Los Angeles District Hires First Social-Media Director
District could be setting precedent with new position
In what may be a national first for a school district, the Los Angeles school system has hired a full-time social-media director.
The move last month prompts an immediate question: What exactly does a K-12 school district's social-media director do?
Answering it has been one of the first orders of business for Stephanie Abrams since she took the job at the nation's second-largest school district after a career as a television reporter, most recently for KCBS in Los Angeles.
In an interview by email last week, Ms. Abrams said she picked up technology as one of her beats during the latter portion of her TV-news career and was one of her network's early adopters of social-media platforms.
She said her salary of just over $93,000 a year, which has drawn some criticism locally, reflects duties and responsibilities that are far more demanding than simply overseeing the district's Facebook and Twitter accounts.
For one thing, Ms. Abrams said, she will be leading staff education about a new social-network-use policy implemented in February.
The policy advises employees of the Los Angeles Unified School District to keep work-related and personal social-network accounts separate, strongly discourages maintaining social-networking contacts with students through a personal account, and warns employees not to hold any expectations of privacy while using school-owned technology.
"The use of social media is a new and fluid situation at [the Los Angeles district], so I expect to lead the district on this issue moving forward," Ms. Abrams said in an email. She added that enforcement of the policy would fall under the authority of the school system's human resources department.
The district now has just over 1,000 Facebook "likes" on its new profile page, and gets approximately 5,000 daily visitors, Ms. Abrams said, with the expectation that the following will greatly expand during the next six months. The district also has accounts on Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn, and is using its YouTube channel to post weekly video updates titled "@LASchools" that will also run periodically on KLCS, one of the city's public-broadcasting stations, Ms. Abrams added.
The district may expand to more social-media platforms, Ms. Abrams said, after conducting the school system's first districtwide social-media survey to determine, among other information, how many schools have their own websites and social-media presence, and how many students and parents in the district are engaging in social media.
Ms. Abrams also said part of her job description includes working closely with top administrators, especially during crisis situations, so that information about school lockdowns, early closings, and other student-safety issues can be relayed through its social-media accounts.
Ms. Abrams said she understands the criticism of her salary, $87,000 of which is funded by the Boston-based Goldhirsh Foundation, which has given funding to the LAUSD in the past and has also funded other initiatives aimed toward "social innovation," according to Tara Roth McConaghy, the group's executive director.
Given the school system's budget troubles, some in the district have suggested that any private infusion of money should be directed toward positions that more directly help students.
But Ms. Abrams added that, "given the scope of the work, which includes communicating via social media to more than 1,000 school sites, nearly a million students, and approximately 65,000 employees, plus my critical role in developing policies as we move forward, the district determined that the salary is within a fair range."
Countering Bad News?
While Ms. Abrams may be the first full-time social-media director for a K-12 district, she said positions in other large districts have similar responsibilities, with different titles and sometimes additional duties.
For example, a spokesman for the 1.1 million-student New York City school district said that it has a currently unfilled "online communications director" position, but that managing the district's social-media accounts is only a portion of the responsibilities of that job.
Others have suggested the LAUSD created the job in response to a spate of negative publicity for the 664,000-student district, which is still struggling with budget challenges in the wake of the recession. As of last month, the system's school board decided to push for a parcel tax and seek a one-year pay cut from the local teachers' union to help close a $390 million budget deficit.
And the district was shaken in early February by sex-abuse allegations originating on the south side of the city that eventually led to the transfer with pay and replacement of the entire teaching staff at Miramonte Elementary School. One teacher from the school was charged in the case
Simone Wilson, a reporter and blogger for LA Weekly, sees Ms. Abrams' appointment as a public relations ploy orchestrated by Superintendent John E. Deasy.
"Since Abrams was picked up by LAUSD, the district's Twitter account has done a complete 180 from stale once-a-month announcements to a more lively feed of student accomplishments, links to pro-LAUSD news stories, Deasy [retweets], and [a lot] of exclamation points," Ms. Wilson wrote in a blog post published last month.
"The official LAUSD Facebook page and YouTube account are taking off as well," she wrote, "because nothing helps us move on from horrific sex-abuse allegations like feel-good photos of science projects and won decathlons."
Thomas Waldman, the district's director of communications and media relations, acknowledged the potential public relations benefit that could come from a district's hiring of a social-media director. He said he first proposed the position while interviewing for the director position with Superintendent Deasy.
However, Mr. Waldman, who assumed his post with the district last July, bristled at the notion that public relations was the sole motivation for hiring Ms. Abrams.
"People who say that this is exclusively another instrument of spin don't understand and haven't been listening to the reasons we have been stating as to why this is very important," Mr. Waldman said. "I think there are people who look at the communications department and see it only as a way of overaccentuating the positive, but that was never the case here."
Other Districts' Efforts
Those with a knowledge of the national educational technology landscape say they believe the Los Angeles district is doing something new with the position, if not necessarily the nature of the work.
Bailey Mitchell, the chairman of the board for the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN, and the chief technology and information officer for the 37,000-student Forsyth County, Ga., school district, said he wasn't immediately aware of another district dedicating a full-time staff person to social media.
But he said that his district and many others do the same level of social-media outreach through collective efforts by communications department staff members.
Others working in the communications offices of medium-size to large districts also said their district Facebook and Twitter accounts were typically a shared responsibility.
And Jennifer Caracciolo, the Forsyth County district's director of public information and communications, said that she has seen a growing number of similar positions created in the private sector during the past six months, but that budget constraints have likely limited the creation of such jobs by even the most forward-thinking school districts.
Vol. 31, Issue 28, Page 10Published in Print: April 18, 2012, as Los Angeles Hires TV Reporter to Run Social-Media Efforts