This post is co-authored with Joel Gagne, the owner of Allerton Hill Consulting, a leader in communications & marketing for schools and public entities.
Public schools are keenly aware of the power of the mainstream media; a critical television segment or a laudatory newspaper article will be talked about in the hallways for days. But the landscape has shifted, and school leaders must embrace a new, growing reality: social media has become the source for breaking news.
School districts, because of budget constraints and the conservatism necessitated by intense public scrutiny, have often been slow to adopt new technologies. By now, it’s standard practice to have a website or – perhaps – a Facebook page or blog. But in general, schools are lagging when it comes to the most important social media channel when it comes to the dissemination of breaking news: Twitter.
Of course, there are reasons for districts to be wary. While many Americans were glued to their Twitter feed during the recent Boston Marathon bombings, it also became the locus (along with Reddit) of false rumors that were being spread. You can’t blame the platform for the incorrect information put out by some irresponsible users, but it does imply that any institution reliant on the public trust – like a school or school district – must proceed with caution.
But there are several reasons why school leaders can no longer afford to ignore Twitter. As the school year comes to a close and some of the day-to-day pressures subside for the summer, now is the time to create your account or – if you already have one – to refine your strategies about how you can best leverage it to reach students and their families.
First, nearly 130 million Americans now own smartphones – up a remarkable 7% since October alone, and a number that will only increase in the coming years. Twitter is tailor-made for a mobile world, allowing parents to receive relevant information on the go. More and more, this is how news will be transmitted: not in the morning paper or the evening news, but constantly and instantaneously. Schools can either dive in now, or struggle to catch up later on.
Second, many of us now live in a world of school choice, in which parents can shop amongst various public schools, charter schools, and private schools to find the best fit for their child. Districts can no longer sit back and assume their good work will speak for itself; they need to take an active role in ensuring families understand exactly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. A robust Twitter feed, like the one maintained by the Loveland City Schools in Ohio, is an easy way to keep parents informed. The district (a client of Joel’s) tweets several times a day, issuing invitations (meet the superintendent), providing logistical updates (event date changes), and sharing feel-good news stories (students making a philanthropic donation, new coaches being hired, partnerships with local businesses).
Third and finally, it’s a cost-effective and highly-targeted way to connect with your constituents. Monitoring your Twitter feed is an easy, all-in-one strategy for customer service (answering parents’ questions in the moment), media relations (the days of sending press releases are quickly coming to an end), and public affairs (if an elected official is talking about local schools, you want to know what they’re saying, and either thank them for it or quickly correct any misimpressions). Of the school districts on Twitter, many are still using it as a “broadcast medium,” blasting out news. The next frontier – where they’ll really begin to see value – is when they leverage it as the truly social tool it is, responding to and interacting with others.
Twitter must be a priority for schools, administrators and educators – not something to try only when you have time and it’s convenient. Twitter has proven itself to be one of the most formidable communication tools at an education professional’s disposal. If schools are serious about driving messaging, enlightening their community, and keeping the debate about education fresh, Twitter cannot be ignored.
Joel Gagne is a Visiting Scholar at the University of Michigan and the owner of Allerton Hill Consulting, a leader in communications, marketing, and social media for schools and public entities.
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on May 20, 2013.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.