Those who have been through a school crisis will tell you that trying to communicate with everyone from national media to concerned parents is a difficult task when their priority is to manage the crisis itself.
Much information is written about how to deal with disasters at school. Everyone talks about getting the situation under control first, and then worry about the communication next. While this is the obvious answer, the reality today is that you must be ready to communicate almost immediately.
It doesn’t matter if we are talking about a bus crash with mass fatalities or a sudden allegation by parents about sexual misconduct by a staff member.
In these days of social media and the internet, stories about incidents make it into the news at the speed of light. For example, if a school bus crashes, it’s likely to appear on someone’s Facebook page within minutes and spread across the Internet and into the hands of journalists.
If you are not ready to comment, the story will grow without you. This often leads to misinformation and questions about why you are not commenting. It can damage reputations and anger parents looking for answers.
So what do you do?
You need a Crisis Communication Plan. This doesn’t have to be a huge book that sits in a drawer gathering dust. But it does need to include some pretty important information. Firstly, you must have a team of people assigned to play different roles. A media spokesperson, media liaison officer and writer are three such roles.
The Plan must also have contact information for everyone you may need to contact in the event of a crisis. This is not only parents, but police communications, and even political figures who will have an interest in your situation. The list of stakeholders will vary between schools, but it’s vital that you are able to get hold of everyone immediately.
A list of relevant news media should be on this list. You will need to contact them to help let the community know what is happening. While many school leaders fear the media, they are in a unique position of being able to help you get important information out. In some situations, they will be camped at the school gate anyway.
How do you start communicating quickly?
You’re probably wondering how you will find the time to communicate amongst so much stress and even confusion. The key here is to anticipate what could go wrong and prepare your responses now. If you don’t give some thought to communicating immediately, it could take you many hours to be heard. That’s because when you prepare written material for release, it takes time. You will have to work out what to say, then you will need to get that cleared by different people, including your lawyer.
By this time, you could have hysterical parents clogging phone lines, media stories saying you are refusing to comment, and parents abusing you all over social media. I know none of this would be your fault, but perception is everything.
You need to anticipate what could go wrong and prepare media statements and letters to parents that could be used if that scenario ever happens. You then get them cleared by your lawyer, so you can tailor and release them at a moment’s notice.
All these initial statements really need to say is that you are aware of the situation, you are doing all you can to resolve it, the safety of your students is your priority and you’ll be back in touch as soon as possible.
This will save you a lot of headaches, satisfy your stakeholders, and give you some breathing space to focus on the crisis. However, you must still keep everyone informed of progress. Whoever does that will depend on the team of people you put together before anything happens.
What channels do you communicate through?
As part of your plan, you will need to determine how each stakeholder group should be communicated with. This could include phone, email, text, social media, your website and traditional media. While the advance in the internet and social media now gives you less time to respond, it also gives you the chance to tell your own story through your own channels. You do need to communicate with journalists, but you should also get your messages out through your own channels like your website and social media sites. This way, there is no-one to distort your message.
This is a brief look at why you need a Crisis Communication Plan, but it should highlight the importance of having one.