Crisis Communication for Schools
COVID-19 has not only been a public health crisis. For many, it has been a public relations crisis. The pandemic has highlighted just how difficult it is to communicate effectively when we are thrust into unfamiliar roles and forced to use unfamiliar tools.
When schools had to pivot on a dime in the spring of 2020, most parents and community members recognized and appreciated teachers’ heroic efforts to educate via an online platform. However, in the fall when schools struggled to provide seamless distance learning, people were a lot less forgiving. Also, as economic concerns began to overtake health concerns in some regions and among certain demographics, relationships soured.
Yet, if you look around, some school districts fared better than others. Even in communities where tensions were high, the schools were not the ones getting lambasted. Why? Generally speaking, it’s because these districts were following the basic tenants of good crisis communication—including having laid the groundwork before this crisis hit.
Almost every organization must deal with a public relations crisis at some point, so it makes sense to plan for it. As many of you have no doubt discovered, preparing for a crisis in the middle of said crisis is no fun.
Crises typically affect the safety, reputation, and financial position of people and organizations. You can minimize these negative effects not only on your district or agency, but on the students, staff, and communities you serve by planning for the crises you’re most likely to face. In education, those include natural disasters, societal disasters, tragedies involving staff or students, and inappropriate behavior involving staff or students.
Types of Disasters
In broad terms, disasters fall into two categories: those centered outside of your school or agency (like natural disasters and community/social disasters) and those centered within your school or agency (such as threats or tragedies that involve students or staff and inappropriate behavior by students or staff).
For natural disasters, your region will influence the types of crises you’ll face. Those in the West must contend with wildfires and earthquakes. In the Rocky Mountains, it’s wildfires and severe storms. In the Midwest, we add tornadoes to the mix. In the South, you’ve got hurricanes, flooding, and heat waves, and in the East, it’s freezing nor’easters.
Next, we have societal or community disasters. These can include everything from civil unrest to terrorist threats, or they can include events that cause mass casualties like an industrial accident or collapse of infrastructure. So think about your community; what are the most likely scenarios there? Is there racial tension? Is there manufacturing plant with poor safety standards? An old bridge in need of repair?
Then there are disasters that hit closer to home. The first of these is threats or tragedies involving staff or students, situations such as intentional violence (as in the case of a school shooter), transportation accidents, suicides, or potentially disastrous health diagnoses. The second involves inappropriate behavior involving a student or staff member, such as financial or operational mismanagement, sexual misconduct, and other legal or ethical violations.
There is one more type of disaster—a public relations disaster born of misinformation. Although the disaster itself may never have occurred, people’s response to the misinformation can cause real and lasting damage.
Before you dig into the details of specific disaster responses, you should first determine what your common responses would be no matter the crisis.
Lead with your values.
Regardless of the type of crisis you face, your organization must step out with a statement that frames the situation. Let people know what lens you’re looking through and help them see through that lens, too. If, for example, people are angry because of how a crisis is affecting them personally, you can shift the conversation by sharing your organization’s concern about a broader group. People may not agree with your position but understanding it may quiet some of their criticism.
In my work with schools, districts, and county offices of education, we have framed every crisis with the primary goal of protecting the physical and emotional safety of students. Everything else takes a back seat. This has been the case in crises as diverse as a cockroach infestation, a potential school shooter, a teacher accused of sexually inappropriate relations with a student, and the coronavirus pandemic.
Examples of additional values include safeguarding staff, making decisions based on a thorough examination of facts, collaborating with recognized experts in the field (the field varies depending on the crisis), and a commitment to reducing discrimination and its harmful impacts, often through identifying and removing systemic barriers to equity for underrepresented groups.
Provide a Coherent Narrative
Regardless of the type of crisis, people want to make sense of the situation. If you provide a coherent narrative, they will usually use that. In a void, they will fill in the details with whatever makes the most sense to them, even if their imagined truth has little connection to the facts. It is in your best interest to get information out as quickly as possible and to let all interested parties know when and where to find additional information as it becomes available. In short, follow these steps:
- Name a single spokesperson
- Determine the best pathways to engage all of your key audiences (with two-way communication)
- Engage others in sharing accurate information
Naming a single spokesperson helps ensure a consistent message, and consistency is key to building trust. During a crisis, if people believe you are telling the truth, even if they don’t like that truth, they are more likely to keep listening.
Use a Variety of Communication Pathways
By establishing a variety of communication pathways, you can reach multiple audiences, including traditionally underrepresented and/or vulnerable populations. During a crisis, you’re often in a race against misinformation and, to quote Mark Twain (or whoever said this), “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still pulling its boots on.”
For truth to win, you’ve got to think carefully about your audiences and to reach out where they are most likely to pay attention. Who uses social media? Who uses traditional media—broadcast, print? What languages do people speak? Who checks their computer regularly for emails? Who doesn’t have a computer but will read texts on their cell phone? Regardless of official titles, who are the trusted opinion leaders in each community because they tend to share a lot of information very quickly?
Consider non-traditional means of spreading information if it means safeguarding or helping people. For example, when I was working with an organization that wanted to distribute Covid-19 Relief Funds to those struggling to afford rent and food, including people who are undocumented, we posted flyers in English and Spanish in local Laundromats and called local property management companies so they could let people who paid late know assistance was available. Do not let traditional pathways inhibit creative pathways. Each crisis is unique, and your communication pathways should reflect that.
Another creative pathway includes amplifying your message by reaching out to your allies. Identify the people and organizations who serve the same causes you do, who care about the same populations. Who wins if you win? Empower those people and organizations with information. Start with internal audiences because members of the public and the media will go to them for the inside scoop. You don’t want employees, union representatives, or board members saying, “Gee, I don’t know what’s going on. I’m in the dark, too.” You want them sharing your talking points.
Then think about external allies. Make politicians look good; let them be the heroes with accurate information. Reach out to the gossipy parents and share the details with them so they can share accurate information with their personal networks. Consider who people turn to and will trust to have good information, and provide those people with talking points: leaders in the faith community, the medical community, elected leadership positions, and so on.
Crisis Communication Checklist
In a nutshell, to weather a crisis, you’ll need to do the following:
- Gather your team and name your spokesperson.
- Verify the facts of the crisis using reliable sources.
- Identify your stakeholders.
- Identify potential partners.
- Release holding statements while developing key message points.
- Use key message points and to create content for all stakeholders (e.g., press release, social media posts, employee scripts, website FAQs). Lead with your values and remember, not everyone speaks English or uses a computer to get their news.
- Create a timeline to publish information so internal audiences can help spread accurate information.
- Respond to inquiries quickly and accurately.
- Keep communicating until the crisis is over.
- Review your performance.
One last word of advice: work with your legal team and your communications team to find a balance. Your legal team’s job is to help you adhere to the law and to limit your liability. The legal piece is often fairly straightforward, but the best way to limit liability can be harder to discern. Admitting culpability can be a dicey strategy, but a heartfelt apology can be a powerful statement that brings closure to a difficult situation.