Hey, Suze, I just drove past the high school, there’s a bunch of emergency equipment outside. I didn’t see any smoke, you think it’s a bomb? A shooter? I’m on my way to an appointment, but I wonder if I should go back, try to find out what’s going on?
No worries, Carol, I’m looking at the Facebook page now. It’s broken water pipes near the gym. Part of the school is closed down, they’re shuffling the kids to other classrooms. Just go on to your appointment, talk to you later, okay?
With a Facebook following that has doubled and redoubled in the past two years (increasing from 1,500 likes to more than 6,500), Virginia’s Roanoke City Public Schools, under the direction of Community Relations Coordinator Justin McLeod, have established the system’s social media outlets as the trusted, “go to” source for information. By building the community’s trust with open, daily communication, McLeod hopes that if Roanoke City ever does face a major crisis event, parents and the community know they can obtain the most accurate, current information from the school system, and thus won’t tie up bandwidth and air time searching for news (or rumors).
Using material McLeod gathers from daily visits to schools, Roanoke City posts lot of photos and “sneaks in a little information” to build a daily following for positive news. To date the district — which includes 17 elementary schools, five middle schools, four specialty schools and two high schools — has experienced only minor emergencies related to weather and non-serious school bus accidents. When those happen, it’s not surprising that a community with 13,313 students enrolled in the public school system generates intense social media traffic.
“We post our weather closings in English and in Spanish, via Twitter and Facebook, before we even call the local television stations. One of our weather-related postings drew 25,000 views. Sharing this information through social media has just taken off, and we’ve tried to use it to educate people about how we decide whether to close or delay school. We’ve given them sort of a behind the scenes look at things,” McLeod says. “As the winter went on — and it was a bad one — we started to see a shift in the comments. People were saying things like “that makes sense” and “thanks for explaining that.” It was a great way to use social media to educate parents. They now know we are the source for information and they go the Facebook page every day.”
McLeod learned about the importance of laying that foundation of trust through Roanoke City’s working with national school security experts, and through attendance at various educational conferences (including the summer 2014 National School Public Relations Association meeting, where Roanoke City won a publications and electronic media award). At that same conference, he also remembers hearing an example of what not to do in the event of a crisis: “There was a school that went into lockdown because of a serious bomb threat, and they sent a communication home saying it was because of a water main break. Once you’ve broken trust like that, you can never get it back. Superintendent Dr. Rita Bishop wants us to be as upfront as we can be with the parents, with the caveat that we’re sure it’s correct before we post it.”
The intense social media efforts have come about as a result of the district's newly created crisis communications plan. Roanoke City developed the plan with input from the consultant team, as were other measures that Roanoke City has put into place to help make its schools more secure: “We have taken what we were advised to do and we’ve actually done it. A lot of school systems ask for reports and then they sit on the shelf. When we got calls from the local news media after Newtown asking what we were going to do differently, we were able to tell them we already had security measures in place. At the same time, we began to hear a lot fewer complaints from visitors and greater appreciation for those security measures. At the end of the day, I don’t like having to plan for this kind of event, but it’s something we have to do.”
McLeod involved his counterparts from local public safety agencies in the school district’s planning efforts, and is grateful for Roanoke City’s strong relationships with local public safety and with local media. In addition to involving public safety agencies in communications planning, the school district held press conferences during consultant visits, and brought the media in to write about training for faculty and staff as it took place. Also, Dr. Bishop and Police Chief Chris Perkins have a strong working relationship, and a total of 14 school resource officers help patrol the district’s campuses.
And in the end, McLeod, like so many other school and law enforcement administrators across the country, hopes that none of these plans ever have to be implemented, but “if they do, my hope is that the community will know to come to us for information. We will be as open as we can, with the hope that people understand they may have to have patience. We won’t be trying to keep information from them, we’ll be gathering accurate information to post.”