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Board-Savvy Superintendent                            Page 11

 

New Rules for Communicating

When Connected 24/7   

BY NICHOLAS D. CARUSO JR.

Nick Caruso

A student is sent back to school on a Friday afternoon because of fighting on the bus. The driver drops the student off before completing his route. It is raining and staff have left for the day. The building is locked. The student gets wet. The parents are upset. As superintendent, you hear about it when a TV news crew shows up at the front door of your home that evening looking for an interview for the 11 o’clock news. The parents never bothered to contact a school official — they immediately called the TV station.

Elsewhere, you receive information that a teacher may have sold illegal substances, and you begin to investigate. Unfortunately, the word is out, and before you can even make a phone call, the news is plastered over Facebook and Twitter. Concerned parents call you and, more importantly, they also contact school board members. The board members call you, wondering why they haven’t heard anything from you about this.

These cases, based on actual circumstances, illustrate how information technology dramatically affects communication with your board and community. Traditionally, board members expected you to act on a rumor or serious complaint, assess the situation and correct it long before it showed up on Page One of the local newspaper.

But doing that has become much harder.

The cardinal rule for boards and superintendents hasn’t changed: No surprises! The explosion of social media, notably Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, means you no longer have the luxury of time. It’s more likely the board will hear about a problem outside the chain of command.

You and your board should have a conversation about what is reasonable in these changing times. Discuss the issue pre-emptively. There ought to be clear expectations and boundaries, as well as an understanding that some things will happen too quickly to react as prescribed. Board members encountering something for the first time on Facebook or Twitter need to understand that you may not be aware of it or whether it’s even true. Board members and staff who forward you information they glean from social networking sites must realize it may be a rumor or innuendo.

Acting Hastily
One important thing to be agreed upon: In no way should you act too quickly or overreact. In earlier days, we had time to process, review the issue, analyze it, and develop a solution that was thoughtful and effective, often before a reporter got wind of the situation, allowing us to state honestly, “We had a problem, and we fixed it.” Now it is entirely possible a reporter knows more about a situation than you do, thanks to social media.

The pressure to reach a solution may be greater, but it is important to do your due diligence to ensure the solution is a good one, particularly if a staff member is involved. Taking action in haste can put the district at risk of legal liability.

You also might consider talking to a media consultant to help work through a problem. Our state school boards association has a relationship with such a consultant who is available whenever a sticky situation arises. Talk to your state superintendent or school boards association to learn if either has a similar arrangement.

Private Time
Probably the most difficult task is learning to disconnect from all aspects of work when you have time off. With the explosion of electronic media, we all suffer from information overload, and our downtime often is not appreciated for what it is — a time to recharge and get away from the daily hustle-bustle of our work.

One superintendent I know shuts off his BlackBerry on Friday evening and doesn’t turn it back on until Monday morning. He doesn’t check e-mail, and his staff knows to contact him at home only in an emergency. His school board chair has his home phone number, along with an understanding he will call only if the issue can’t wait until Monday. This obviously resulted from a conversation with his board detailing the expectations of everyone involved.

I suggest you have a similar conversation with your board. 

 

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