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10 ways to use social media to pass bond issues

School leaders share social media strategies that successfully support district efforts

social-mediaAs the fight to get voter approval for bonds becomes more challenging, school district leaders and their supporters are tapping into Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media to win their campaigns.

“Schools that don’t use social media are missing out on one of the most effective forms of communication to large audiences and stakeholders,” said Rick Kaufman, executive director of community relations and emergency management for Bloomington Public Schools in Minnesota.

Social media campaigns have become especially important as more district leaders face tight budgets and a voter base reluctant to pay more taxes to finance repairs and new equipment–even as buildings age, technology grows obsolete, and other expenses mount.

Pattonville School District, in St. Ann, Mo., launched its Facebook page in July 2013, just a few months before its Prop P tax levy went before voters. Prior to that, the district’s only social media presence was a Twitter account with about 140 followers.

“We knew social media could play an important role in spreading accurate, factual information among parents and staff,” said Mickey Schoonover, director of school-community relations for the district.

(Next page: School leaders share their social media strategies)

In the months following the Facebook page launch, the district heavily used the social media site to communicate facts about the tax levy. By election day, the Facebook page had more than 46,000 views and received 1,800 “Likes”. The bond passed with a 70.2 percent ‘Yes’ vote.

As more school districts and bond committees turn to social media to help publicize and/or advocate for school bond issues, here are 10 tips from district leaders and bond committee members who’ve been there:

  • Incorporate social media as part of a wider plan. Use social media to support a unified message or key messages. Social media isn’t an “instead of”, but an “in addition to” tool, said Kaufman of Bloomington (Minn.) Schools. It should be an integral part of your campaign, but is still one of many strategies you will want to deploy.
  • Keep your information brief and pertinent. Keep social media messages short and conversational. Dole information out in small bites. Remember, people aren’t reading; they’re scanning.
  • Let your local citizens’ committee handle the “Vote Yes” campaigns. Local citizens can freely advocate for bond issues. The committee should set up a separate account to handle any information that includes openly supporting a bond. However, it’s important for the overarching messages and information between the district and the committee to be aligned. The two efforts are separate, but complementary.
  • Don’t get sucked into negative online debates. Bonds are a tough sell because they often come with a tax increase. Opposition to bonds can get ugly, but as tempting as it is to fight back against naysayers or block negative comments, try to stay above the fray. Provide accurate information to clarify misconceptions.
  • Have a comprehensive communication plan for the campaign. Outline what you want to accomplish in the campaign, the audiences you need to reach, and your key messages. Next, map out specific, measureable strategies targeted to those audiences, said Kaufman. Include social media in the overall plan. The local bond committee for Mooresville City Schools in North Carolina developed a media strategy that included coordinated articles, letters to the editor, print media ads, and email blasts that linked to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter posts. This allowed the committee to deliver a consistent message to several audiences. In addition, all the content was mirrored on the committee’s website.
  • Use images and video. Recent studies show that social media users like and respond better to video than words, says Nora Carr of Guilford County Schools in North Carolina. If you want to show leaky roofs and broken pipes, video will do more than lots of words. Social media users also like photos and infographics. The successful Streetsboro City Schools (Ohio) bond campaign included different images of residents, students, and logos during the last few weeks of the campaign to bolster voter support. The committee also created a 10-minute video of interviews with students, parents, teachers, and administrators showing how the bond would benefit the district and posted it to YouTube and Facebook.
  • Know your legal context and the existing parameters for your district and schools. Make sure you understand the legal framework for your state and/or local school district. School districts are not allowed, by federal law, to promote bond issues, but can use social media and websites to provide information and facts about a bond. What the local bond committee does separately should be clearly labeled with disclaimers such as “Paid for by Citizens for ABC School Bonds.” Carr said district leaders also should check school board policies. In general, publicly funded organizations, like public school districts, have a duty to keep the public informed about matters of importance, including how tax dollars are being used.
  • Match your message and medium to your audience. Don’t treat all social media outlets as the same. While there’s some overlap, people tend to gravitate to different social media outlets. The demographics on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube tend to fit the audiences most schools and districts need. Most parents of school-aged children use Facebook, Twitter, and sometimes Instagram. Teachers and moms also use Pinterest.
  • Time social media posts to when people are on social media or to occur with frequency. Posts timed early in the morning, or in the evenings, tend to get the most traffic, said Lisa Gill of the Mooresville Schools bond committee. “You want posts to be somewhat high on fans’ timelines,” she said. Even having one post timed at higher traffic times on Facebook gets people to your page, where they will usually scroll down and read more. Nicole Lawrence, communications coordinator for Waukee Schools in Iowa, suggests using Hootsuite to write and schedule posts ahead of time so you can plan accordingly and not be overwhelmed.
  • Create a timeline for your communications and social media campaign. Plot when you will post social media content week by week. Starting early will build a large following. Roll out different aspects of the bond and the voting process at strategic times. Lawrence of Waukee Schools started her district’s campaign for its bond 16 weeks before election, but started using social media nine weeks prior to the election, with each week focused on specific information such as a “Save the Date”, absentee ballot information, etc. Feeds were posted to Twitter and Facebook with links to the districts website and its Frequently Asked Questions section.

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