Listen Up: Social Media Makes it Easy

By Kitty Porterfield and Meg Carnes

PorterfieldBookJune2008.jpgAASA Executive Consultants Porterfield and Carnes are the authors of the AASA book Why School Communication Matters: Strategies from PR ProfessionalsAASA members save 20% on this book using promo code AASA20.

Community conversations are being held on the Web with or without school leaders’ knowledge. Listening is nothing less than a survival skill for school leaders in an information society where knowledge and opinions are tested in cyberspace. In the wild west of the Web, talking is easy, public, and sometimes NOT DONE WITH AN INSIDE VOICE.

Let’s be honest, our mothers were right: we were given two ears and only one mouth for a reason. We could all learn more by listening, reallylistening. But pressure on modern school leaders leaves them reluctant to add listening to an expanding pile of responsibilities.

In many communities, listening to our stakeholders has never been easier. Social media channels (blogs, list servs, message boards) broadcast real community conversations in real time. They provide a valuable asset to a leader trying to understand what a community values, where the gaps in parents’ knowledge of school affairs lie, and how both critics and supporters talk when the filters are off.

What’s In It for You

The problem with online listening, however, is not what you think. It’s not that school leaders are slow adopters of online technology. It’s not that they’re cash-strapped or time-strapped (although they’re probably both). The main problem with online listening is what the heck do you do with what you hear?

Online chatter can

  • Be disheartening (throw the bum out).
  • Include second-guessing (why didn’t they just move the bus stop 30 feet away from the corner?).
  • Lack context (if they just fired all the incompetent teachers, our problems would be solved).

But online listening also provides strategic advantages:

  • Gives insight (this issue matters to this group).
  • Provides an early warning (a teacher walk-out planned for May 15?).
  • Identifies knowledge gaps (parents really don’t know what happens on a staff development day).
  • Identifies pathways to stronger community connections (this person could help in this way).

Negative comments always stands out, of course. But negative comments also offer an opportunity to learn, to challenge information, to give voice to your story.

The good news is that many school leaders who both listen and participate in social media say that online school interactions are overwhelming positive. People exchange information and send thanks for getting news in a timely manner.

One leader said he had been participating online for six months and had just one negative comment. “We let it [the negative comment] stand and other online community members challenged it,” the leader said.

Finding Your Community Online

To locate where your online community hangs out, start by asking questions of the people around you. People on your staff, those in your circle of community leaders and local reporters (especially those under 40 in all of those groups) will direct you to online hotspots. Identify micro-audiences—parents of band students or special needs students or soccer students—and join the social networks they use.

One online group we follow is dedicated to parents of gifted and talented students who actively converse via a Yahoo list serve with multiple postings on relevant topics every day. They’re civil and committed to helping each other navigate their common world. Some challenge school programs and policies, others help to explain them, and still others ask for advice. Frequently, posters comment about the importance of this network to them. Listening to the group gives a strong sense of both the issues that matter and the prism through which these parents view them.

You don’t have to spend hours searching everyday. One major listening strategy uses search engine tools, like Google or Technorati, to find stories and blogs that mention you, your school division, or a particular related topic or issue. Google offers a free service that brings daily (or more/less frequently) content to your inbox. We’ve found this a good source for locating traditional media headlines and message boards where you can view reader comments about the story. (Message boards can be a mixed bag when taking the community pulse. They often seem to be a magnet for those who disagree.)

Deciding What’s Relevant

Listening becomes truly valuable only when you figure out how to make it functional. The key question: what the heck do you do with the online information you hear? Here is the sea change. We used to issue surveys and not do much with the results. In the new world, if we don’t use what we hear, if we don’t choose to create a conversation, we lose. We get clobbered.

Paying attention is the entry point in adopting social media as a two-way communication strategy. Really listening will identify pathways to innovation that improve student learning.

So, start your online participation by becoming a lurker--those who listen but don’t talk--in online conversations. That’s what our mothers would advise.

Coming Next: Developing a Listening Process

About the Authors
Porterfield and Carnes are AASA Executive Consultants who offer communication consulting and training services to schools, school districts and other education institutions. They are the authors of the AASA book Why School Communication Matters: Strategies from PR Professionals.(AASA members save 20% on this book using promo code AASA20).

Don't miss out! Learn more about new technologies at the AASA Summer Leadership Institute 2010: The Future Through Innovative Technologies, July 29-Aug. 1, 2010, in Washington, D.C.