Reaching for the Heart - 5 Tips for School District Communication Directors

Reaching for the Heart: 5 Tips for School District Communications Directors

Copyright 2009 Miguel Guhlin

Modified later for this Huffington Post blog entry.

  • ...the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants is the liberty of appearing...It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry.
  • --Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense (1776)

"Jesus Figueroa tells trustees: 'My hair is not hurting anybody. My hair causes no students to be held back in their eduation.'" So reads the almost 140 character tweet sent by SA Express News writer, Michelle de la Rosa (, who often covers local San Antonio school issues using, a social media tool. The challenge to Figueroa's long hair reaches a school district's school board (in San Antonio, Tx), only to see an eventual capitulation by that Board, "Unanimous board vote to grant Figueroa special dispensation from grooming policy. He gets to keep long hair and stay in regular classroom." (Read the rest of the story online at Even if you cannot attend the Board Meeting, you are transported there, following electronic bread crumbs, or "tweets."

Several districts, like Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City ISD and Kerrville ISD, embraced the use of Twitter--a micro-blogging tool--during the alleged Swine Flu Epidemic (a list of Texas Twitterers appears online at In the past, school districts have perceived media attention as invariably negative, rejoicing whenever positive stories can be had. Press releases, strategic presentations to special community groups and advocates are only a small part of what is possible. In fact, those approaches may even be superfluous to what is really possible with social media tools. Yet, time and again, school districts step back from encouraging their staff, students and parents from using social media. Failure to embrace these tools leaves school districts open to attacks, but times are changing--parents are fighting back using social media. "Activist parents now have," points out Dr. Scott McLeod, "a bevy of new tools and strategies to help facilitate their agendas and they are not afraid to use them. School organizations are going to have to get used to this new state of affairs in which parent activism and criticism are more public, permanent, and far-reaching."

This article is about how school districts can use social media tools and connect with the global audience, circumventing the traditional media to get the real story out there. As such, this article focuses on 3 points and offers a few tips for using social media:

  1. Refining our perception of what constitutes "Communications and PR" in a highly connected world
  2. The power of story to unlock what makes your heart beat and overcome the Knowing-Doing Gap, which approaches the question of why knowledge of what needs to be done frequently fails to result in action. (Pfeffer and Sutton, The Knowing-Doing Gap, 2000 as cited in Dennis Sparks article, Reach for the Heart as Well as the Mind, online via free trial at
  3. How social media can be used to share your story.


"Seek out change," advises a noted journalist, Jeff Jarvis. He goes on to point out that in addition to seeking out change, organizations need to find the opportunities in that change, as well as deal with the hard problems it brings instead of side-stepping them. In virtual space, if you're not sharing content, if you are silent, your absence signals your unwillingness to embrace the hard problems. In an online world, silence is failure.

Our classrooms, our schools, our school districts are defined by the stories we tell about them. Traditional media spend little time on these positive stories. They are drawn to the conflict, the fear, and what constitutes the real story. And, their failure to recognize that the audience is no longer listening, but also, creating content that they are more apt to pay attention to using social media, has had a profound impact on newspaper sales. People know that they can find the truth that is real, authentic, openly shared and transparent via new venues.

While staff freedom of expression via social media is tightly controlled by District Communication Departments because the stories aren't as positive as the slick flyer or press release says it is, muzzling the one group of advocates, who really know what is happening in schools, has severe consequences. Imagine the San Antonio, Tx district with a student with long hair. How could the school district have managed information sharing differently with the Community? To do the work of district communications requires a different attitude and/perspective. That's why in my school district, I have a page of videos ( in spite of the teacher resistance that we are "tooting our own horn"--that describe some of our initiatives and celebrate student work. As an educator, I do not want my word to be the last word on what is going on in my school district. I want that last word to be spoken by an innovative teacher, a student's voice developing a project, a parent sharing what the work of education means to their child.

As a citizen-journalist, as a person who has embraced social media as a way to share the exciting actions being taken by educators around me, I also see an important need for K-12 educators to tell "their" story, sharing what is happening at their schools, in their classrooms, in the offices, as openly and transparently as possible. My bias is that I believe that most educators live in fear of speaking up, fear of losing their jobs, being censured, being called into their supervisor's office or at Human Resources and asked, with the force of temporal power lurking behind each word, "So, tell us. What do you really believe and why should we continue to employ you if you're going to say this about us?" Instead, anyone with with the temerity to be transparent about the work they are doing should be celebrated and applauded.

Sharing is THE threat,” shared Mark Pesce at a recent conference (Source: One of the key points of his talk was that in his ”honest and human act of sharing, any of the pretensions to control, the limitations, or power are revealed as completely collapsed and impotent.” As school district leaders struggle to lead, it is clear that though each of us has a phone that grants access to powerful, disruptive technologies, we choose not to use them. While students share ideas and information about everything under the sun, leaders are unable to have real conversations about critical issues.


"All the education in the world is worthless," writes an 18 year old blogger at the A Boundless World blog (, "if you never unlock what makes your heart beat." He goes on to share in a must-read article about schools and education, that grades don't guarantee success. Instead, that passion, determination and positive attitude equal success. These are ideas that are emerging from the masses of K-12 and adult learners who work in our systems. Their expectations for what education, what school should be like, are changing dramatically from where we have been. That story of passion captures readers and raises a question for Communications Directors in school districts--if your readers have infinite choices available to access information, why would they want to read your dry, boring, canned version of what happened when they can sign on via a Twitter stream and read what happened as it happened with none of the gory details left out?

These changing expectations have implications, not only for the educators that work or administer learning occurring in classrooms, but also for school district administrators who feel the pressure to represent change to a wider audience as positive, enabling, and encouraging. The problem is, press releases, powerpoint presentations to select groups, traditional media interviews that provide the video/sound byte that will be broadcast on YouTube...are often ineffective. At a TASA 2009 Midwinters Conference, the presenters of a workshop on using social media pointed out that, "Traditional communication tools have a limited life and as such are limited relationships. Even public meetings…a meeting tonight about school boundaries is limited to that room right there." (Listen to a podcast of this presentation here -

While the presenters have not achieved the pinnacle of social media control (which presents a paradox), transforming the underlying organization in ways that tap into the full power of social media, I applaud the way they’ve been transparent about their efforts. The question I’m left with isn't, “How can we can better navigate this process in school organizations?” but rather, how can we trust and empower our educational community to share the compelling stories that are a part of every day work?


"While you’ve been hiring consultants to create a slick corporate intranet, establishing policies about who gets to post what, and creating a chain of command to ensure that only appropriate and approved materials show up on your...home page," points out Seth Godin in his book Meatball Sundae, "your engineers, scientists, researchers -- ...even the marketing folks -- have been creating little Web sites for their own use." Meatball Sundae is a book I urge every school district communications staff member to read since it gets at the heart of the problem school districts face. You can't take advantage of social media unless you re-align your core approach to storytelling and sharing ideas/information to the new tools available. One way to accomplish that is to think of social media as a "culture virus," a term coined by Jim Stogdill in a presentation on open source software and government.

Jim suggests that a culture virus has the potential to carry community, transparency, and collaboration across the various, traditionally impermeable boundaries - with community participation as the carrier. That is, the more you activate the community, the greater the spread of the virus. Why would you want to spread such a virus? The benefits to a school district would include culture emergence as "community participants find their perspectives, their worldviews and psychographic profiles spliced in with those community norms--things liketransparency, collaboration, and a strong bias toward meaningful participation."

While there are many social media tools available, here are some core ideas that can get you started in creating content that is engaging and will bring readers back. Think of the use of social media tools at all levels of your organization as a culture virus, a way to empower members to meaningfully participate in the work. Instead of three or four central office administrators trying to control what gets reported in your district, you have an army of people working 24 hours a day sharing what works, what doesn't, what's popular, what's not with a world. No matter what you do, this level of participation will get you noticed and may help bring shipwrecks to the light of day, while providing opportunities for organizational change.

How does any organization achieve the change it desires so that new ideas (e.g. culture virus norms) aren't just being grafted onto an "old-world" thinking (e.g. school district adds a superintendent's blog to their site but it is authored by the communications director and the district lawyer, not the superintendent) organization?

To begin sharing the culture virus, someone--preferably someone in a leadership position--has to embrace the fundamental principles of meaningful participation, increased collaboration and transparency. Then, you have to encourage the use of social media tools. Here are 5 tips for K-12 educators, communication professionals or not:

  1. Engage Your Audience with Your Content: Content that hasn't been prefabricated, is lifeless and written in third person, but is authentic, transparent, open about success as well as failure will be read by your constituents. Start with a story, including audio, video, avoiding being limited by one format or another (e.g. text, video, audio). Blend all of it in so that you reach more people through a media medium that they are interested in. The multimedia portions--audio and video--can be downloaded and put on iPods and MP3/MP4 players. What a great way for students, community members and staff to find out what is going on from others in their organization. At the risk of being imperfect, here is one example of a blog entry that tries to put some of these points into practice: and a more traditional eNewsletter approach -
  2. Make Content Sharing Easy: Press releases on a web site just do not work anymore. Traditional web sites that can't be subscribed to using RSS feeds or that allow email subscription are dead sites. Many web users just aren't taking the time to come back to your site, instead preferring to subscribe to content that will come to them via Google Reader, updates to their phone, and more. Use a blog (e.g. Wordpress), and add plugins that make it easy for people to share your content with others. Some sharing tools include,,,,, and If you're not familiar with these sites, then know that your audience may already be using them to share content about you that you may not like. The solution isn't to block those sites in schools, but to encourage their appropriate use. Most blog platforms and tools enable you to add easy to share/save tools. To get the result on the blog entry in the link shared in Engage Your Audience with Content, I used a Wordpress Plug in (a list appears here - called Add to Any.
  3. Create a Content Calendar: In your District, there are many wonderful things happening that your community wants to know about. Unfortunately, providing print copies of short articles via email or in print do not allow you to explore everything great that is happening and share it easily. However, online, you have an unlimited number of pages and a global audience. Why not create a content calendar that enables you to map out with a calendar what you will be sharing with others online?
  4. Define and Build Relationships: While it may not be popular to follow your local news reporters via Twitter, it is critical that you do so. It is critical because you can raise their awareness by the engaging content that you are sharing about your school district. While they may want to focus on the negative, you can mitigate the effect of their tweets by building a relationship of trust and integrity through the stories you share about your district, your campus, and your classroom.
  5. Make Offline Available Online: Every speaking engagement, each meeting is an opportunity to share your ideas. Avoid the mistake of creating content solely for online or offline audiences. When you create offline content--a conversation with parents at the morning coffee meet-n-mingle with the principal--take the time to write about it, maybe even debrief a parent in a one on one conversation. "What did you think about our morning coffee meeting? How did it impact you?" Take the time to share what you're doing online.


In one of my favorite quotes, Clay Shirky shares ( that "In high-freedom environments, people use social tools for fun. In low-freedom environments they use them for political action." Will you encourage your staff and students to learn how to appropriately use social media tools for fun, or will you be on the receiving end of their use? I suggest that many school districts today are feeling the brunt these tools because they are "low-freedom" environments. It's time to change. Shall we begin together?