Portland Public Schools taps social media to spread its message
The rise of social media in recent years caught the state's largest school district flat-footed as parents used — and continue to use — Facebook chat groups and Twitter to organize and spread information.
Chat groups like the N/NE PPS Enrollment Balancing discussion group on Facebook and the hypercritical Parents for Excellent Portland Principals Facebook page share district communiqués, rumors, opinions and news articles with the speed of light to teachers, parents, staff and interested parties across the district.
The impact of this new media environment on the district has not been subtle. At least two current school board members grew their electoral base via online activism. And the 2016 lead-in-water crisis that eventually gutted the district's central office — including longtime Superintendent Carole Smith — started with a parent's Facebook post that went viral.
Now, with a hip new superintendent from San Francisco, the district is expanding its ability to spread its own information with new staffer Twitter accounts and an upbeat hashtag: #1DistrictPPS.
Stephanie Cameron, the district's new senior director of communications and public engagement, acknowledged the district is trying to expand its public-facing communications beyond her $2.7 million office.
The idea, in part, is to try to change the narrative in the community about the district.
"Definitely the superintendent is a fan of Twitter and is excited about the work that is taking place," Cameron said. "There's good things happening and when they happen, share them."
Twitter was set to get some of that good news uploaded this week as the central office staff participated in the Shadow a Student program. The administrators hoped to get a student's-eye view of the schools.
"Our hope is this will better inform the work we do to help students and allow central office employees the opportunity to see how the work they do impacts the experience of a student," Esteve said.
Business and Operations chief Claire Hertz, one of two deputy superintendents at the district, said on Twitter Sept. 21 that she was beefing up her skills at an Orlando, Florida, education conference.
"Learning ... how to upgrade my tweeting skills for communicating all the great things happening in #1DistrictPPS...," she wrote.
The hashtag — #1DistrictPPS — is designed to unify a district with hugely diverse public school populations.
"There's some really amazing people here," Cameron said. "Heading forward in one district in one direction — that's the message we need to be sending."
The district already has several public-facing communications, from school and staff email lists to the Pulse newsletter and official social media posts. The more-personal social media posts from district employees are designed to add to that.
"We don't want everybody to funnel through a process (for public communication)," Cameron said.
She acknowledged there is still a lot of work to do to improve district communications. Cameron related fielding complaints from employees and families who feel out of the loop on major developments.
"If we can beat Facebook ..." she said, trailing off. "I think that's what starts the swirl."
In order to accomplish that, the district is still looking to hire for two positions: a media relations person and a new director of community engagement, who will be out in the schools. The current media spokesman, Harry Esteve, would then be able to focus more on internal and community communications. Esteve was formerly a reporter at The Oregonian and then a communications staffer at Portland State University.
Cameron came over from Metro regional government, which led the way in the Northwest on producing its own newslike content on its website.
Though critics have long complained of a culture of fear among employees for speaking out in the district, Cameron said that's not her philosophy.
"There's probably information that could be a violation of (student privacy law) or could be not legal for us to share," she said, but "I think that's a hold-over from the past environment, and I think that's something we need to focus on changing."
Cameron said the district emphasizes to new hires that they work for the public and their emails and other documents could be made public.
"The work of the district is public domain and available to be shared," she said.
In addition to boosting its social media presence, a major focus in the coming year will be improving the district's website.
"It was structured to match the organization, and now the organization has changed," Cameron said. "We want the user to be able to find information quickly."
Follow PPS officials on Twitter
• Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero @SuperG_Guerrero
• Deputy Superintendent Yvonne Curtis @DrCurtisPPS
• Deputy Superintendent Claire Hertz @ClaireHertz
• General Counsel Liz Large @lizjmlarge
• Chief of Staff Stephanie Soden @PDXSoden
• Chief Academic Officer Luis Valentino @edchatter
• Chief of Student Support Services Brenda Martinek @bjmartinek
• Chief of Schools Kregg Cuellar @CoS_PPS
• Franklin and Grant Area Assistant Superintendent Oscar Moreno Gilson @gilson_oscar
• Lincoln and Roosevelt Area Assistant Superintendent Scott Whitbeck @ScottWhitbeck2