Social Media

3 Responses When Posts Get Mean-Spirited
By HOWARD C. CARLSON/School Administrator, November 2019

A FRIEND IN ANOTHER school community was telling me recently about the nasty social media posts on Facebook and Twitter that were being written by parents and community members related to proposed school boundary changes in her school district.

The superintendent was being vilified over the issue, which the district had to undertake to balance the enrollment sizes of the schools. Some of the comments and questions were appropriate, but many were designed to tear down the superintendent rather than address the issue at hand. Sadly, this has become the norm in the open forum of social media.

Based on my own experiences and observations from other districts, I’ve developed three tips for my fellow superintendents to consider when their social media feeds turn mean.

» ANALYZE THE POST. Is this coming from an upset parent who needs more information to better understand the issue or an individual simply attempting to “stir the pot”? The pot stirrers will exaggerate the issue, make things personal by targeting individuals and often spread misinformation. It makes no sense to engage the pot stirrer. Either ignore the post, take it down or report it to law enforcement if it mentions an act of violence. It may be a natural inclination to respond in these situations, but in my experience this becomes a never-ending, back-and-forth exchange absent any resolution.

Alternatively, if the post points to an upset individual from your community who sticks to the issue and makes cogent arguments, you may want to reach out to see if better understanding or clarity can be achieved.

» ESTABLISH SOCIAL MEDIA GUIDANCE. Individuals who join the school district’s forums should be made aware of posting guidelines (I can share examples that we use) and the range of actions that will be considered if the guidelines are not followed. The goal is to provide clarity regarding the tenor and tone of postings that will be allowed on the school district’s social media sites.

Superintendents should run a draft of the social media guidelines (and the consequences) by their legal counsel prior to making them available to parents and the public. You want to be on solid legal ground before taking this step.

Districts use several methods to inform the public of their social media guidelines. One method is to develop a guidelines page on the district’s website. A link to the page then can be offered as part of parent and community communications, ensuring all are informed of what is considered acceptable. 

Other options are to post the guidelines on the district’s social media sites or place the information in the “about us” section of those apps. Regardless of the option selected, by placing the information on the social media site itself, any user searching the app will easily find the district’s guidelines.

» SET UP A SOCIAL MEDIA TEAM. Whoever manages the district’s social media accounts would chair this body, otherwise made up of parents and community members with an interest in protecting factual accuracy about the schools and their operations. Team members should be frequent social media users who are always on the lookout for false, misleading or inappropriate posts. As such posts are identified, the team quickly mobilizes online or through other means of communication to discuss solutions for correcting the record.

A Thick Skin
We should acknowledge, while we inevitably will receive criticism, social media is a great communication tool. As such, we must maintain as open a forum as possible. In other words, if we are going to post positive information about our schools and district, we also must be open to dialogue, debate and disagreement. Even our close supporters would want that.

The public expects us to listen and respond to their comments, especially negative comments, about our proposals and actions, and in most cases that poses no problem. We ought to be prepared for this by developing a thick skin and putting in place safeguards to protect ourselves and others. We must be accepting of opposing views, but we need not allow misinformation or personal bashing on our social media platforms.

HOWARD CARLSON is superintendent of the Wickenburg Unified School District in Wickenburg, Ariz. Twitter: @HowardCarlson2. This column is adapted from his blog Accelerated Leadership Wisdom.