Newtown and Social Media

We all feel helpless. And we certainly remember feeling the same way during Columbine, 9/11, Aurora and countless other events in recent memory that took far too many lives in an instant. Today, when people feel helpless, many of us turn to social media. Some to argue and provoke. Others simply to vent and be heard.

Laurie Ruettimann, who writes a blog called The Cynical Girl, posted an item the other day noting that even with its many drawbacks, social media “knits the world together” during a crisis. At the same time, many have noted that social media is little more than a community bulletin board. We post, but we do little.

So I want to take this opportunity to focus on how a number of people have turned to social media after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, to do one thing: make a difference.

  • Brian Mauriello, a near-lifetime resident of Newtown, established the Newtown Memorial Fund within hours of the tragedy, creating a website, Facebook page and Twitter feed to accept donations for the purpose of building a memorial playground in honor of the Sandy Hook victims. He has already applied for 501c3 status and has named a board of directors that includes an accountant, an attorney, a member of the police force, a public school teacher and others. Mauriello’s six-year-old son attends a different elementary school in Newtown.
  • On Twitter, NBC News correspondent Ann Curry launched #26ActsofKindness, encouraging people to perform acts of kindness in memory of Newtown’s 26 victims, and share what they accomplished on Twitter. The movement has spread, with thousands of people tweeting their acts of kindness. Beth Steinberg, for example, tweeted this: “Just paid the school fees for 26 children with AIDS in Mombasa, Kenya.” And Heather Fournie sent this tweet out: “Just left dinner for two at Applebee’s for a town police officer on his car.”
  • The Emilie Parker Fund Facebook page was created by friends of the six-year-old victim’s family to raise money for their expenses through a fund set up with a credit union in Utah, where Emilie was born. Since the page was created on Dec. 14, more than 322,000 fans have joined.
  • Ryan Kraft, a former Sandy Hook Elementary School student, turned to, a popular crowdfunding site, to create a Sandy Hook Elementary School Victims Relief Fund page. Kraft hopes the fund will support the victims, families and all others affected locally by the shooting, and the funds will be donated directly to the school’s PTSA. So far, Ryan has raised $103,170.
  • Earlier this week, Colette Connolly of my staff posted a message on my Facebook page about how the Connecticut PTSA is asking people to make paper snowflakes and send them to Newtown. The snowflakes will be used to decorate every corner of Chalk Hill Elementary School, when Sandy Hook students move in there in late January. I posted the information on my page and suggested that our district hold a snowflake-making day. On Monday, Jan. 7, our employees will be dropping in at our Snowflake Central to try their hand at making hundreds of paper snowflakes that will be boxed up and sent to Newtown. And NSPRA colleague Jim Cummings, a Facebook friend, posted that same idea on the Glendale (AZ) Elementary School District Facebook page, where he works. The snowflakes have gone viral.

No doubt, we have all read posts about gun control and revamping the way we treat mental illness in this country. But instead of using social media to simply yell from the rooftops, some people are using it to take concrete, lasting action.

How our community’s mass shooting changed my mind about Twitter

This week’s shooting at the Clackamas Town Center mall happened in the heart of our school district.

One of our students was shot and remains in serious condition. Another student’s uncle was killed. Untold numbers of our students, staff and their families were among the 10,000 holiday shoppers and employees in the mall at the time of the incident. Our community remains in shock.

Before the shooting, I figured I had my social media bases covered with Facebook. I wasn’t sure I needed Twitter. After the shooting, I changed my mind.

Here’s why.

Twitter is now a mainstream information source:
In the first hour of a crisis, information gathering is key. Much was rumor, but some was fact. Twitter was a go-to source for breaking news, with sources ranging from the Sheriff’s office to the news media. During and after the mall shooting, a lot of information we needed first surfaced on Twitter.

Twitter is a research tool:
Following the event hash tag (#ClackamasShooting), I was able to tweet a personal question to a friend of a victim on Twitter. She confirmed the identity of the injured survivor, our student.

Twitter is where teens live:
If our students are there, we need to be there, too. One of our students posted inappropriate comments about the incident on his Twitter feed. Many respondents were angry, and made threats against him. Knowing this, we were able to have district staff and his friends contact him immediately. They urged him to make a public apology and then to log off.

Twitter is a lifeline:
With 10,000 people in the mall at the time of the shooting, people across our community used this tool to get quickly in contact with loved ones. Whether they discovered their loved ones had safely left the building or were protected by the lock down, they were relieved to hear the news quickly.

Twitter is a rumor mill:
This is the way to find out what the community is saying and feeling during an incident. What better place to correct misinformation than at the place where rumors spread?

Responding to this situation, we used all the tools in our toolbox, including auto-dial phone calls, parent emails, Facebook, the website, our list serve and the telephone.

Twitter was our tool of choice for on-the-go, up-to-the-minute information and rumor control in an evolving situation. I need this tool. The next step is to use it more to master the medium and explore new ways to use it.  I encourage you to do the same.

Social media during a tragedy: How your students give you an advantage

Social media is now. Especially during a crisis. For school districts, that is intensified with hundreds and even thousands of students tweeting away during an event. While the idea of a tragedy trending in a matter of minutes is scary to some, including superintendents and school boards, it is crucial that school PR pros know how to use the tools at hand.

Recently, Hutto ISD dealt with the death of a student by suicide. While the district respected the family’s wishes not to share the details without permission, the student body and community were under no such obligation. Within hours, students created a hashtag memorializing the student and by the following day, it was trending on Twitter in the region. In very short order, users had shared condolences, spread rumors and organized a grassroots vigil in front of the high school after school. Despite the district’s best efforts to redirect students to an off-campus location, Twitter had ensured thousands of students would descend on the front driveway of the campus at 6 p.m. that night.

Rather than stand by, overwhelmed with thousands of tweets going out by the minute, and rather than taking away student’s cell phone privileges during school, Hutto ISD and the high school principal did something creative: they asked the students for help. The Hutto HS principal, the superintendent and I worked out an alternate location, and before lunch, we gathered student body leaders. We explained the difficult reasoning behind not allowing the vigil on campus, offered the alternative and asked the group to share that with their friends via Twitter. Within hours, much of the student body understood the district’s painful decision and willingly moved the gathering to the church – where they had adult supervision and support.

Whether or not your district is on Facebook or has its own Twitter account, social media awareness and management is essential during critical times. Here are five tips that can help ensure you are prepared online and offline.

Update your crisis plan
It is important to understand the pervasive nature of social media tools and include how you will use, monitor and respond to posts of Facebook and Twitter. Be sure it is in your plan. Also, be sure the district has identified who is responsible for posts on behalf of the district.

Monitor, monitor, monitor
Know what is going out. Simple searches related to your issue, including your school name, initials, a student name or the type of problem will usually pull up enough to get you to the bulk of posts.

Know when to turn it off
Even the most transparent district needs to prevent an open forum for comments at times. If you have a Facebook page, don’t be afraid to disable commenting for a short time during a highly sensitive event to protect families or students until facts are at hand.

Ask for help
When it comes to social media, your students are the quickest way to get information out or corrected. Don’t be afraid to pull a responsible, respected group of students and get them to tweet and share information the district needs to get out. It empowers them and helps the district.

Follow up
Be sure you follow up after the event to monitor residual effects that might have arisen. Consider it an after-action debrief.