote the wonders of schools.

This new era now demands a repositioning of thinking about social media, communications and community engagement. The benchmark should be high where a school is building, sustaining and serving an online community with an authentic narrative.

It should not be a ‘set and forget’ approach, it requires leaders, planning, financial resources and integration with all the other forms of school communication.

A proven path should consider the following:

  1. Place social media on the school leadership agenda. Not just to get things up and running but as a permanent fixture.
  2. Hold a leadership round table visualising, problem solving and questioning the impact of social media.
  3. Build a team (relevant to the size of your school) drawing from varying facets of the school – teachers, school leaders, administrators and students. People of youth and experience are critical.
  4. Audit your existing online presence and all other forms of school communication. Review each tool (newsletter, website, Facebook, Instagram, apps etc.) for purpose, risk, time, goals and resources.
  5. Map your online ‘communications ecosystem’ to identify the right tools for the right purpose. Apps are great for pushing administrative information where as Facebook is fantastic for ‘feel good’ stories.
  6. Define your goals – risk mitigation, building community, school promotion, leadership, professional learning, modelling digital citizenship or breaking down negative perceptions.
  7. Audit your social media policies and procedures. These are not negotiable.
  8. Integrate your communication platforms.
  9. Establish your plan with standards, measures and professional learning.
  10. Put your team to work within the boundaries of your plan.

Social media in schools can be brutal and it needs a different approach to sales and marketing. It can build conversational bridges amongst the busy lives of parents where the risk is minimal.

To do so requires schools to clearly articulate their values, history, market position and educational point of difference.

If schools can tell this narrative in ‘micro stories’ from different perspectives across as many facets of the school as possible they will have a community of advocates who will click, comment and share dwarfing those with a negative intent.

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