Using social media to help schools build connections and relationships, and foster a sense of community

Online information overload and a lack of trust, argues social media guru Trevor Young, puts organisations like schools in a position where they can choose to put their heads in the sand, or they can get on the front foot and use social media to become relevant and trusted publishers of content to their target audiences.


The ISCA AHISA Education Forum 2018 featured a session on the impact and influence of social media on school communications. It was presented by prominent social media marketer and commentator Trevor Young, along with three current/ former school Principals who have demonstrated positive outcomes from effective use of social media in their respective schools: Ms Karen Spiller OAM, Principal of John Paul College in Queensland; Mr Simon Gipson, former Principal of St Michael’s Grammar in Victoria; and Dr Briony Scott, Principal of Wenona School in New South Wales.

From left to right: Mr Simon Gipson, former Principal of St Michael’s Grammar; Ms Karen Spiller OAM, Principal John Paul College; Dr Briony Scott, Principal of Wenona School; and Trevor Young, founder of Digital Citizen communications firm.


Young started by looking broadly at social media in schools and the opportunities to use social and content to deepen the connection and engagement that schools can have with their communities.

He noted that it was important for organisations to look beyond the “tools” of social media, which are just enablers, and focus on their “heart and spirit”, which in the case of schools is their passion for education, for the school, students, teachers and for the broader school community.

“What we want is to hear your stories and ideas, your philosophy around all things education,” said Young. “We want you to share your experience and wisdom that you’ve gathered over the years.”

He views social media as an amplifier through which schools can kick start important two-way conversations with the people who matter the most to the success of their school –  the school’s community.

Young then identified shifts that are having an impact on communications. The first was “noise”. He argued that it was easy to blame peoples’ lack of engagement on limited attentions spans, but the real reason is often that there is so much noise, or information overload, in our communications channels that we are subconsciously filtering most of it out. So, what schools should not be doing is adding to that noise. If they can be interesting and relevant instead, then schools can cut through that noise.

Another impact on communications was the erosion of trust in organisations across the board, businesses through to political organisations and even not-for-profits.

This noise and lack of trust, Young argues, puts organisations like schools in a position where they can choose to put their heads in the sand, or they can get on the front foot and use social media to become relevant and trusted publishers of content to their target audiences.

“We’re all publishers,” says Young. “Everyone with an iPhone is a potential publisher, whether they’re doing it from a café, or have a full studio set up. You’ve probably got teachers in your schools who are really good content creators. Are you giving them the opportunity, are you empowering them to create that content?”

Two of the main success factors are quality of content and agility says Young, “When the good stuff happens. Like just a great photo, ‘Oh, we won this, this happened. One of our students just won a major prize,’ that last minute stuff that you don’t hear about. You want to be responsive with your communications to be able to do that well. But you also want to build a strong spine of content that’s going to build your narrative, reinforce it and tell your school’s story.”

This is also important to mitigate against risk he says, “The risk and the issues and all of those things that we’re all fearful of and they are real, and the best defence is to have an open and connected school. The best defence is to have a body of work. Online evidence, social proof that this is who we are, this is what we stand for. So, it leaves no one under any illusion of what it is that you are all about.”

“If something happens,” he says, “and you need to get on the front foot of an issue, you can’t just put out a press release. We need to be agile and fast, because the people we’re communicating with are agile and fast with their thumbs.”

Young was at pains to point out that content did not have to be “slick”, indeed being the opposite could sometimes be an advantage. What was important was that it was authentic.

As Young introduced the members of the panel he examined some examples of social media activity he believed had worked well for them. The first example he gave was a video of very basic production values from former Principal of St Michael’s Grammar Simon Gipson, who rapped in a student initiated and produced video-clip to raise awareness for a charity campaign. The video, shot in 45 minutes, went viral and even ended up on the Sunrise program.

Gibson joked that after 18 years as Principal his legacy was for a rap video, going on to say that, “it was all the things that Trevor talked about, it was authentic, it was student generated, it certainly involved some risk, but with that risk was the accompanying sense of trust that we put in the students to actually be responsible in the way in which they did it. And they delivered, they really did.”

He then looked at Facebook videos from Ms Karen Spiller OAM, Principal of John Paul College. Again he highlighted their authenticity, pointing to things video producers might dislike, such as kids being noisy in the background, explaining how in this case they work as a strong asset showing the Principal not in her office but out and amongst it, especially as she is new to the school this year.

Karen Spiller agreed, saying that, “After 21 years in one school and 18 of those as principal, it’s really important for my new community to know that I’m both very committed to that new community, but also that I’ve got an educational background in terms of understanding some broader issues and also representative at both the State and the national level. So, that particular clip goes out on a weekly basis. In a 10-week term I will do seven or eight of those. And then the other two or three would be done either by students or other members of the senior staff picking up some key issues that we want to get messages across. I’ve done some, the “We Will Rock You”, a very successful musical where I was wearing the We Will Rock You t-shirt and singing with students performing. I’ve done one just before students have gone into swimming carnivals. But also, on my own social media accounts I will post things like, ‘I’m at the year seven debating, and oh, by the way we just won.’ Or ‘I’m at the cheer rehearsal, oh, and they’ve just won a competition on Saturday.’

For Dr Briony Scott, Principal of Wenona School, Instagram was the school’s most important social channel, with Trevor Young highlighting two different accounts of note. The first was Dr Scott’s Principal’s account where she captures snippets of goings-on at the school and distributes is through an approved-followers account.

“It tends to be spontaneous,” she said. “it’s just trying to catch a little sense of what goes on in the school on a daily basis. It also enables me to control the narrative a little bit. So, yes, we do the victories, but we also do the defeats, and we talk about what it’s like to lose, and aren’t they legends because that was such good sport, and I get to convey and send out little messages that are not lecturing, it’s normalising what happens in the school environment. Parents who get half an hour over dinner at night time, they only get one perspective, so the whole point is to kind of round it out a bit.”

“It’s got a cult following in the school now,” she added. “So, if you get your photo on the Principal’s Instagram account you’ve made it!”

The other Wenona Instagram account Young highlighted was their sports account, which was managed by the students. He asked Dr Scott about the practicalities of how that worked.

“For every student accessed account there is always an adult who is an administrator,” she said. “So, they can post things and so forth, but honestly they don’t go rogue, and if they do go rogue, we do have an administrator there who can take it down instantly. There was one time on the prefects’ Instagram account when I was scrolling through it there was a picture of someone in year seven who’d lined up a whole series of tables and was running from one table to the other in her socks. And then, of course, got to the last table, kicked off, the whole thing collapsed, she went up in the air. And they all thought it was hysterical until I wrote “Really?” and then within three nano seconds, it had been taken down. They’re very aware that I have presence in this world. But they’re not fools, and if they do act like fools because they’re teenagers, then we talk about it. They rarely do things maliciously wrong.”

Young emphasises the significant benefit that a social and content mindset can bring to a school.

“It’s a real opportunity to have a content culture within your school,” he says. “Every opportunity is a story opportunity; the teachers are involved, the students love to tell stories. And the wonderful thing with content is that it fuels so many things. It fuels connection with people, it fuels conversation, it is very much a part of collaboration, and it fuels community.”

A full transcript of this session with a comprehensive question and answer session is available to read here on the event webpage


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