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.

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