Holly Richardson: The Alpine School District and a PR fail

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Max Rizk, 6, takes advantage of a snow day after school was cancelled in the Salt Lake due to the heavy snow storm on Wed. Feb. 6, 2019.

This week, we got a whopper of a winter storm. At my home in northern Utah County, we got almost 18 inches of snow. It was beautiful! Alas, it was also dangerous to drive in. (The Utah Highway Patrol reported 400 accidents by the end of the day.)

The garbage trucks in our area delayed trash pick up for a day because of hazardous road conditions, non-essential state employees had a four-hour delay and the public information officer for the Utah Department of Transportation, John Gleason, said

“Alert: If you have any flexibility with your schedule, or if you can work from home... today is the day. Please avoid driving this morning if possible. UDOT snow plows are out in force, but driving conditions remain difficult this morning. Please stay safe!”

My own school — the University of Utah — cancelled school for the day, as did a number of school districts in Salt Lake County. But, Alpine School District, where my kids go to school, did not.

Parents and students responded en masse. On Twitter, ASD sent out an early morning tweet saying that “plow crews had been out” and “we expect some delays” — and then they did not engage further.

After 148 comments I could not find a single response from Alpine School District on why they did not use a snow day.

The Twitter account sent people to Facebook, where the same message was repeated. This time, there were over 2,400 comments and while a handful were supportive, the vast majority were from very irate parents, wondering why the district did not care about the lives of teachers and students, and that if ever there were a day that could qualify for a snow day, Wednesday was it. Some parents reminded the school district of the spring snowstorm about a decade ago that trapped kids and teachers in schools overnight. Still crickets from the school district.

Some savvy Instagrammer created a site called “Alpine District Snow Day” and filled it with memes mocking the district’s decision. For instance: “Parallel lines = two lines that never meet. Example: Alpine School District and Snow Day” or “The three things that are going to happen in life. Death, taxes and ASD denying everyone a snow day.” That site, by the way, has over 8,000 followers.

Now, Alpine School District probably put some thought into why they kept the entire district open, even the areas with more than a foot of snow. But where I think they really failed was in their communication. They literally made one social media post that went up in two places and then they walked away. There was zero further engagement. Calls to the district office went to voicemail — about Christmas vacation.

Unlike Granite school district’s spokesman, who stayed engaged on social media for much of the day, ASD posted their decision and then disengaged. They let the community outrage flare by refusing to respond.

As a public relations professional, I see how this was a really bad decision on their part. They could have — and I would argue, should have — stayed engaged. They could have reiterated their concern for student safety and for teacher safety. They could have posted snow totals for schools across the district. They could have closed or delayed specific schools in the very large district. They could have posted memes of their own. They could have left concerned parents know they understood the concerns and reassured them that grades would not be docked for students who did not go to school. They did none of those things.

Now, they get the opportunity to learn about crisis communication and what to do when you lose all control of your messaging. I recommend they give Granite school district a call.

(Photo Courtesy Holly Richardson)

Holly Richardson is a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune.