So what is all the fuss about blogging and other social media tools?
Most school leaders by now have heard about blogging but may not have thought much about how and why they should consider adding a blog to their school district’s communication plan. You may have heard the old mantra “Don’t argue with those who buy their ink by the barrel,” but in the digital era everybody can have their own barrel of ink. The new mantra should be “Everyone has a barrel of ink so you better have one too.”
Mark Stock, a former superintendent, is the author of The School Administrator's Guide to Blogging
Superintendents may be among the least likely in K-12 education to see the benefits of blogging and other social media.
The problem with reacting to current problems with traditional media is that the news cycles are so short today. If you rely on traditional media methods, the news cycle is out of control before your organization can even react.
One morning I was driving into work as superintendent of a 3,400-student Indiana school district when my cell phone rang and I learned there had been a bus accident. Even though I was only a few miles from the scene of the accident, parents were already waiting when I arrived. Their children had sent instantaneous text messages and pictures from the scene. This was several years ago. Today it is not hard to picture a short video clip from a camera phone being uploaded to YouTube, linked to on the Drudge Report, followed by blog postings all over the world chronicling the situation before you’ve even arrived on the scene!
In these hyper-short news cycles, blogging and other forms of technology can become effective tools. When the leadership embraces them instead of fearing them, we can deal successfully with the spread of misinformation.
A Personal Embrace
I see several reasons why these technologies should be embraced personally by superintendents.
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You can get news out more quickly. With current handheld, Internet-enabled devices, school leaders can get announcements and postings out to sites within minutes. Leaders in many fields are adapting to these devices quite readily. (In just the last few years, the number of superintendents at the AASA National Conference on Education standing in hallways checking e-mails and making calls from their personal digital assistants has risen noticeably.)
While mostly used to return phone calls and check e-mails at present, PDAs also can be used to post messages to blogs and send messages via Twitter, Plurk and other social media platforms. You now have the potential to broadcast news and information to the entire world in mere seconds from wherever you stand.
You can respond to traditional media. While many traditional media outlets (television, cable, radio and newspapers) cover school events, they don’t always represent the school district in an accurate or complete way. When you, as superintendent, have your own blog site, you can put the information out the way you want to be represented. Have you ever tried to get a correction into the local newspaper only to be pushed off the front page by a house fire? When you operate your own blog with a regular readership, you can respond to other media on your time without being pushed off the page.
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Your message can be accessed by readers on their schedule. When you blog, patrons can read the information when they have the time, not when the news is on. In today’s busy world, all of us want the news when we are ready for it. I am always amazed at the number of hits my blog sites get between midnight and morning. When do these people sleep? These messages are also archived and searchable so people can look back and read all your postings on a given topic.
You can increase coverage in the traditional media. I was surprised to find that my superintendent blog site was being read by news agencies looking for new ideas and people to quote. Traditional news coverage of your school district may increase when you have a popular blog site — assuming any traditional news outlets can survive the recession. Print media may be declining, but television and radio people are increasingly finding their contacts for news via the Internet. Are you connected?
You can build a sense of community. More and more people are feeling their sense of community through social media. Some experts believe this is a natural way people are reaching out to create a sense of belonging. As the number of nuclear families decreases and the speed of life increases, people are using technology to stay connected. How does your local population know you?
As baby boomers leave their communities and head to hither and yon, they may park themselves in your local school district. How do they stay connected with your district when their children and grandchildren are not in your school system, yet you need their vote of support for the next tax levy or new building referendum? I was surprised how many retirees I would meet at the local fitness center. Once they knew I was the superintendent and I had a blog, it was amazing how many of them followed my weekly rants and raves.
In 2004, the word “blog” was chosen by Merriam-Webster, one of America’s leading language reference publishers, as the word of the year. Yet some might even consider blogging old school today since micro-blogging now has all the techies in a twitter!
So what is all the fuss about Twitter?
Twitter is a micro-blogging tool that allows the blogger to put out regular messages in short announcements called tweets. Picture your school district having a Twitter account (it’s free) and most of your school patrons receiving Twitter feeds from you. In 140-character announcements, you can broadcast a regular flow of information to constituents. The possibilities are endless. Snow delays, traffic information, emergency announcements, ticket sale announcements, report card announcements and links to school website information are all examples of situations in which Twitter announcements could be appropriately sent — all in seconds from your handheld device.
Now that you can see some of the benefits to blogging and micro-blogging, here are some specific tips on when and how a blog could be used most effectively.
Uses of Blogging
Spreading the news. Use your blog to share anything you would traditionally write in a newsletter or a public relations release. Cut and paste the message and put into a blog post. Remember to add a picture or a link to other information. Linking is one of the main benefits to using a blog as opposed to a newsletter.
Communicating during an emergency. Lockdown procedures, school cancellations or other time-sensitive announcements can be placed on a blog site and updated quickly.
Monitoring ongoing events. You could chronicle your building project, tax levy proceedings, school board discussions or any issue that takes place over time.
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Many superintendents are discovering how quickly they can be defamed today on blogs. More often than not these attacks are anonymous and occur when a superintendent is simply doing his or her job and someone doesn’t like it.
Terry Holliday, superintendent of the Iredell-Statesville Schools in North Carolina, used a combination of a blog, a website and a district electronic-issues bin to engage parents in a recent redrawing of attendance boundaries.
Holliday began his communication strategy by sending out e-mails to patrons on the school system’s mailing list. He followed by posting information on the website and then began blogging about the redistricting process.
The feedback he received from the public was tremendous, and blogging about it regularly kept the issue in front of the community. Proposals for new boundaries then were developed based on parent and community responses to the blog and the district electronic-issues bin.
Being an activist. Get political. Share on your blog how legislation will affect your district. Don’t forget to put a link to legislators’ e-mail addresses on your sidebar and link to actual legislative websites and legislative bills. Use the power of these linkages. People will come back to your site if they see it as a gateway to more information.
Getting to know you. Leaders often forget that constituents want to feel as if they know them. Trust begins this way. Tell about your family vacation. Tell about the teacher who meant so much to you in your youth. Tell a funny story about yourself. Help constituents get to know you better. You really are a real person. Aren’t you?
Mike Smith, superintendent of the Oakland Community Unit School District 5 in Oakland, Ill., has developed a real following with his blog at www.PrincipalsPage.com. Smith’s sense of humor emerges clearly in this blog, making it a popular blog even outside of his school district. The superintendent credits many of his ideas from his contacts with social media platforms such as Twitter and Plurk.
Educating the community. Every time a patron asked me a question I wrote it down and planned a blog post about it. If one person wonders about it, others do, too. Examples are property tax questions, transportation questions and school policy discussions.
Admittedly, some disadvantages of blogging need to be considered. There are solutions and ways to work around them, but they must be acknowledged and addressed.
Written words can be misunderstood. If you have spent any time reading online discussions, you know it is a rough-and-tumble world out there. Absent nonverbal cues, written text is easily taken the wrong way. One preventative measure is to get other people to screen your posts to see whether your intended message is coming through.
It takes time. This may be the most common question I get. How do you find the time? When I was blogging frequently as a superintendent, my time commitment ranged from 10 minutes to an hour a day blogging. Good bloggers actually spend more time reading than they do blogging. You don’t have to be the great creator of all content. You just need to link to someone who says it better than you do! Some days your blog post might simply be a link to the local online newspaper reporting on a school topic.
Trouble for the technophobe. Most school districts have competent technology staff who can set you up with a blogging platform in minutes. In small districts, however, you may find yourself spending more time on the technology end of the blog than you like. For technophobes this can be frustrating. Just remember, a simple Google search will answer most technology questions. Most free blog software is very user-friendly. Don’t let this scare you off.
Dealing with the anonymity of blog comments. Coping with toxic comments is every superintendent’s nightmare. But this is where my personal experience with blogging and negative comments defies conventional wisdom.
I discovered negative comments often were followed by positive remarks from others. This phenomenon usually brings more empathy and sympathy for the leader than when the negative comments are deleted or not posted by the moderator. Of course, profane comments or disparaging comments about a named individual can and should be taken down immediately. I did allow negative comments about me as long as profanity wasn’t used and the comment did not involve other individuals. Negative comments about specific employees should not be allowed. Staff members need to know the leader has their backside covered. New bloggers often leave the comment features turned off until they are ready for the rough-and-tumble world of the blogosphere.
School leaders own a distinct advantage over many bloggers. The advantage is their built-in clientele base that already is heavily invested in the local school district. When you think of how many people in the community your district touches compared to any other organization or business in town, it can be staggering. So how do you tap this resource and create a loyal readership?
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E-mail the blog address to all your employees. I started by asking all my staff to bookmark the site on their favorites lists and check it every morning when they fired up their computers for the day. I even suggested making it their homepage so they wouldn’t forget. I also suggested they send the site’s address to friends and family members and let their students’ parents know about it.
Mention the site in public forums. Demonstrate the blog site live in school board meetings and mention it in all your service-club talks. Put together a PowerPoint slide show with the site address on it and run it like a kiosk before school plays in the auditorium and other events where parents gather.
Make your site a “one-stop shop.” If you can make your blog site a gateway to other information, your traffic will increase. All your school websites, weather channels, athletic announcements, parent grade portals and school calendars can be links on your blog site. The more information that can be accessed, the greater chance people will see your postings, even if they come to your site to gain access to other information.
Make sure there is an RSS feed on your site. RSS, which stands for Really Simple Syndication, is a piece of software code that allows individuals to subscribe to a feed from your site so they receive your posts as an e-mail. As such, they can read your posts without having to remember to go to your website to see each one.
Provide other methods for your social media sites to be notified when you have posted to your blog. My personal blog has been set up so that Facebook, Plurk and Twitter followers are all notified when I have put new information on my blog. You also can install various programs such as ShareThis, which allow the blog reader to send the blog link to everyone on their social media accounts when they feel like sharing your insightful and pithy prose.
Blogging is just one more tool for communication-savvy school leaders to add to their tool kit. Every school leader would do well to consider using modern technology to help communicate with others in today’s fast-paced world.
In earlier generations, power used to be positional, but today, power is about access to information. How well does your organization provide access to accurate, timely information to your public using modern tools?
Mark Stock, a former superintendent, is assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Wyoming. He is the author of The School Administrator’s Guide to Blogging: A New Way to Connect with the Community (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009). E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.