It's a matter of being where our patrons are. We find that our best communication method is not newsletters going home or even the phone system any more. —Ben Horsley, communications director
SOUTH SALT LAKE — No one likes going back to school after a holiday break, but one Utah school district took to Twitter on Wednesday to diffuse complaints after classes resumed.
Granite received a series of tongue-in-cheek jabs from Twitter users over its decision to hold classes on Jan. 2. But rather than let the messages quietly disappear into the void of the Internet, communications director Ben Horsley, who manages the Granite District Twitter account, decided to respond in kind.
"Who will start a protest on school with me this week???" wrote Andrew Pricey from the Twitter handle @pricey_21. "Cancel school or all hell breaks lose."
The district's reply: "That might make it warmer :)".
When Koby Hyde, or @JimmerRange7, asked "What the heck! Who starts school the day after New Years," Horsley stayed optimistic.
"Just think ...," Horsley wrote. "Summer is closer!"
And when Denny Nguyen, or @HickoryBaconBoy, suggested that students spend the day playing games and having a pizza party, Horsley replied: "Sweet! You buying?"
Horsley said the tweets match the casual tone the district has often adopted for school district meetings and other announcements. Government processes can sometimes be boring and officials decided to liven things up from time to time to engage district patrons.
"We just wanted to make it a little playful and have personality," he said. "I think Twitter is more effective when you're fun."
Granite was the first school district in Utah to begin a Twitter account, according to Horsley, and today has more than 3,000 followers. The next largest pool of followers belongs to Canyons School District, with 1,558.
Twitter, Facebook and other social media websites have become a commonplace form of communication for cities, school districts, law enforcement agencies and other public organizations. While some individuals in the education field have gotten themselves into hot water due to their online postings, school districts are seeing more and more instances in which a quick text message or Facebook post can quickly and effectively alert parents to lockdowns, schedule changes, or simple community announcements.
Writing for Forbes in August, Joel Gagne, CEO of Allerton Hill Consulting, said that with more and more taxpayers using portable devices to access the Internet, public education leaders need to take a serious look at using social media to present and connect themselves with their communities.
"As a consultant who has worked with dozens of school districts, I’m convinced that if schools want to improve their image with taxpayers, they must begin to use social media," Gagne wrote.
With so many students on social media, Horsley said websites like Twitter and Facebook provide a simple and timely way for officials to respond to questions. By allowing patrons to follow the digital presence of a school district, education officials are able to distribute information quickly to the people most effected and, he said, do so in an extremely cost-effective way.
"It's a matter of being where our patrons are," he said. "We find that our best communication method is not newsletters going home or even the phone system any more."
Canyons School District spokesman Jeff Haney described social media interaction as the modern equivalent of neighbors talking to each other over the back fence. Since students and parents are inevitably going to be talking about the district, it's beneficial for education officials to be a part of those conversation, providing information and answering what questions they can.
"We have embraced social media," Haney said. "We consider it to be one of our channels of communication."
Haney said he would "absolutely" recommend that school districts create Twitter and Facebook accounts. But he added that in order to be successful, the accounts have to be used and not allowed to simply sit idle.
"Rare is the day when we don't have something new on those sites," Haney said. "I think that drives people to your sites because they can always get something new and hopefully useful."
Several school school districts, including Canyons, resumed classes on Wednesday. Haney said he was not aware of any complaints regarding the start of school.