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Don’t let a missed message turn into an online controversy

Picture this: A parent sends your school district an email highlighting questions or concerns about a recent school policy change—in the interest of timeliness, let’s say new rules about transgender bathrooms or locker rooms.

The email, which filters into a general inbox, gets lumped in with the 2,000 other emails that came in that day. It sits there. A day passes. Two days. A week. No one replies, or even sees it.

The parent, feeling frustrated, takes her concern to Facebook, or to Twitter. Her question soon becomes a rant. Nobody ever responded to me. Typical. Typical. Typical. Pretty soon, other community members start to chime in on the comments. Misinformation about the school district and the policy change starts to spread.

By the time the next school board meeting rolls around, you find yourself staring back at a standing-room-only crowd, thinking, “Wow. That escalated quickly.”

Confrontations such as these happen every day, in school districts all across America. And want to know the worst part? They are almost always avoidable.

It comes down to the right approach. Here are some ways to lead the conversation, instead of reacting to the headlines.

Make sure you’re listening
No matter whether they reach out online, over the phone, or in person, members of your community—especially students and parents—want to know that you’re listening to their questions and concerns.

At a minimum this means acknowledging that you’ve received their message. To build real trust, you have to have a guaranteed system and a process for inviting and responding to every message, regardless of the subject. This has to happen.

And here’s a secret: The response—what you say—often isn’t half as important as the fact that you sent it. Provided your community feels heard, and understands that your decision came from a well-meaning, well-informed place, they will be more likely to follow your lead.

Take back the conversation
There will always be some controversy—you can’t avoid every crisis and you can’t control every instance of misinformation that circulates about your schools.

What you can do is move to control the conversation—to contain it—by moving it off platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to a safer place.

It’s tempting to wade into public, social media-fueled debates. As Luvelle Brown, superintendent of the Ithaca City School District in upstate New York wrote for Education Week recently, think before you post.

His advice: “Resist the urge to get down in the dirt with community members and others who use social media to stir up trouble…Take your time. Think. Then post. It’s simply amazing the difference a thoughtful response can make.”

When controversies do bubble up, consider reaching out personally to the parent, staff member or other community member who started the conversation. Invite them to talk through the issue on the phone or in person if necessary. Bring the conversation back to its essential elements and seek common ground.

Your job is hard. Don’t make it harder.

How do you stay ahead of controversy in your school district? What steps do you take to make your community feel heard? Tell us in the comments.

Looking for a simple way to invite feedback and consistently lead the conversation on tough issues in your school district? Lead by listening.