When the pandemic hit, many schools found their systems woefully unprepared to communicate quickly and clearly, in real-time, with the families in their district. And the pandemic will not be the last time schools face a crisis, or what can quickly become a crisis if not managed properly.
“In this day and age, where we have social media, where things are so rapid-fire, I treat everything as a potential crisis,” says Carole Dorn-Bell, CEO of Allerton Hill Communications.
“Your best defense against a crisis is to prepare. When I talk about handling crisis issues, I back the train way up. Start now.” - Carole Dorn-Bell, CEO of Allerton Hill Communications
The future of schools looks bright with a return to in-person learning in the fall, but it’s easy to get complacent and find yourself in a pinch when something bad happens. Schools have to be prepared to handle stressful situations like lock-downs, school crime, severe weather, and any number of other possible dramas that might come up this year and every year.
Dorn-Bell reviews her top 5 best practices that will keep your school a step ahead of any crisis.
1. “Back the train way up”
Half — or maybe all — of the battle with crisis management is preparation. Keep a crisis from becoming a crisis. “The biggest crisis issue for any school district is when a school district does not have a solid communication structure and a way to reach people and a person assigned to that,” says Dorn-Bell. “Your best defense against a crisis is to prepare. When I talk about handling crisis issues, I back the train way up. Start now.”
You can’t establish a crisis management plan during a crisis. You need to have a clear chain of command for when you’re faced with an unexpected event at your school. There should be a point person who is tasked with communicating directly with families, as well as a clear plan for what channels to use and when.
2. Establish a unified front
When the school is prepared to share a message during an event, that message should be shared not only outwardly, to parents and the community, but also inwardly to all professionals associated with the school.
“Effective communication in your school system doesn’t start and stop with the superintendent or the communications person,” says Dorn-Bell. “Great organizations, top to bottom, everyone should be clear on the strategy and follow the strategy and that includes school board members.”
If your school is suddenly forced into lockdown, you don’t want a teacher to say something that contradicts the school’s press release about the event. So, part of the plan you establish for crisis management should include a method for your point person to communicate the school’s stance to everyone in the community, so that if parties are asked to comment on an event, they can do so in alignment with the school.
3. Be specific and honest
While timeliness in responding to an event is crucial, you also need to take the time to be specific. “Semantics matter greatly,” says Dorn-Bell. “A single word change can matter greatly to a sentence. You have to be very, very specific about what happened. Arriving at common understanding and clarity is very important.”
Just as important as specificity is honesty. While it might seem obvious, it bears repeating: don’t try to sugarcoat a crisis. “Never sweep things under the rug,” says Dorn-Bell. “This is a chance for you to gain credibility. Be clear on the facts and be honest with your public on what is going on and as much as you know at that time.”
4. Choose your channels wisely
Once you have your specific, honest message and a unified front, you need to make the important decision of how to push that message out to your community.
“Dirty laundry should not be aired on social media,” says Dorn-Bell. “Social media should be your Disney happy place.”
She explains that social media is a reactive channel that invites conversation, which is not what you want when you’re trying to manage a sensitive issue with your school community. Instead, you can make social media announcements that push people to your school website: “Visit our website at 1 p.m. for an update on the tornado lockdown.”
Instead, use more direct, personalized messaging during an urgent or sensitive event. “Your announcement right out of the gate should be using text message, email, phone,” says Dorn-Bell. “That’s where your message needs to happen. Think of it as a type of targeting — reaching the people who need to know.”
5. Make the first move and maintain steady contact
“Even when you’re in the middle of a crisis, there is always something you can say,” says Dorn-Bell. Don’t let things stew. You can’t simply ask your community to trust you — you have to prove to them that you’re trustworthy by keeping them updated.
Dorn-Bell adds that, each time you send out a message during a crisis, set a deadline for the next time you’ll communicate with the public. “In a crisis, people want to know you have your hands on the wheel,” she says. “One of the strongest things you can do in a crisis is tell people when you will communicate with them next.” Even if it’s just to update that them that you have no new information, that consistent contact is appreciated during times of uncertainty.
A crisis can be an opportunity
When you fail to prepare for the inevitable crisis, information will start coming from another source, and you’ll lose control. “Establish your school system as a trusted source or people will go elsewhere and someone will take on the role of communicator,” says Dorn-Bell. “Then you’ve got a wildfire.”
Any event, issue, or crisis is a chance to demonstrate to your community that your district is a well-oiled machine that can be trusted and relied upon. These opportunities, when managed effectively, can actually inspire better relationships with the public.
Emma Castleberry is an education writer and contributor to the Campus Suite Academy blog. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.