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Interview with Stephanie Abrams

LAUSD's new social media director uses Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to connect with parents and share district info.

Fast-moving Stephanie Abrams may or may not be the only full-time social media director working for a school district in the nation, but the former TV news journalist is certainly among the busiest. In the past few months, the massive Los Angeles Unified School District has endured a teacher molestation scandal and a news report about the district lowering its grading standards that went nationwide despite being incorrect. These incidents alone would have been enough to justify a massive public relations effort, even before LAUSD had committed itself to using social media to be more accessible. The district, under Abrams's direction, is now conducting a comprehensive social media survey to better understand how parents and teachers learn about their schools.

Q: Are you the only school district with a social media director in the nation?
A We don't know of any others, but there are districts that use social media [see sidebar].

Q What's the main benefit to LAUSD?
A Too often, parents and teachers feel they're separate from the district. I'm here to let them know we want to hear from them.

Q Did you know LAUSD before you took the job?
A  I covered the district as a reporter for CBS in Los Angeles, so I had attended school board meetings and a variety of school-related events as a reporter. I also have a child [in the district].

Q Did you already know all the ins and outs of Twitter, Facebook, etcetera?
A Yes. I was one of the first reporters at CBS in Philadelphia to go on Twitter and Facebook at a time when it was discouraged because management wasn't familiar with reaching out through social media. I blogged on technology for women on examiner.com, and I often shared those stories through Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

Q What's your typical day?
A I will often start off consulting with a teacher about how to use social media. I gather information from various departments, then prioritize what needs to be published first. And I respond to a variety of unplanned events. I am also working on projects like getting out a social media survey and determining how to better use social media in schools without violating CIPA regulations.

Q What's the goal for getting schools to adopt social media tools?
A Every school should have a webpage. Twitter is second. Facebook is a plus for middle and high schools but can be difficult to maintain. I would like to see every school have its own YouTube channel. Once a school has a designated channel, it can have full access without getting blocked by our firewalls.

Q What's LAUSD's policy on scrubbing the district Facebook wall?

A If you look at our Face-book page on any given day, we include a variety of information, from surveys to policy changes to statements related to high-profile situations, positive or negative. I also tweet live much of what happens during board meetings, including public comments that are critical of LAUSD.

Q How has monitoring social media helped reduce misunderstandings by parents and teachers?
A Miscommunication was rampant in a recent situation [in which the L.A. Times erroneously reported that the district was planning to lower standards]. I was tweeting at people, saying, ‘No, this is not correct,' and forwarding them to accurate information. For a while, I was basically tweeting against the tide, but eventually parents and the other news outlets began responding to us through social media and got it right.

Q Do you answer questions from parents and teachers or pass them along to others?
A I always answer questions from parents and teachers. I'll get guidance from the correct department to make sure the answer offers the appropriate direction. Most of the comments, questions, and answers are posted publicly.

Q What is your goal for getting the district up to speed?
A The immediate goal is to let people know the social media news feed is available to them. People need to "like" us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and begin interacting more. The ideal situation would be if every department had its own Twitter handle so they could interact publicly during events.

Q Does your superintendent use Twitter?
A Yes. He tweets regularly as @DrDeasyLAUSD.

Q How important is it for districts like LAUSD to make full use of social media?
A Any organization that's not engaged in social media has a major blind spot that can be very problematic, especially when you have to move fast. If you don't publicly define who you are, you can be sure someone else will, with or without your approval.

Q Where can readers find you online?
A Our Facebook page is LosAngelesSchools. We tweet as @LASchools, and our YouTube channel is LosAngelesSchools. We are also starting to put LAUSD on Google+ and Pinterest.  

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