Using social media to rescue kids

Social media is viewed by some as a frivolous time waster. What possible importance could it have? Quite a lot, it turns out. To a child in a dangerous situation, a social media post shared across communities could be life-saving.

Twice in the past year, our county sheriff’s office used social media to locate missing children in kidnap, runaway, or Amber Alert situations. They posted a news release explaining the situation, anonymous tip lines and photos of the child, the vehicle and the suspected abductor.

School district PR professionals, the media and individuals immediately shared the posts, so the news and photos spread quickly across our community. In each case, within 24 hours, the missing child was spotted, police were notified and the child was rescued.

Thanks to Twitter, Facebook and alert community members, Mariah, 14 months old, was removed from an abusive situation. And this week, 13-year-old Samantha was returned to her family.

The next time you see an official alert, do your part to pass it along, and urge colleagues in neighboring school districts to do the same. Taking this action could save a child.

I agree with the wise words of Fred Rogers: “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, “It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.” Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.” 

Consider expectations when using social media

Last month, storms blew across central Texas, causing dangerous flooding and evacuations in part of our town. Because many people do not have land lines, reverse 911 was not as effective as the city hoped, so Hutto ISD helped spread the word about evacuations, road closures and shelters with our all-call system and social media. Because of the severity and possibility of the loss of lives, school district officials assisted the city, and I monitored social media throughout the night and into the morning, answering as many questions as possible and updating parents as often as I could.

When the rains returned three weeks later, there were no evacuations or life-threatening floods and very few road closures; however, I was surprised at the negative feedback we received on our Facebook page regarding what parents perceived as a “lack of communication.”

While I value the communication bond I have built with our parents and community, parents’ expectations can sometimes be quite high, especially with the instant gratification social media provides. Because of our diligence in the first disaster, parents now expected we would routinely notify them of any road closures and provide weather updates throughout the night and weekend, regardless of whether if it affected the school or not, and they wanted it on Facebook. At all hours of the night. I didn’t realize there was an expectation that I now be the one to share the information.

Rather than ignore the expectation, I decided to use social media to help me meet and manage it. I shared with parents why the district shared the information, and I gave them resources to find the information and explained what our typical role is in any emergency situation. The result? Praise. We were congratulated for working so close with the city to help the community. We were thanked for sharing links to emergency notices. I even had a parent approach me at a restaurant and thank me for staying up for 35 hours – she said my phone call was the only one her sister received. Her sister’s house flooded.

I learned a valuable lesson when the rains came down. When sharing information, be mindful about whether it is your information to share. If it isn’t, be sure to clearly explain why you are sharing the information, lest you create unmanageable expectations from followers.

If you do create that expectation, try and figure out how to meet it. In this situation, the city was unable to reach affected neighborhoods and asked for the school district’s help. The result? We kept people safe and informed. And we identified a communication gap that our social media helped fill. I plan to work in partnership with the city to outline both of our avenues of communication and share that with parents.

Have you clearly outlined what parents can expect from your communications department? Are expectations impossibly high? Is it possible to work collaboratively with neighbors (city, fire, police) to meet the expectations of those with whom you communicate?