Post by: Kim Stephens
We 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: