Keeping the Lines of Communication Open: Atlanta Public School’s Long Snow Day

Post by: Kim Stephens

large_12197276904We had a light dusting of snow last night and schools are closed today in my county. I’m guessing there are some officials in Atlanta wishing they had made the same decision yesterday before snow and ice paralyzed the city‘s roadways. Although they tried to dismiss school early the traffic was so horrific some buses were unable to get children home and instead had to return them to school. Parents who normally pick up their children were stuck in traffic eerily reminiscent of scenes from the Atlanta-based series The Walking Dead. A shelter-in-place order was issued after 10:00 pm last night and about 452 staff and students spent the night in several different ATL public school buildings.

This situation could be any public communicator’s nightmare scenario. However, the Atlanta Public School’s communications team provided a master class in emergency information dissemination, mainly through their @apsupdate (or Atlanta Public Schools Update) Twitter account. Here are a few things they did well.

1. Addressed parents questions and concerns directly

I have heard quite a few communicators debate whether or not they should address direct questions since it could overwhelm staff and bog down the message they are trying to convey. However, in this situation, the decision to address each person was the only logical choice–ignoring parents’ questions could have been its own disaster.

2.  Addressed rumors–immediately

It is a good/best practice to directly address people that are disgruntled or spreading half-true information. The Tweet below demonstrates this tactic. It appears a couple of kids got into a kerfuffle at one of the sheltering schools and were escorted to the office. Once person stated on Twitter “…fights are breaking out!” The Tweet was outlandish and ATL Public School communicators pointed out that not only was the person incorrect, but were needlessly causing concern.

3. Communicated tirelessly

When children are kept in school buildings overnight without their parents I’m guessing not a lot of people are getting a good-night’s rest. This was true for the communications team as well. Indeed, the Twitter feed for the district was active all night, for example, at 2:00 a.m. they addressed an upset parent that was concerned about building security.

In the morning they addressed a high school student that said she was cold:

As the new day began, they addressed a flood of questions and sent out reminders that school was canceled.

4. Used multiple platforms and allowed venting

The school district used both Twitter and Facebook to post school closure and the shelter-in-place information. Not surprisingly, parents were a TAD upset that their children could not get home and were quite unrestrained in their comments, especially on Facebook–calling for administrators to be held accountable, etc. It appears some Facebook comments may have been deleted by the district, however, that mistake was acknowledged or at least addressed. This interaction occurred on their page:

  • Yup. They deleted one of my comments which was not irate, no bad language, nothing. I simply called out the truth – they did not take our children, teachers or parents safety into consideration at all.
  •  Atlanta Public Schools Dana McElwee Carnahan we rarely, if ever delete posts. We value social media and interaction and maintain a robust FB and Twitter presence. Feel free to post again.
5. Social Media is integrated into their Website and Blog
Screenshot 2014-01-29 09.49.29Although the decision to incorporate social media posts into their blog and website was done well before the storm, it certainly can pay dividends during a disaster or emergency.  Websites are still one of the most popular go-to resources for community members: not everyone engages on social media (shocking, I know).  Integration, however,  provides an opportunity for non-social media users to read real-time interactions during the height of the event and participate if they are interested. By prominently displaying these feeds it also reminds community members that their social accounts are active.
Although the Atlanta Public Schools decision-making process regarding closures will probably be questioned in the months to come, the communications team should be praised for their very hard work during this event (which is still ongoing at time of writing).  Not only did they step up during the storm to provide parents and community members with the latest information, they were obviously prepared to do so by having systems and processes in place.  That level of advanced planning is truly a lesson worth noting.

7 responses to “Keeping the Lines of Communication Open: Atlanta Public School’s Long Snow Day

  1. I have a child in APS and I agree with your favorable report. I commend you for calling attention to the good work of the communications team for the school system. I also support our Democratic Mayor and our Republican Governor, both of whom are working hard to deal with this situation. The national media can criticize all they want. The weather forecasts were inaccurate. (I don’t blame the forecasters either. It is not possible to predict the weather with 100% accuracy.) I’m proud to be an Atlantan, especially in light of the individual efforts of all of our citizens to help neighbors in need.

    • Thank you for your comment. The public information officers, of course, were not responsible for deciding whether or not schools were open or closed, however, they are having to deal with the aftermath including angry parents and media attention. I think they did a fabulous job given the situation.

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more. The communication team for APS was diligent in their efforts to maintain constant communication with parents, faculty and students. The fact that they were actively responding to comments on all social media platforms is really something to appreciate. My favorite part is their response to the tweet about fights breaking out. They responded so bluntly and effectively: “Don’t cause panic.” APS comprehensive use of social media did a great job of controlling the situation, which could’ve been a lot worse all things considered.

  3. Thank you Kim for the article. That was a long night filled with ups and downs but we did our best to keep our families informed and calm…even if our own nerves were on edge. Not only do I manage communications, I’m an APS mom as well – everything I do is from the perspective of a parent first. I am so proud that our district allows candid interaction between the downtown office and the public. We owe it to our stakeholders to be available and transparent 24/7. Again, thanks for the positive piece!
    Tammy Garnes, Director of New Media Communications

    • Thanks for your comment Tammy. I think your philosophy of openness is a breath of fresh air. I hope other school districts and public organizations can learn from your example.

  4. Interesting article on how schools use social media is used to communicate to outside parties. With all the incidents around schools do you think it is plausible that more schools around the country will begin to use Twitter and Facebook to update parents and others on school activities? This scenario could be applied for the Newton shootings in which Connecticut emergency responders couldn’t access the school because parents and cars were in the way

    • kim26stephens

      Thanks for you comment. Yes, schools can benefit from using social media and quite few are doing just that. They find, however, that two-way communication can be challenging at times. For instance, one school district in Dallas stopped using Facebook when comments from students and their parents became ridiculous. It is a bit of a pandora’s box–however, in times of a disaster, this type of tool can be a true life-line.

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