Call it chance, if you will: I encountered two well-written stories this week, both of which treat the theme of a communications strategy vis-a-vis social media.
The first appeared in the May/June edition of The Trustee's Letter. Rhonda Durham, executive director of the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest (ISAS), writes in "It's Gone Viral" about the notion of "scandal" in a school community, and the associated spread of that scandal through the various channels of a school's constituencies. She refers to gossip and rumor as "electronic missiles," which can "emerge in blogs, community chat rooms, even national media and courtrooms. Thus, perhaps now more than ever, an embarrassing event may spark an urge to manage the content and circulation of the story."
What is not treated overtly, however, is the role of social media as part of what truly makes the issue "viral." In fact, I would submit that the scandal is far more likely to be spread by means of Twitter and Facebook (and other social media in that same vein) than by blogs, email, or community chat rooms. Twitter and Facebook are akin to accelerants placed on an already-burning fire. There ought to be an entirely separate article on the true viral nature of message-spreading. Please understand that Durham's focus is NOT on what kind of media are used to spread the message, but rather on what the school's true role is in dealing with scandal. It is a very insightful piece, and you ought to read it sooner rather than later. I commend it to you.
Enter Andrew Hill, whose weekly column "On management" in the Financial Times (May 15, 2012) touches on this very theme. The opening sentence reads, "Last Thursday I was, briefly, head of communications for a large Canadian widget maker, coping with a wave of Twitter-borne rumours about the arrest of its chief executive." Happily, though, it was a simulation. What a great idea -- a virtual exercise that the PR firm put the company through in order to give it some hands-on experience in handling this kind of crisis. (Schools would benefit from such a thing...) He then highlights the irony that, while this simulation was occurring, a real event was happening between two beverage companies. It was "amplified through Twitter, Facebook, and other online media."
To make a long story short, Hill draws attention to the nature of the "media relations crisis," showing (rather convincingly) that the tactics and the stand-off itself turned out to be rather traditional, meaning that the social media participation didn't change the actual nature of the crisis. I like his point, and there is instruction in there for schools.
What is remarkable about the beverage stand-off, from my point of view, is that a young upstart beverage company was able to disrupt (rather seriously) a well-ensconced, elder company with a global presence. What's more, that global company has a strong social media presence and savvy, on which they pride themselves quite openly. However, that strong presence was unable to handle the upstart's attempt to start a mini-campaign via social media within the space of mere days.
Social media = speed and agility, when it comes to potential communications issues for a school. There is much that is positive for schools, when it comes to social media, but the potential negatives should be planned for. And so, I return to Hill's tale of the PR simulation.
We ought to be simulating those kinds of events, then share the results of those simulations with fellow schools, so that we all acquire those needed skills.
So I ask: what is your school's social media communications strategy?