How a school can manage social media gone viral

You receive a call from a national Australian newspaper regarding a violent video of your school’s students, social media gone viral.  You are a leader of this school what do you do?

A schoolyard fight, filmed by a bystander, can be shared through social media thousands of times. In a matter of minutes what would be best dealt within the school is now forever in the public domain.  Picked up by the media these stories are never broadcasted in a favourable light.  They become an indelible mark against the school’s reputation.  The students will also suffer from this irrevocable record, forever languishing in cyberspace.

Recently in Melbourne, less than ten days apart, there have been two examples of schoolyard violence gone viral. In Cranborne, St Peter’s Catholic College, on 24th February 2018 the media broke the news of schoolyard violence (1). Three incidents of fighting at the school caught on video had gone viral with onlookers cheering from the sidelines.

At St Helena College on the 15th February 2018, the media broadcasted a story of two girls at the school violently fighting.  The video footage shared on social media had gone viral, again with onlookers not intervening.  The student filming, acting as an unofficial commentator.  So serious was this incident The Age reported one of the students being hospitalised (2). The number of minor assaults or aggressive behaviour reported to the Department of Education rose from 1179 in 2016 to 1613 in 2017.  The media will ruthlessly broadcast incidents, without consideration of student welfare.

Schools, Government, Catholic or Independent are very serious about student welling, physical and mental safety. Schools work very hard to create a safe learning environment.  But even in the best prepared schools some students can make bad choices, take risks or react in unsafe ways causing harm to themselves, others or property. These isolated incidents are a nightmare for school leadership as they can be blown out of proportion by the media. When an incident is blasted into the public domain, it has a negative effect on all concerned, exacerbating the situation.

School leaders are in the business of education, not public relations.  Few if any, have formal media training and most schools do not have a member of staff with formal communications training, equipped to lead a public relations crisis. A partial or full communication ban from the school can often be the response.  A crisis that stemmed from social media gone viral that then uses social media to respond strategically, can convey experience and expertise, modeling the correct use for students.  The following are tips to equip school leadership in how to respond to a crisis of social media gone viral.

Crisis communication for schools:

  • The Principal should respond immediately – within 30 minutes is best practice
  • Use school intranet/email to alert parents/staff/students immediately
  • Scan media for reports of the incident, contact the media for an official right of reply
  • The school should respond to social media comments promptly with compassion and honesty
  • Use social media strategically to publish a statement(s).  Most likely the story has gone viral through social media. Allow your school’s response to gain equal attention through social media channels. Remember social media is a worldwide platform not just your school community, so use language applicable to the broader audience

What to say:

  • State the facts as you know them, be honest about what actually happened, what was the extent?
  • State what you don’t know, but will be investigated and resolved. For example, in a drug related incident, the school may not immediately know how the students got possession of the drugs.  It’s important to state if your school is working closely with police in an investigation
  • Express sincerity to the victim(s) and all those affected
  • State what you are doing. Use a brief outline of the procedures that protect and underpin your school values and how your school has immediately responded
  • Reassure the community of your school values
  • State what you want the broader community to do.  In the school violence example, this could be, ‘this unfortunate incident could be a conversation starter for parents, what is the right thing to do if you see fighting or bullying?’  

A viral social media crisis can hit any school.  Having a strategic communication plan in place will ensure a well thought out prompt response, positioning the school in control of the situation, reassuring to the school community.

Elaine Doyle is a communication specialist who works with schools and business in strategic communication planning and campaign design for marketing, enrolment, community engagement and crisis response.