Superintendents’ love-hate relationship with social media: How to navigate it

There's a certain stigma surrounding social media that most superintendents share. It's a love-hate relationship that needs to be overcome, according to one superintendent, because the reward outweighs the fear.

“If you’re not utilizing social media to communicate to your parents or your audience, then you’re missing the boat in 2023,” says one superintendent. “In fact, you probably missed the boat in 2016. It’s been a long time now that we’ve needed to use social media tools to communicate.” And for district leaders across the country, that couldn’t be truer.

Dr. Don Killingbeck, superintendent of Hemlock Public Schools in Michigan, has been in the tech game since the early 90s. When he’s not judging beard competitions, authoring books using ChatGPT or jump roping on a world-class level, he’s advocating for his community through the power of one simple tool: a camera.

In its fifth season, Killingbeck’s “OTS” (over the shoulder) series has captured the voices of nearly 50 employees and folks within the community, all in an effort to break down silos and share the day-to-day of those within the district.

“I had the desire to connect the community with our school district,” he says. “Especially back when I initiated it five years ago, I was nervous. I didn’t want to be in front of the camera, so I was trying to figure out a way to introduce and interview people in our community but without having it to be my face. I’m a producer. I don’t like the spotlight in front of the camera all the time.”

Every video is uploaded to his YouTube channel, but he says Facebook is where they get the most traction.

“Facebook moms make up most of our viewership,” he says. “The YouTube channel is more so historical storage and probably 10% of our viewing audience. Most of it comes through Facebook, but we feel it’s important to log and have it systematically available on YouTube.”

Since starting the series, it’s allowed him to really key in on one area that every superintendent must master: listening.

“I’ve learned that there’s a lot to learn and grow,” he says. “Anytime I talk to somebody when you’re doing it in that setting, you’re really focused on listening, right? You’re the interviewer. It forces me as a leader to be a better listener.”

It’s an over-the-shoulder series for a reason, he adds. It’s not the district superintendent delivering a message in front of a camera for 20 minutes. It’s an organic, employee-focused conversation.

Unfortunately, there’s a certain stigma that surrounds social media that seems to be shared across district leaders, according to Killingbeck. It’s a love-hate relationship that superintendents must overcome because the rewards outweigh the problems. The challenge, however, is the lack of proper protocol and etiquette of all stakeholders when there’s frustration with the district.

“If you’re upset or there’s a problem, posting something on Facebook or Twitter is not necessarily the proper method of dealing with your problems,” he says. “If you’ve got a problem, you should call your school official, the building principal, the superintendent or a teacher. It could be something as simple as an email saying, ‘Hey, can we talk? I’ve got a concern.’ And I think this is why some [leaders] are afraid of social media to this day. We find that our stakeholders go to social media and use it in a negative way. We’ve been very fortunate where I am not to have a ton of that. But when I talk to other leaders, they get rather scared sometimes by that.”

Changing your outlook on social media, he advises, can make a world’s difference. In reality, it’s all about perspective and how you intend to use it within your district.

“The number one thing is to think of your organization’s social media as a bank account,” he says. “When somebody puts something out negative, that’s a withdrawal, right? My question to other leaders is what are you doing to positively communicate what you’re doing? You have to advocate for your organization. You have to be you.”

More from DA: How this superintendent uses social media to establish credibility

Micah Ward
Micah Ward
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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