Schools communicate a variety of information to communities and families daily. Social media as a communication tool has become extremely accessible, so much so that instant gratification is taken for granted, and the community has grown to depend on regular updates. Typically, the updates include celebratory moments for the school or blasts about senior dues. These updates beg for positive comments, retweeting, and general positivity.

Along with that, social media has become an expected way to deliver other information, which could include grief-filled news or a warning about something dire that is about to or may happen.

School leaders may struggle with what they should and should not post on social media. It’s less of a consideration when there is a moment to celebrate, but there can be mental turmoil in deciding how much negative information to share. How much is too much information? When has a school become too transparent?

Transparency—A Blessing and a Curse

Schools have been tasked with improving communication with shareholders for years, especially with both parents in the workforce. Then the internet arrived, and a fast-paced society was suddenly thrust upon us. As increased communication became the accepted norm, schools ramped up their communication efforts. But, meeting the community’s needs in this way creates another challenge. When schools share a lot of information, a community expects to be told everything.

This may be an unrealistic expectation. While social media can theoretically influence the culture of a school, leaders must remember that this was not the original intent of this style of communication.

Recently, many schools have experienced a demand from parents to share information when any type of crisis might occur. For example, a school may have learned about a potential threat by a student. As the school follows the investigation, leaders are tasked with uncovering as much as they can about any potential threat. However, even when that threat holds no evidence—often because the school has prolifically shared its story with shareholders on a regular basis—there is a demand for schools to share that information, even if it’s not relevant.

Confidentiality and FERPA laws prevent schools from sharing certain information. But, in some recent cases, students have been villainized by social media based on false information, for example, relating to whether particular students were being disciplined. School leaders must be prepared to handle the potential outcry from the community when it is driven by rumor and misrepresentation. There is not necessarily a template to use when attempting to calm stakeholders without sharing critical information, since every situation is different. But calming language is important and so is the primary role of the school leader, which is to protect all students.

When Tragedy and Crisis Strike

Social media is a good tool to use when you want to calm your shareholders about a known concern. For example, if a gun is found on campus, even if it is not intended to harm, it is a good idea to use social media to curb rumors from starting. Because we live in an informed society, the community at large feels relieved when they know the truth about what they are hearing.

When a tragedy such as a student death occurs, it is equally important to share sentiments with the community. Everyone wants to feel and listen to one voice in the time of a crisis, and that one voice needs to come from the school leader. While some may criticize this approach, it is all about the language chosen. A student dying in a boating accident, for example, demands a different statement than a student who dies by suicide. It is essential to illustrate sentiments in sympathetic, empathetic, and factual ways. Social media is the perfect place to do this in an efficient and timely manner.

Jennifer Martin is principal of Apalachee High School in Winder, GA.

Making It Work

Here’s how educational leaders can use social media as a way to deal with tragedy and crisis:

  • Avoid being overly transparent. In day-to-day operations, be sure social media is used to inform, but don’t use it so often that your community expects to know every detail of each day.
  • Be honest. If you experience a tragedy on campus or have a safety concern, inform the community so you can control the story first.
  • Embrace vulnerability. When a crisis occurs, be sure to take the time to give sentiment to the situation. Whether it is the loss of a student or a natural disaster, the community needs to hear the voice of the leader.