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Readiness, Response, Recovery: A Guide to Handling Your Public School District's Crisis
Natasha Gavilanez

It is a regular weekday morning. You get yourself out of bed, head downstairs to place your favorite K-cup into your beloved Keurig machine - hoping your coffee has just the right kick to jumpstart your day as a PIO at your local school district.

As you walk into school, you think it is a normal day. Next thing you know; several students fall ill with a severe sickness. Your first thought: Crisis. Your second thought: The next 30 minutes is detrimental to your school's reputation.

The word "crisis" is scary enough to make your stomach turn, and with the statistical likelihood of a school crisis occurring only once every 13,870 years, we often have the "that would never happen here" mentality.

That won't happen to my school. The chance of a crisis happening at my school is so small. There are so many schools out there, why would anything bad occur at my school? My students would never want to hurt others.

It would be a good idea to always expect the unexpected, and more importantly, be ready for a crisis, respond to it, and recover from it.

Crisis Communications for Districts

Here is an effective four-step plan to respond to your district's crisis:

1. Designate a spokesperson

This needs to be your first thought.

Who is the face of this crisis? Who should we choose to communicate all of our messages? Who will the public find the most trustworthy and will most likely sympathize with?

The spokesperson holds heavy weight on their shoulders. It is their job to communicate that the district has control of the situation and calm public concern.

This person possesses the most direct knowledge of the crisis. It would be a good idea to designate these responsibilities to the principal. In more significant crises, the superintendent should take control – hopefully, the crisis is not that serious, but it is best to be prepared.

2. Alert the media

With crisis comes chaos. Take a deep breath – everything will be fine. During a stressful and hectic time, the media becomes your best friend. The first 30 minutes after a crisis are the most crucial. If you give the public anything more than that, it gives them opportunities to conjure their own stories and opinions, ultimately affecting the truth.

You want them on your side.

So whatever you do, don't let the story get covered by the media before you get your message out. It is your job to minimize the negative rumors and communicate the positives. Let the public know that everything is being taken care of, and that both students and staff are safe.

You can approach this in a few ways:

  • Take to social media immediately to share updates with the public
  • Write a news release describing the incident, and what precautions your district is taking
  • Share the press release on your website in the form of a PagePop, or send a push notification to all subscribers. PagePops and push notifications can be on your public site or shared privately in password-protected portals — so consider the different messages you want to share publically and privately.
  • Hold news conference, which is a great way to notify many people quickly. Consider live-streaming the news conference and sharing that with your district community.

3. Form a team to communicate the facts

The word communication is the most important word during a crisis.

After choosing your spokesperson, there's an overwhelming need to inform many, many people. Hopefully, you have a crisis communications team ready to contact the right people with the right information. If you don't have a pre-defined crisis team ready, pull together a group of 3-5 individuals who can help get the message out across various media.

Depending on the crisis, those that need to be notified vary, but in most cases they are:

  • Administration, faculty and staff
  • Students
  • Parents of students
  • Local Community

How should you communicate the facts? Here are a few common approaches:

Social Media

If you have the accessibility, use your school's social media and website tools to provide up-to-the-minute updates. Twitter allows you to share quick updates and links with your followers, while Facebook allows for longer, more in-depth updates. If you have a social media mash-up or embedded social feeds on your website, your social updates will automatically filter into your website, too.

However, if you're not typically active on social media, this may not be your best investment of time, since Twitter and Facebook algorithms favor popular accounts, as well as those who frequently post updates.

Password-Protected Community Portals

Password-protected community portals are your key to sharing up-to-the-minute updates with parents, faculty, and students, without sharing all that information with the public. Portals come equipped with content tools, like news, calendars, PagePops and push notifications that allow you to change content based on your audience. This means, you can share the information only parents need to know in their Portal, rather than on your public site. When you publish a news article, community members who have subscribed, will receive an instant alert on their smartphone.

It is this kind of connectedness that can really set your school apart in terms of responsiveness and communication.

Portals are also a great place to store school safety information that is relevant to any school crisis. Having a "school safety" section of your portal will give parents, faculty, and students their go-to location for all updates and information.

School Safety Portal

Your Public Website

A local school crisis impacts the community — and your district's website can be a great help. During and after the crisis, you can post news updates, blogs, or use PagePops to display important messages with your website visitors. The information going on the public-facing side of your website should be information that can be shared with anyone. You can also use this opportunity to direct community members to log into their portals to access the information they need.

Dividing information by audience, even on your public site, can be helpful too.

Canby Segmented Content

Email

Your parents and faculty are pretty connected to their email — so send out the same messages you're sharing on your website, social media, and in portals, via email. If you use a tool like Finalsite's eNotify, you should already have lists built out by audience, making it easy to copy, paste, and hit send!

4. Control rumors

Your school's reputation is currently at its weakest point. Many people are building opinions, whether they be negative or positive, and it can be tough to handle them. Take time each morning to see what media outlets are saying about your school. Scanning daily newspapers and video reports related to the crisis allows you update your strategy.

Another place rumors can arise is on your social media and website. Concerned parents or faculty may comment on Facebook posts or website news posts — so be sure to always reply. If you would rather handle answering comments privately, send them a message or email.

Aside from social media, simple Google search should bring in the latest digital coverage on your school's crisis.

Google search can also be your enemy for this reason, too. When a crisis occurs at your school, it can drown out the good that is happening. When a parent, prospective parent, or alumni Google your district's name — rather than being brought to your homepage, their search query fills up with news articles with negative comments about your district. You'll need an aggressive SEO and PPC strategy to tackle that.

School Crisis Communications 101

A crisis is something you hope never occurs in your public school district. In the unlikely event of it happening, be ready to respond and recover. Join Jane Hulbert, a crisis communication expert from The Jane Group, and Finalsite CEO Jon Moser for an informative webinar on creating an effective crisis communication plan.


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