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Using humour to change the tone on social media

By Lauren O’Malley/Special to the Observer

For 10 years, Jennifer Pellegrini has been the communications officer for the Niagara Catholic District School Board, patiently letting parents know when the board’s 49 elementary schools and eight secondary schools have news to share, when jobs are available — and when school buses are cancelled and/or schools are closed.

This February, when there was a total of five days of closures, Pellegrini’s job got quite a lot more intense than usual.

“I would be surprised if there wasn’t a spike like that with inclement weather,” she says modestly. “Keep in mind, that’s what I’m here to do.” But this time it was different.

The board’s Facebook page skims along nicely through January and into the beginning of February with pleasant announcements and a smiling yet professional tone. Transportation was cancelled for Feb. 6 and 7, and the fact was patiently reported on the social media site. “I noticed a distinct tone: the comments section had become negative, people were arguing amongst themselves, there were negative attacks,” says Pellegrini. “We took our lumps on social.”

“By that Friday I found a picture of a little grey cat under a sherpa blanket, with a quote that says ‘Guys, we made it! (through another week).’” The post reads, “The good news is, we made it! We. Made. It. We got through the whole freezing, snowy, muddy, icy, windy mess together, the way families do. And there are only 40 days until spring, which is definitely something to look forward to, no matter what the groundhog said. Thanks and welcome to the 402 people who liked our page in the past week, and to our 430 new followers. You came for the weather communication, and we hope you’ll stick around.”

“I decided the best way to counteract negativity is positivity. It seems to have worked,” she says with a combination of joy and relief. “That changed the tone, I felt things shift.”

Subsequent posts become increasingly playful. Sassy, even. And always warm, caring, and empathetic. And human. “When I dropped the veil and said, ‘let’s have fun with this,’ people joined in the fun,” she says.

Comments on the posts change from anger and frustration to, “Thank you for thinking about the safety of our kids and the staff. I would hate to have an accident on my conscience. Your communication has been fantastic throughout. Thanks again!” Cheers and support shine throughout.

The next day, someone says, “To the person/ people who run this page: THANK YOU! Your efforts and humour have not gone unnoticed and are very much appreciated! You’ve gone above and beyond to communicate with parents and we are so grateful!” Several more comments in the same vein follow. The tone has indeed shifted.

“A priority this year in our strategic direction is to continue to strengthen and nurture relationships,” says Pellegrini from her office in Welland. “When you’re communicating with families there has to be empathy, particularly when they might be scared or angry,” as on snow days (or wind days, or ice days) when they might have to scramble for child care and other arrangements. “The more we can do to help them plan, the better.”

To that end Pellegrini took to posting from her home, in the evenings and early mornings. From Feb. 27 at 6:06 a.m.: “Dear friends (I feel like we’ve been through so much together that I can call you that): Good morning from Storm Desk HQ (back at my dining room table, where the cat is screaming for food — don’t worry about her, she’s been fed — and the dog is playing the inside-outside game). Without further ado, here is the news you have all been waiting for.”

Later in that post she goes on to humbly thank followers for their kind words and support, and then says, “Together, I think we’ve laughed our way through what has arguably felt like the longest shortest month of the year in the recorded history of time. We’ve been a wee bit quirky, and occasionally sassy, and you’ve shown the love like Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper performing Shallow at the Oscars. And for that, we are very grateful.”

From early January to the end of February, the NCDSB’s Facebook following grew from 8764 to 10,419 — all organically. Activity climbed even more dramatically, with engagement (likes and shares) in the thousands.

“Humour lightens the load for all of us — even if you disagree, if you have a little chuckle it makes it easier,” says Pellegrini. “I thought we could loosen up and have a little fun.”

“I wanted people to feel good on days when we’re all feeling miserable,” she continues. In a time when it’s easy to be rude and thoughtless without having to comment to someone in person, Pellegrini wants to humanize social media. “I wanted people to know these are human beings making these decisions.”

More recent posts have included Pebbles and Bam Bam from the cartoon The Flintstones singing “Let the Sun Shine In,” and a video of icy local scenes ending with “Looks Like We Made It.”

In the future Pellegrini plans to “keep coming up with fun ways to engage people and make them laugh,” she says. “I love my job. I care so much about the families.”

She has recently introduced “Fun Fact Friday,” and says she may have another trick up her sleeve to keep her followers happy, calm and informed.