Practical PR: How Board Members Can Play It Safe on Social Media
By Faith Behr
In February, an Iowa school board member faced calls to resign over a social media post about parents’ role in education. She had said on Facebook, “The purpose of a public ed is not to teach kids what parents want. It is to teach them what society needs them to know. The client is not the parent, but the community.”
In another example, a board member in Washington state was accused of violating the Open Meetings Act when, via a private Facebook chat during executive session, she queried members of a local Facebook group about their thoughts on a superintendent candidate.
The beauty, and curse, of social media, is that it’s a powerful force as a communications tool. The potential of social media for school board members is great. It can foster community engagement and help create school spirit and further the goals of the district. At the same time, there can be an enormity of damage caused on social media, because anything can escalate in any way. Certainly, elected officials have the First Amendment right to use social media to advocate and engage in their own expression. I don’t argue with that, but do offer suggestions on how to play it safe on social media when you’re serving on the board of education.
- Know your district’s policies. Be aware of your district’s social media policy, acceptable use policy, and no photo policy — and strictly adhere to them. If you’re using a district-issued device, you are required to adhere to the district’s acceptable use policy.
- Know the law. Study FOIA and the Open Meetings Act and learn about Faith’s Law, the new law that went into effect in 2022 about taking and possessing a photo or video of a student;
- In your bio, clarify that you are an individual member of the board and not an official spokesperson for the district.
- Don’t mimic the district’s official, branded social media account; in other words, don’t use the district’s logo or image in your cover or profile photo.
- Be cautious with your content. Is this post something that you’d mind seeing on the front page of the newspaper? Similarly, don’t post content that is too political or controversial while you hold a position on the board. Obviously, anything can be twisted or escalated in a thousand different ways but the less partisan or political the post, the less likely you will be called out for your social media content.
- Play it safe by sharing official district news, encouraging sports teams, or celebrating student events. Another safe practice is not to engage in a conversation about board business or school topics on social media’s private messaging platforms, e.g. Facebook Messenger.
- Do not deliberate school district business on social media. If there is a need to restate what happened at a board meeting, clarify that your post is not an official record and share only open portions of the meeting.
- When there’s a complaint online or you’re tagged on social media with a complaint, direct the individual to the appropriate administrator.
- Avoid posting opinions that indicate that you have already formed an opinion on a pending issue before the board.
- Be careful about posting other people’s content or retweeting other users. Do a little re-search on the user before your hit the retweet button.
- Soliciting input or opinions from others on social media might be tempting for board members, but don’t allow social media to take over your decision-making authority. Community input should be sought through appropriate district channels.
- Post district or school-related content that the district has already released to the public. Never post information considered confidential by law.
- Do not use any online communications (including social media private messaging) as a ve-hicle to communicate with other board members outside of meetings; there’s the risk of violating the Open Meetings Act and could be subject to FOIA.
- Report to the district any potential security breach if you lose your district-issued or per-sonal electronic device through which confidential district records could be accessed.
- As leaders in the community, board members’ voices carry a lot of weight. That’s why it’s important that board members adhere to common-sense guidelines before they consider getting into social media.