Facebook and the big snowstorm

Expecting yet another big snowstorm, school officials at the Williston Northampton School decided the wise thing to do would be to cancel classes the next day. They wanted to email different messages to the various constituencies–teachers, employees, students and parents–but first they needed to spend some time sorting through the different email lists and systems they used.

School administrators quickly discovered, though, that they were no longer in control of the “snow-day” message. While staff was busy doing maintenance on the school’s emergency notification email list, word got out via Facebook and soon parents were calling the dean of students to confirm that classes had been canceled.

Ironically, the school has a Facebook page, but adminstrators didn’t think of using it for the purpose of announcing a snow day. Once the email went out, officials did make an announcement on the school’s Facebook page and the weather crisis suddenly took a festive turn. Alumni left comments about snow days they remembered. The library posted a mystery picture with a snow theme. Someone wrote a blog about the snowstorm and students added their own comments.

Meanwhile, a few employees who didn’t receive the email from the school, showed up for work the next day.

Many educators are so busy putting out social media fires (cyberbullying, inappropriate remarks by teachers, hoax Facebook pages) that they forget social media doesn’t only have a dark side. It also can serve a school’s purposes quite well. What were once one-way communications from the school–classes are canceled because of the snow–become two-way (i.e. social media) conversations that bring the community closer.

In blogging about the experience, Andrew Shelffo, the school’s director of communications and marketing, draws several lessons about how he could improve the school’s communications system. http://www.edsocialmedia.com/2011/03/facebook-and-crisitunity/

I would add several lessons that everyone can take away about social media:

Controlling social media is like trying to control the weather. The snowstorm is going to happen whether or not you’ve planned mid-term exams or have the biggest basketball season of the year on the calendar. Social media is also going to happen with or without your consent and participation.

Social media can save you time and money. How much simpler it would be to post one announcement on a Facebook page rather than scurry around doing email blasts.

Social media isn’t just about cyberbullying and administrative headaches. It can even make your life easier and more pleasant by connecting with students and parents at unexpected times and in unexpected ways.

Your school looks frumpy if it’s not participating in social media. The “conversations” about you are already taking place. How much better it would be if you were leading the conversation rather than trailing behind it.

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