Tuscaloosa City Schools turn to Social Media after the storms.

One of several tornadoes observed by the VORTE...

Image via Wikipedia

Post by: Kim Stephens

Some school districts are finding that social media are great tools to distribute information to stakeholders: parents, staff, students, teachers, and members of the community. Some districts, however, have found that social media are sometimes the only way to communicate, particularly after a crisis. I have written about the experiences of the Joplin School District after a tornado destroyed a large portion of their town, and today I’d like to highlight a similar story from Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

As a bit of background, the April 27th tornadoes that struck in and around Tuscaloosa were part of a tornado outbreak that was one of the deadliest in the history of the United States. The storm destroyed 3 schools in the Tuscaloosa City School District and took out an area of town that housed the servers used to host the District’s website.  One staff member, Lesley Bruinton,  the District’s Public Relations Coordinator, sheltered in place with her daughter in her home’s bathtub. She received text messages from a friend regarding the storms’ location as well as information confirming that one school had been impacted “It’s gone” he texted. Her first order of business, after she climbed out of the tub, was to figure out how to keep the district’s stakeholders informed. She concluded that there was really only one answer: Facebook.

The District had dabbled in social media before the crisis, twitter was used by one person to announce school board meetings. But the district policy strictly limited access to social media and, like a lot of school districts, the IT department had put up a firewall preventing  access to those sites–even for personnel responsible for community relations. As soon as Lesley could get to the office she went straight to the Acting Superintendent to ask permission to have the wall taken down.  The Superintendent issued a directive to have it removed and said something  along the lines of “If necessary, we’ll ask for forgiveness later from the school board.” (The Board of Education  did bless their activities in an emergency meeting the following day and gave the Acting Superintendent authority to do whatever she deemed necessary.)

Since they had not been using social media, and therefore had no formal policies in place, they quickly came up with some rules of the road. They assigned 8 people administrator rights and decided that members of the community would be allowed to post to the wall, a conscious decision designed to encourage dialogue and openness.

Astonishingly, the school system decided to get the city’s school children back to class only one week after the storm.  Enough space and empty classrooms were found to accommodate the children from the three damaged schools, but teachers insisted on having the rooms looking spiffy in order to provide a comfortable environment for the potentially traumatized students. This meant they needed volunteers. 
People in the community were very willing to assist, but the first Sunday after the storm they found the distribution of volunteers somewhat uneven, leaving one school without anyone slated to help. In order to address this problem, Lesley put up a message on facebook and literally, within 20-30  minutes, almost 80 people showed up. 

Within one week of opening the page they had 1500 fans. Lesley indicated that she knew from personal experience that people were accessing the information from their smart phones. Even if people’s homes had been damaged and they might not have access to computers–they still had their phones. There was  a lot information that had to be conveyed; bus routes were disrupted, of course, and students were moved to new buildings–essentially they accomplished rezoning the school district in a week! The rapid means of communicating through social media helped facilitate the process and also allowed for important questions from the community to be answered in a timely manner.

Their facebook page also became an interesting outlet for students. Older students started up a mini-petition right on the page, protesting the quick return to school. I inquired as to why students were allowed to vent on the district’s page, and her attitude was quite refreshing. Essentially, the district didn’t feel that the comments were harmful in any way, so they simply left them there. They did not, however, engage the ranting-students in an argument about the decision for a quick return. Pretty cool, I think. They were more concerned about questions or postings about specific student’s well-being, mindful of privacy concerns.

The district is now fully committed to social media and even has a blog. They also determined early on that one of the best ways to accept donations, which were pouring in due to national media attention, was to put the information right on the facebook page. Lesley tells how they were able to utilize volunteer-technical skills:

“The Tuesday after the storm, when a contact with the Alabama Department of Tourism emailed to determine whether or not I was okay, I immediately called her and said I was looking for needed someone to develop a FB app for me for free for donations since we didn’t have the staff to do that.  Within, three minutes of that phone, I received the email [with the app instructions].  By lunchtime, I had the app up and running.”

With the app in place they opened a paypal account to accept monetary donations and put a  “donate” tab on the page.

I’m sure they have many lessons that they learned from this experience, but these are my take-aways:

  1. Don’t limit your staff’s ability to communicate with the public by putting up firewalls.
  2. Incorporate redundant systems into your emergency communications plan.
  3. Practice like you fight: if you think you might have to use social media in a crisis, then use it in your daily communications.
  4. Remember, social media are SOCIAL, they can become a  forum to discuss issues, which can be cathartic after a crisis.
  5. Social media allow for a fairly easy way to organize donations and volunteer activities.

Lesley has this advice for other school districts:

  • don’t be afraid to get your feet wet in social media
  • be willing to take the (online) critique
  • show restraint in online engagement (it’s not going to change opinions, people feel freer to vent online and will say things in that forum that they would never say to a principal or superintendent’s face).
  • be quick to post information (e.g. break the media filter)
  • have someone who understands social media to be point person…making the office techophobe in charge leads to information getting out too slowly, due to too much second guessing
  • provide planned, timely, and resourceful information…drivel leads to people blocking your content, or unfriending/unfollowing you
  • post regularly…seldom posting habits lead to dropping out of newsfeeds.  I consider this the top of mind thing.

Thank you to Lesley for her contribution to this article. We are all thinking about you and your community as you continue on the path to recovery.

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