Tech Leadership

Twittering in the Hands of School Leaders

by BRAD HUGHES

As 2010’s first major snowfall blew through Kentucky Jan. 7, superintendents busily gave predawn notice of closed schools by calling radio and TV stations and activating automated telephone systems.

At 5 a.m., Daviess County Superintendent Tom Shelton declared a snow day. Within the hour, Marshall County Superintendent Trent Lovett announced that roads were just too slick for safety. By 2 p.m., Metcalfe County Superintendent Patricia Hurt made the no-school call for the next day. A few hours later, Fayette County Superintendent Stu Silberman followed suit.

Brad HughesBrad Hughes



While all four school district leaders used traditional public notice avenues, they also turned to their iPhones, BlackBerries, laptops and a new asset — Twitter.

“Tools like Twitter are now very natural modes of communication utilized by millions of people,” Silberman says. “It is one of those things where it only helps get the word out.”

Like Facebook and LinkedIn, Twitter is part of the Internet’s many social networking outlets. In 2009, Nielsen Inc. ranked Twitter as the fastest growing site in the web’s member community category.

Twitter differs from other Web-based communications in two ways. These’s a limit of 140 characters per message or “tweet.” Tweets may be accessed by visiting a Twitter page or by creating your own Twitter page and “following” others, getting notices of tweets by persons of your choice.

Some question Twitter’s value. Last fall, Pear Analytics, a San Antonio-based data analysis firm, called 40 percent of the tweets it studied “pointless babble, such as, ‘I am eating a sandwich now.’” But school leaders wanting to reach out to Gen X, Y and Z parents and taxpayers can make Twitter a worthwhile resource — if they make it worth those target audiences’ time.

Options Vary
Hurt, whose school system has 1,600 students, got into Twitter to encourage staff and students to use technology. “If I expect them to gain comfort and confidence in the use of new tools, I must model that and show I’m willing to try new technology (too),” she says. “I think Twitter’s appeal is the brevity and frequency of the updates.”

Adds Lovett, who oversees 11 schools and 700 staff districtwide: “Twitter is a quick way to update followers of events within the district. Many of these events are not covered by local news media, so this is appreciated by those who follow.”

Shelton, whose district has 11,200 students and nearly 200 staff, says he wants to show his staff effective and even instructional applications for social networking. “As kids find out I’m on Twitter, they join. It’s second nature to them,” he says.

Twitter is one way Terry Holliday, Kentucky’s education commissioner, has demonstrated he is a leader of a different stripe. “Social media tools are an essential component of my efforts to keep stakeholders informed,” he says. “Twitter allows me to (tell followers) where I am, what I am doing and key issues I am dealing with.”

Finding Value
When I began Twittering last fall, I had to answer two questions: Do I have the time? Can I offer something worthwhile? More than 1,100 tweets and four months later, I can say “yes” on both counts. (Judge for yourself at www.twitter.com/ksbanews.)

Once you get into a routine, it’s like making time to leave a voice-mail message for one, except that you could reach hundreds. With the 140-character limit, we’re talking 60-90 seconds to tweet.

Here are some tips on making your tweets something valuable to followers:

•  Beat the 140 character limit by linking to a web page with more information.

•  Don’t diminish your effort with misspelled wordz. Typos stand out. 

•  Add your Twitter address to your e-mail signature and school district letterhead.

•  When you issue news releases or parent letters, tweet with a link to your website.

•  When news media outlets print or air a positive story about your district, tweet it, with a link to the story.

•  Limit the personal stuff unless you know followers care where you go or who you meet.

•  Do it daily. People value online resources they care about and that are regularly updated.

•  Focus on what’s ahead with tweets about upcoming events.

•  Check your followers occasionally. Some Twitter users follow hoping you will follow back. Block them so you can focus on those followers who really matter.

Constituent Service
Silberman, a finalist for the 2009 National Superintendent of the Year award, sees Twitter as a necessary tool in today’s society.

“In discussing whether or not to (tweet), we decided it that it was imperative since they are so widely utilized,” he said. “There are times when I will send out a message referring folks back to our website to view a press release or something special going on. Overall, we see this as a way to enhance communication to our constituents.”

Brad Hughes is the director of member support services for the Kentucky School Boards Association. E-mail: bhughes@ksba.org

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