While backpacking recently with my family, I was reminded of the value and refreshing nature of trusted sources. We hiked deep into the Grand Canyon along a popular trail. While water was everywhere, and we certainly enjoyed every minute playing in the turquoise blue pools and staring at the spectacular red rock backdrop, there were really only a few places to access clean drinking water.
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One evening, my eight-year-old and I took our turn to haul water back to camp. We followed the signs to the natural spring, carrying our empty containers. As we got closer and closer to the spring, our path converged with other paths from various directions coming down to one last trail leading to the spring. Most times, encounters with other hikers outside of our group were brief; the only time this wasn’t the case was at this natural spring. I found the convergence of hikers very beautiful—all of us heading to an isolated, trusted source to satisfy our basic, vital need for water. To me, it was a wonderful sense of community. We stood in line, visiting with those around us. On this particular visit to the spring, I even ran into a long-lost cousin! After filling up our water containers, we said our goodbyes and headed back to camp.
Interestingly, in French, the word for a natural spring is source. While we were comfortable swimming in the majority of the water, the only water we trusted enough to ingest was water from the source. Other water could be dangerous and couldn’t be relied on. Just as this trusted natural spring brought my family peace of mind and a sense of community, primary sources online foster trust in a world where information is everywhere—but not all of that information is trustworthy.
Imagine your school website as the natural spring in this real-life analogy. Your website has potential to be the trusted, dependable, primary source of information straight from an authoritative location. As such, students and their families can, and should, come to your school website for current and trustworthy information on which they depend.
The Trusted Primary Source
Why should you establish your school website as a recognized source of information connected to your school?
Have you ever read something interesting online only to find out it was fake news? Or, have you ever shared something interesting you read with family and friends only to hear back that it was phony or a scam? How did you feel when you realized it? How did your acquaintances respond?
In today’s world, it is all too easy to be misled by information online. As a school administrator, your efforts to establish your school website as a trusted primary source of information relating to your students and families are crucial for your school brand, communications, and public relations.
Information gathered from primary sources is more likely to be accurate and sound. Whereas, information based on secondary sources warrants caution. Historians, researchers, and even detectives or lawyers use multiple sources of information to piece together stories. We require students to cite sources in research projects. And teachers and parents encourage testing the validity of informative sources.
So, what are primary sources?
Primary sources are defined by their immediate connection to someone or some event. Sometimes called an “original source” or “evidence,” primary sources come from first-hand experience. Secondary sources are created later by someone who did not participate in or experience the information mentioned directly. Secondary resources come from the audience—it’s someone else’s perspective.
Such examples of sources hold value in terms of school websites. Stories are going out into the world from and about your school by the minute via multiple channels—social media, local news, word-of-mouth, online review sites, etc. It is important that your school not be silent, allowing only these secondary, and sometimes misinformed, sources to fill the void. Rise up and allow your school website to take its rightful place as a primary source for your school in your community.
Contaminated vs. Pure Sources
When you’re thirsty, and the water is running clear… it can be tempting to assume it’s safe. It’s clear, not stagnant, but can you tell the difference between contaminated water and pure water just by looking? You don’t know what’s been in the water upstream from you, or, in other words, you don’t have the full story.
Information about your school online but not on your school website is much like the clear water whose purity is questionable. Take for example the local media. Information here may seem like it comes from a trustworthy source. However, take it from someone with journalistic training, there’s no such thing as unbiased reporting. As humans, we can’t help but insert our opinions and experiences into how we present information—including facts. And it’s no secret that newspapers thrive on sensationalism. Consider these two fictitious headlines:
- ABC District Seeks Largest Budget Increase in County History
- ABC District Looks to Bring Facilities and Classroom Technology into this Decade
You’re looking at the same fact—the district is asking for an increase to the budget. But the two headlines are vastly different in their presentation and effect.
Another example of a potentially “contaminated” source is online reviews. Reviews have become an important piece of many consumers’ decision-making processes. Personally, I never make a purchase from Amazon.com until I’ve read a review or two. It’s no different for parents and families deciding where to send their children to school. Websites like GreatSchools.org and Niche.com are providing communities with review platforms just for schools—and parents are looking.
I’ll share a secret with you about reviews: Reviews are typically only written in extreme circumstances—a product is either amazing or awful, service received was either above-and-beyond or deplorable. There is very little middle ground with reviews.
So what’s your school to do? Monitor and combat the activity upstream. Make sure inaccurate or misleading information is available and clarified on your school website. Tell your stories with your own voice using your primary platform to make that information available.
When it comes to reviews, be honest, transparent, and kind in your response (if responding is an option). Where response is not an option, make efforts to change where you can. You can’t make everyone happy all the time, but if a reviewer complains of never being able to reach a human being when calling the front office, make changes to your customer service practices.
Your website is a great place to host your own reviews—we call them testimonials. Ask your parents, students, and staff why they love your schools. Use their responses in the sidebars of your websites.
Stagnant vs. Flowing Sources
Stagnant water becomes an incubator for parasites and bacteria. The good news is we can recognize, fairly easily, when stagnant water isn’t good for us. Most people can recognize when information outside of your school website is not reliable.
Outdated school websites are a sure sign of a stagnant source. When searching for the latest news for your school, how do you feel when you notice that a website you visit appears out-of-date? Check your site, when was the last update? How do you feel when you see a website whose last post was three months ago? Or worse, three years ago? A stagnant school website says you don’t care about your image, your reputation, or your communication.
In contrast, flowing water helps prevent bacteria and other unwelcome parasites. Keeping your school website “flowing” with current communication benefits everyone. Your community should feel confident that when they come to the source of school information, it will be fresh, easy to navigate, aesthetically pleasing, and ADA compliant and lack the negative, stagnant stigmas mentioned above.
Another example of stagnant versus flowing sources can be seen on social media. Just as my family enjoyed playing in the water all around us on our backpacking trip, your school community naturally entertains secondary sources for school information. The secondary sources offer “outside perspectives” that can offer fresh context about your school. Because it’s a secondary source, most people are willing to give your school the benefit of the doubt and take negative reviews or comments with a grain of salt.
Much of the interaction taking place on social media can be great, but it’s important for your school community to be cautious about what may be internalized. There are places, especially on social media, where negativity can fester and become unhealthy in a community. If your school does not have a way of reaching out through various channels to facilitate open, two-way communication, it can be very difficult to purify those stagnant pools.
Your school needs a social media presence to join in and lead those conversations. Be sure to use school social media effectively. It doesn’t do your school public relations any good if you treat your social media like a leaky faucet, only posting when the next fundraiser happens. In contrast, your social media isn’t effective as an open fire hydrant either. It takes strategy to effectively manage social media. In light of recent tragedies and natural disasters affecting our communities, your school’s social media presence has the potential to add depth to your school community.
Pave and mark trails to your school website
These days, it seems like school communities struggle with either the lack of communication or less effective inundation of communication in a variety of forms. As a busy parent with children in three different schools, I appreciate when schools provide a centralized approach to information. Keeping an updated, current school website creates a natural, reliable source of information for your school community.
What could be the trails leading to your primary source in this analogy? Some possibilities might include sending e-mails, school social media, hashtags, school newsletter, and other marketing tools. Our social media department at School Webmasters has a policy to drive traffic to your website. As your audience gets used to “learning more” on your school website, it will get used to turning to the school website and rely on it as the primary source of information from your school.
Do your various forms of school communication for your students and their families lack cohesiveness? Taking time to mark the trails and maintain sign indicators as well as the trails themselves are vital to bringing people in. In our analogy, this is school branding. Establish and maintain a consistent brand for your school—from your school colors to your school culture. It takes effort and time but establishes authority and builds trust from your school community.
Filling up your water container at a natural spring is a uniquely vintage experience. Failure to provide such a refreshing source in your school website runs the risk of false or inaccurate information tainting your school image. With your strategic efforts, your school website can be a trusted source of information for your school community.
Emily Boyle, School Content Specialist