In early 2011, a crisis reinforced for the Los Angeles Unified School District the urgency of establishing a strong social media platform to communicate with its external and internal audiences.
As police officers searched for a suspect in what was initially thought to be the attempted murder of a fellow officer, nearby middle and high schools in the west San Fernando Valley went on lockdown for hours. Hundreds of students were confined to their classrooms, unable to leave even to get food or go to the bathroom.
The combination of fast-moving events and the release of sometimes incomplete or inaccurate information to the media, which was covering the event live, intensified parents’ concerns. But this time, they had another way of gathering information.
On this day, the schools involved wisely waived their rules prohibiting the use of cell phones in class, enabling students to reassure parents that they were OK and to detail what was happening. Many families later indicated that social media was a source of relief during the crisis.
When Dr. John Deasy took over as LAUSD’s superintendent a few months later, he approved the hiring of a full-time social media director — the first in the district’s history. Deasy recognized the need for an enhanced social media presence, not only to improve crisis communications but also to provide a more efficient means of relaying vital news to stakeholders.
After having spent a number of years as a TV news reporter covering new technology and social media, I was hired in March 2012 to fill that role. I quickly learned that it wouldn’t be easy to get the nation’s second-largest school district to engage with social media. Some departments and individual staff members had made preliminary strides in incorporating social media into their communication plans, but the district lacked a strategy.
Consequently, my first task, as I saw it, was to help my colleagues become comfortable with the idea of using social media. I immediately set up meetings in which I demonstrated how to use these tools and suggested ways in which they could lead to vast improvements in both external and internal communications.
To their credit, most of the staff with whom I have worked have quickly overcome their fear and hesitation about social media. The changes in attitude and use have been so profound, in fact, that I can say with confidence that LAUSD is on its way to becoming a truly social media–savvy district.
I’m now fielding constant requests from individual schools and various district offices to post news on our Facebook page and Pinterest page or via Twitter (@LASchools). We also produce a weekly news update for our YouTube channel and kicked off the new school year with a blog, to which all departments contribute. And LAUSD’s crisis communications plan has been revamped to include a prominent role for social media.
Having an active social media component also prepares teachers and administrators to better communicate with students. We’ve received many comments from both parents and teachers, thanking us for providing more transparency and opportunities for dialogue via social media.
Although LAUSD was the first major urban school district in the United States with a full-time social media director, we’ve advised others that are following in our footsteps. The need is too great to be ignored.
This past spring, the Los Angeles Unified School District polled stakeholders to measure their feelings about social media. Of the online survey’s 5,888 respondents, 80 percent strongly agreed or agreed that the district would be more effective if it used social media to plan events; 80 percent said use of social media would improve community outreach; and 77 percent said it would be useful for issuing school safety alerts.
Review the full results of LAUSD’s Social Media Survey on the school district's Tumblr.