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School crisis communications: tips to not get burned when putting out fires

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By Joe Donovan
Feb 6, 2020 9:44:21 AM


AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks to Donovan Group associates Jerry Gallagher and Liam Goldrick for their contributions to this article.

Every public school district in the nation holds regular fire drills and lockdown drills, with clear steps for exactly what should happen if a catastrophe should occur.

Much less common are communication drills, in which school district leaders run through the steps they will take if any number of crisis situations arise. These situations can range from the simply embarrassing to the truly tragic—and just about everything in between. 

Ideally, every district should prepare a written crisis communications plan, establish a crisis management team and know how district and school leaders will communicate when time is of the essence.  

Below are four key questions to answer when managing these urgent situations:

1. What are the facts?

Before you do anything, gather all the known facts. Get dates, times, locations and names. Gather this information as quickly as you can and write it all down for future reference. Determine who else knows about the situation and find out if anyone has called the police.

As you gather facts, double-check everything and ask for clarification regarding any gaps. When you’re comfortable you have what you need, write down the time and date of when you received the information, along with how you got it and who gave it to you.

2. Who needs to know?

Determine with whom you should communicate and when. This is important to know ahead of time, as identifying these stakeholders can feel overwhelming in the heat of a crisis.

There are generally two tiers of communication that need to take place during and after a crisis situation. Tier I communications are those that must happen right away. Tier II communications can take place in the hours or days afterward. 

Determine who you need to reach now (Tier I) and who you will communicate to in the next several hours or tomorrow (Tier II). Where do various audiences fit into your Tier I and Tier II communications priorities? The possibilities may include law enforcement agencies, school board members, district legal counsel, parents, staff members and the local news media. 

3. Who communicates?

Typically, a superintendent contacts Tier I individuals during the early stages of a crisis by phone. Make those calls and keep a record of all conversations. 

Every superintendent should have trusted colleagues who can assist in managing a school crisis. This is important for two reasons. First, Tier I communications tend to take up a lot of time. This is especially true if the matter is a law enforcement issue. These colleagues may help draft letters to parents and staff and field calls from the media. 

Second, school and district leaders often underestimate the mental and emotional energy communicating during a crisis consumes. Having others assist you during this difficult time can reduce the stress these situations tend to cause.

4. What do we say and how do we say it?

Your method of communicating, the tone of your message and the amount of information you can share will be determined by the situation, what you’ve been able to find out and your ethical and legal responsibilities. The communication channels you use (such as phone, email, text messages, website or news releases) may depend on the situation and the audiences with which you must communicate.

Your goals should include consistency of message across all channels and spokespersons as well as a demonstration of empathy, honesty and transparency. Reassure stakeholders that the safety of students and staff is your top priority. 

In working with the news media, timely and regular responses are critical. Be honest and clear about what you know and do not know. Establish a timeframe and medium for how you will keep reporters informed of new developments or key actions and decisions.

Be mindful of your legal and ethical responsibilities to protect student and staff privacy. In some situations, sharing as many details as possible is well advised. In others, especially those directly involving specific students, you must be careful not to divulge information that would violate confidentiality requirements.

Be active in your communication

Most importantly, communicate! The first hour of a crisis situation sets the tone for the district’s transparency and overall response. Be truthful and direct about what information you cannot share publicly. Contact all critical stakeholders who need to know in the early stages of a crisis, and follow up when more information becomes known.

If you set the right tone, even if you stumble along the way, you will have developed goodwill upon which you can draw later. You will come away from a crisis situation having addressed the issue as best you could, with a committed team around you and a broad set of stakeholders who have come to truly trust your leadership.

If you would like help with a crisis situation or would like to learn more about crisis communication planning, call the Donovan Group at 800-317-7147 or contact us online.

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About the author

Prior to founding the Donovan Group, Joe was vice president of an education research firm, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and a director in the office of US Senator Herb Kohl. Joe has a MA degree in educational policy studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is also the founder of ProPRcopy and DonovanGHC.