4 Lessons Learned from a School District’s Social Media Controversy

Most public agencies take a conservative approach and stick to fact-based messages, while some of the most successful on social media are going edgier. Which is best?

by / January 31, 2017

We have all seen how one tweet can set off a firestorm. That’s why most public agencies take a conservative approach on social media and stick to fact-based messaging. On the other hand, many of the most successful agencies on social media are those that are pushing the edge.

What should your agency do? Let's take a look at Maryland's Frederick County Public Schools, which had to make this exact choice recently when its newly hired social media manager took an edgier approach on social media. It all started when a student tweeted the school district’s official Twitter account asking if school would be closed “tammarow.” The district Twitter account responded by correcting the student’s grammar in a playful (or what could be considered snarky) tone:

This message went viral, garnering more than 1,000 retweets and 1,000 likes, and spawned an internal controversy about the approach being taken by the district’s Web experience coordinator, Katie Nash. The district ultimately decided to fire Nash.

It is important to recognize that these situations can happen to anyone, and we are not here to criticize Nash or the school district’s decision to let her go. Nonetheless, there is a lot to learn from this situation as more and more school districts adopt social media. Here are a few.

1. Agree on tone as an agency

Was Nash’s tone appropriate for a school’s social media account? That decision depends on both the audience and the internal stakeholders, and it’s possible that Nash took the tone too far too soon. At the same time, we have seen other school districts leverage authenticity and humor very effectively. Wake County Public School System’s Twitter account is a perfect example:

And in Nash's case, several students wrote supportive tweets for her, using hashtags such as #freekatie, which suggests that her tone might have been appropriate all along.

2. Training is a necessity

In the case of Frederick County Public Schools, it seems like adequate training was not provided. Nash was new to this role and may have needed more guidance. At minimum, there should have been a regular feedback loop between Nash and her boss. Perhaps she could have asked for her initial responses to be “pre-approved” before publishing, to ensure that her boss was comfortable with her approach.

3. All stakeholders must be comfortable with the approach to social media

Tone is just one aspect of your approach to social media and communications. It is helpful to share examples of other similar agencies with your stakeholders ahead of time to set expectations, and to help them understand the level of authenticity and personality often infused in social media communications. If a social presence is new for your agency, you may need to start off conservatively and build up the personality as you get to know your audience. You might also institute a reporting process to help higher-ups understand how your approach is resonating with the target audience over time.

4. Never, ever delete your official communications without archiving first

Frederick County Public Schools ultimately decided to delete the tweet in question, as well as other communications from the official Twitter account. They presumably did so to prevent further liability, but those actions can actually have the exact opposite effect if proper records are not kept. To start with, it is well established across the country that social media communications are subject to state and local public records laws, such as the Maryland Public Information Act. Given that these communications were related to school closure and involved answering questions from the public, it is possible that they required further retention. Furthermore, a legal situation related to these circumstances could necessitate the production of records.

Ultimately, the use of social media by Frederick County Public Schools and other school districts is a very positive trend, and scenarios like these will help us learn and improve from each other. What else have you learned from this situation?

Anil Chawla
Anil Chawla is the founder and CEO of ArchiveSocial, a civic tech company that specializes in risk mitigation and open records management of government social media. The parent company of Government Technology is an investor in ArchiveSocial through e.Republic Ventures.