Communicating and connecting with social media [excerpt]

Let’s get something straight, y’all:  While social media spaces are consuming an increasingly large percentage of our days—61 percent of all Americans report spending at least 6 hours a month connecting, sharing, and networking online—schools still routinely ignore the potential for communicating and connecting in places like Facebook and Twitter.

How bad has it gotten?

Consider these stats:

  • 60 percent of Fortune 500 businesses are using social media spaces to reach out to customers.
  • 95 percent of colleges and universities are using social media spaces to reach out to customers.
  • 70 percent of school districts have policies that specifically ban social networking in schools.


Now don’t get me wrong:  I can understand why social media spaces scare school leaders.  The VAST majority of stories about school-based social media efforts are centered around disasters—students bullying each other, cyber-predators, or teachers making bad choices.

That’s just not good for building public support!

Here’s the thing, though:  Social media spaces—when used systematically—can be GREAT forums for building public support for our schools.  What’s more, they can make customized professional development opportunities possible—and affordable—for every teacher.

Those are the points Eric Sheninger , Jason Ramsden and I make in Essentials for Principals:  Communicating and Connecting with Social Media, a new Solution Tree title that’s due to hit bookshelves on May 19th.

We decided that it was time to start detailing the specific steps that schools can take to leverage the power of social media spaces in their work with adults.

While we believe that social media spaces have great potential to change the work we do with students, we focused our book on using social media spaces to change the way that schools reach out to parents and the way that teachers learn because those practices are safe and approachable.

Our hope is that as more educators explore social media spaces for communicating and connecting with one another, they’ll naturally look for ways to incorporate the lessons that they learn into their instruction.

Interested in seeing a short excerpt from the first chapter of our book, which details the way that innovative principals are using Twitter and Facebook to reach out important stakeholders in their communities?

Then keep reading!



Using Twitter to Build Your School’s Brand

The good news is that open-communication practices in a social media world don’t have to be intimidating. For principals, experiments in open communication typically begin with Twitter ( and Facebook (

These two services have been broadly em­braced across all social and technical profiles and make it possible to reach large audiences in the blink of an eye.

More importantly, they enable the kinds of two-way interactions that made Comcast a social media success story—and a characteristic of the communication practices that consumers have grown to expect from businesses and schools (National School Boards Association, 2007).

Twitter and Facebook provide principals with real-time tools that are far superior to traditional forms of communication.

Social media services paired with high rates of Internet connectivity allow multiple forms of information—web links, videos, audio files, images, text messages, and documents—to be delivered and consumed in multiple ways.

With almost no effort, principals can share compelling, detailed messages that are readily accessible from mobile devices, tablets, and computers connected to the Internet with their school communities.

Implementing Twitter as a Communication Tool

The most approachable and least-intimidating tool for principals interested in using social me­dia to connect with their communities is Twitter.

One of the most popular microblogging plat­forms, Twitter allows users to post short, 140-character text-based messages called tweets to a designated page on the Internet.

Tweets often point viewers to other web-based resources, provid­ing principals with the means to deliver real-time school information in a matter of seconds.

Since each tweet is limited to 140 characters—the average length of one well-written sentence—messages are easy to generate for busy administrators.

More importantly, updates to a school’s Twitter website—commonly called a Twitter stream—can be made from any device that has ac­cess to the Internet, enabling on-the-go communication. (See figure 1.1 for a visual.)

Principals using Twitter can always craft messages from traditional locations like their offices, but with cell phones, PDAs, or Internet-connected mobile devices, they can also begin messaging from the side­lines of the homecoming game, the back row of the band’s first concert, or the table with the win­ning entry in the school’s science fair.








Imagine using Twitter to immediately communicate the following to stakeholders.

  • Calendar reminders: The school year is full of important dates. Twitter can be used to remind parents and students of athletic and performance schedules, standardized testing dates, end of marking periods, upcoming holi­days, and school closings.
  • Celebrations: The school year is also full of ac­complishments. Sadly, publicly celebrating the successes of students and teachers can be hard to do in a timely fashion. Twitter allows immedi­ate announcements of great achievements to the entire community.
  • Helpful resources: Most parents would be happy to extend learning beyond the school day if they had the knowledge and skills needed to support their children. With Twitter, it’s easy to share links to valuable web-based resources on parenting, teaching, or the content being studied in your classrooms.
  • Decisions and details: Schools and the organizations that support them are constantly making decisions with far-reaching implications.

Boards of education pass new grading or promotion standards, parent-teacher organizations sponsor after-school programs or grade-level field trips, and booster clubs and educational foundations fund scholarships for struggling students.

Using Twitter to share these decisions spreads information quickly and makes the inner workings of your organization transparent to everyone.

Emergency updates: While principals never want to imagine scenarios for dealing with school-based emergencies, planning communication patterns before natural disasters or hu­man tragedies strike is a responsible practice.

Because Twitter updates can be posted from mobile devices, they can become a part of a comprehensive plan for easing community fears and getting messages out to parents and support professionals in emergency situations.

Getting Started With Twitter

For coauthor Eric Sheninger, using Twitter began by taking about five minutes to create a free account that communicated a bit of general information about his school.

Knowing that he first needed a username that would be easy for parents and students to remember, he chose NewMilfordHS. The NewMilfordHS Twitter account follows a clear naming structure that parents could probably guess even if they weren’t sure of the school’s Twitter name.

The direct address for New Milford’s Twitter stream,, is posted on the school’s website and shared in as many parent messages as possible.

The second step to making any school-based Twitter stream easy to find is filling out the simple bio information that Twitter publicly displays about each user.

Eric included a short sentence ex­plaining that NewMilfordHS is a Twitter stream for New Milford High School in Bergen County, New Jersey, so that the parents and students could be certain that they had landed in the right place when checking Twitter for updates.

To make the page stand out and to establish a brand presence, he used the school’s colors, mascot, and logo; he also provided a direct link to the school’s website.

Once a school’s Twitter account has been created, updates can be added at any time. In fact, Eric started posting messages immediately, trying to see just what he had gotten himself into.

Within minutes, he shared details about an upcoming parent night, a celebration of students on his school’s honor roll, and a link on parenting teenagers he thought his community might find interesting.

He explains, “To get that information on our traditional website would have taken a week’s worth of emails and action by two or three different staff members” (Sheninger, 2010c).

Principals using Twitter to reach out to the communities they serve, however, may discover that initial efforts to use Twitter as a tool for school-based communication are met with raised eyebrows.

While most of the adults in any community are likely to have heard of Twitter—re­cent studies estimate that 87 percent of Americans are aware of the service—only 7 percent of Americans actively use it (Webster, 2010).

Parents and other important stakeholders may see such efforts as fads until they are shown what communication in social media spaces looks like in ac­tion. Without convincing your community that your school’s Twitter stream is a valuable source of information, your work in Twitter will quickly become obsolete.


Excerpted from:

Ferriter, W, Ramsden, J, & Sheninger, E. (2011). Communicating and connecting with social media: Essentials for principals. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.