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January/February 2012

Practical PR: Social media can offer a different conversation
by Faith Behr

Faith Behr owns Behr Communications, specializing in school public relations and public affairs. She is a former vice-president with the Illinois Chapter of the National School Public Relations Associations, and blogs and tweets on school public relations at and @faithbehr.

How many residents attend district board meetings? Forums? Informal meet-and-greets?

You may have seen attendance dwindling at these face-to-face events, but there’s another perhaps more powerful way to have a conversation with your constituents: social media.

Social media is an effective way to interact with time-strapped parents, residents and voters. You can share news, get a sense of what your constituents want and engage in a conversation. You can also share the complexities and nuances of board duties, champion a new program, help your audience make sense of complex material and get input for planning.

In the last year, many more school districts have boarded the social media bus, using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs and more.

With the ability to spread news faster than ever, it’s a medium many people have embraced. Yet, schools and boards can go beyond using the tools simply as marquees or bulletin boards that announce events and accomplishments.

It may be difficult to persuade some to jump into social media — the fear of negative feedback or unleashed criticism can be daunting. Yet, the positives are many.

Many conversations about your board and school district already are on Facebook and out in the “twitterverse.” If your district moderates those discussions with a trained administrator or PR professional, and provides rationale for its decisions, a much better understanding of board and staff work should result, creating more advocates for your schools.

In the public’s eye, isn’t it better to address criticism rather than to dodge it? Credibility can increase when district supporters — possibly your key communicators — jump into the conversation to defend or enlighten the critics. Beware however: credibility can also decrease if the criticism is not addressed with a well thought out response that follows the district’s mission, vision and goals. Reponses should always be well crafted with answers that come from the appropriate person, area or department.

When a single tweet retweeted puts the district’s and/or the board’s thoughts in front of thousands of people, you’re able to help set the agenda in the community conversation. With a school district’s willingness to be open with its constituents, the level of trust will undoubtedly go up.

Distinct uses

A district can converse with the community in different ways, depending on the social media used. Because board members and staff have different roles, their use of social media is bound to be different as well.

Using personal social media accounts to comment about job responsibilities and professional duties should be approached with some degree of caution. A November opinion by the Illinois Attorney General’s office ruled that “electronic communications pertaining to public business which are sent from or received by an electronic device owned by a member of a public body, rather than the public body itself, are public records which are subject to disclosure” under Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act. The conclusion was that what makes a record “public” is not determined by the devise used but “whether it was prepared in conducting the affairs of government.”

Within the confines of the Open Meetings Act, board members could tweet or post on Facebook how they prepare for a meeting, what they’re currently reading about education or relate their experiences at the school board conference. They should not, however, interpret this as a license to create or respond as an individual to board actions.

District staff, however, may have more latitude, whether they are using personal or district accounts. A band director could tweet about the challenges and gratefulness of preparing 200 students for a spring concert. A principal can tweet about attendance at a concert or athletic event, or reading to a first-grade class. For parents, these would be their eyes into the school. Or, an IT director could blog about the benefits of new parent connection software. An art teacher could upload photos of student creations to her art blog. The superintendent could ask staff members for thoughts via an internal social media platform.

Social media can advance and create awareness of specific brands or departments within the organization: think curriculum, human resources or individual schools. The district’s communications director could live tweet about actions or discussion during a board meeting. With proper notice and assistance from legal counsel, board members could hold a virtual forum on twitter to respond to questions. Photos of public, school-sponsored events could be posted on Facebook, asking others to do the same.

To communicate broad interests, or specific program and policy interests, think about an official school district account. Staff could upload video snippets of board members’ comments from a meeting on a key topic onto YouTube. An administrator might tweet or blog while adhering to a student schedule for the day. How better to see the challenges a student faces, how education has changed and the rigor of the curriculum?

Is this for us?

A communications professional can help the district determine which function will be most effective.   And each school district needs to determine which function works best for them and how it fits within district goals.

Social media in school districts are not without challenges. Clear policies and practices must be in place on how the platforms are administered and the difference between personal and professional personas. Check your district policy manual to see if the board has adopted a social media policy for staff, or contact IASB if the district needs help with sample policy language.

Plans and procedures need to outline what content is posted and by whom. Staff and users need to be trained, managed and monitored. Efforts should be measured and reworked and measured again.

In this way, school boards and school districts can connect with constituents in a unique and strong way.

And when you board the social media bus, also be prepared to listen.

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