Crisis Communication for Schools: Part 3 Pain, Problem and Predicament

By Gerard Braud

Information drives the world. It drives opinion, it causes misconceptions, and it causes confusion. Information — good and bad — is at our fingertips 24/7 though mobile devices and the Internet. Yet in crisis after crisis, official communications is slow. Slow communications often leads to additional deaths and injuries.

USF Web Crisis All ClearIn any sudden crisis, a crisis communications team, with authorization from the crisis management team, should be able to do three things:

1) Hold a news conference

2) Post information to the internet.

3) Use a variety of communications channels to issue detailed information within one hour or less of the onset of the crisis.

As soon as a school shooting takes place, several things happen. First, there is the onslaught of media who will begin interviewing misinformed, hysterical parents and students. At the same time there is a clear absence of an official spokesperson from the school, who could be providing reliable information. Secondly, social media is buzzing with rumors, innuendos, and filled with constant inappropriate and insensitive opinions and comments.

A crisis communications plan solves this problem.

The consistent problem is that in a crisis, actionable information from reliable, knowledgeable, and official sources is lacking. The functions commonly known as public relations, media relations, employee communications and customer (parent/student) communications are often an after thought, relegated to those who have many other responsibilities for other aspects of the crisis. This must change and change quickly.

The future requires that rapid communications of relevant, accurate and actionable information must be made a priority by way of the development and implementation of crisis communications plans in all schools. It requires that key individuals in each school be assigned new communication responsibilities and that they receive training on crisis communications. While certain key individuals manage the crisis, others must manage the communications.

Many documents that purport to be a “Crisis Communications Plan” are not worth the paper they are written on. Most are superficial duplicates of a misguided attempt by schools to list a set of standard operating policies and public relations basics. These fall far short of equipping school leadership and their staff with the necessary tools to communicate rapidly and effectively in a crisis. A properly written crisis communications plan goes far beyond standard operating policy. It gives specific directives, assigned to specific individuals, on an assigned timetable. This ensures that truthful information reaches the media and the masses before misguided rumors spread by word of mouth and social media.

Historically, most organizations “wing it” on the day of their crisis, treating communications as an afterthought amid frustrations of the onslaught of media coverage. Done correctly, on a clear sunny day, an organization must strategize about their vulnerabilities and potential crises, then begin to write a crisis communications plan with clear directives on how and when to respond when any crisis reaches a flash point. This process is often tedious and time consuming because there are very few true expects in this body of knowledge. Implemented correctly on a clear sunny day and used correctly during a crisis, the crisis communications plan will ensure that any school can communicate detailed information to the media and the masses within one hour or less of the onset of a crisis. Achieving this level of speed requires effort beyond just writing the crisis communications plan. It requires that on a clear sunny day, an entire library of pre-written news releases with fill-in-the-blank and multiple choice options is also written, so there is a full library of one hundred or more templates that address most, if not all, of the potential crises identified during the vulnerability assessment.

Your assignment for this article is to plan a day to begin discussing all the things that might go wrong at your school. List them as part of a vulnerability assessment. If the list looks frightening, then good. Will it frighten you enough to take the next step and begin writing a crisis communications plan and your pre-written templates? For most schools the answer is something like, “we would love to have that, but we don’t have time,” or “that’s not in the budget.” If you miss the opportunity to do the right thing on a clear sunny day, you will pay the price on your darkest day.

In our next article we will examine why so many schools (and corporations) are doomed from the beginning because of a major design flaw.

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