- General Best Practices
Since before the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic, schools around the world have been propelled into unparalleled crisis communications mode. In a recent Finalsite webinar hosted by CEO Jon Moser, a panel of school marketing experts from large international schools in Asia openly shared their experiences to an audience of 800 school professionals from over 60 countries around the world.
The panelists included: Kevin Lynch, director of marketing and communications at Shanghai American School; Irina Mach, director of marketing communications and admissions at Western Academy of Beijing; and Kyle Aldous, director of strategic communications at Singapore American School. The panelists began by sharing a timeline of the situation at their school and the impact of the coronavirus on their communications and operations.
Shanghai American School and the Western Academy of Beijing both closed their campuses and have been providing online learning to their communities. The closures began during a scheduled holiday at the end of January 2020, leaving their families, faculty and staff spread around the world—in the case of Shanghai American—in 20 different time zones.
The third school, Singapore American School, remains open as of this writing, but has strict guidelines in place to protect their community. Simultaneously, leadership has been busy preparing in the event the school needs to close.
What lessons can we learn from these schools regarding crisis communication and distance learning? A lot! In this blog, I’m sharing my top (fourteen!) takeaways from the webinar.
1. Realize no preparation is enough
All the planning for various situations did not prepare them for anything like a pandemic – and you’re likely feeling the same way. Looking back, Director of Marketing & Communications Kevin Lynch from Shanghai American School stated that back in January they thought they would be back February 17.“Our academic team and operations team put together an online learning program that would cover us for the two weeks,” he said. “I mentioned this timeline specifically because I think a lot of what we are already looking back on was that we built something for two weeks, and ultimately, we're in our sixth week now. I think if we had to go back and do some things differently, it would be to really plan for the long term, then you can always pare back.”
"I think if we had to go back and do some things differently, it would be to really plan for the long term, then you can always pare back.”
2. Be able to adjust and pivot
What most schools thought were worst case scenarios included schools closing for a few snow days or maybe a week for something else, but this situation has proven vastly more serious. These schools are into six weeks of closure with no end in sight. So being flexible and able to pivot is critical.
Kevin stated: “We've been continuing to improve across the board both our distance learning and the way we're communicating. I think we're ending up in a good place but it's probably taken us a couple weeks to get to where we should.”
He continued, “there have been a few plot twists. As much as we game plan different scenarios, I don't know if anyone ever, in January or early February said in China, "I'll bet, in a month, it's even more dangerous in Italy." So there's definitely been a lot of curve balls, and I do think, actually, the scenario planning that I was just joking about has been a really valuable exercise for us, a sort of "what if?" Really playing out those types of scenarios so that as the game does kind of shift, you don't feel like you're in territory that you haven't at least debated to some degree.”
Director of Communication Kyle Aldous from Singapore American School shared that their Head of School said something to the effect - The goal here isn't to create more of a crisis than we need to. How can we maintain normalcy in many ways? So we're not going to wait a few days as we get procedures and protocols. We're going to iterate as we go, because that's kind of the mantra of the school. Kyle continued: “We want to be able to be always learning, and always tweaking and evolving. And so we basically decided we're going to bring the entire community on board with this process.”
3. Don’t try to be a COVID-19 expert
Kevin clearly stated: “One of the things that we've tried to separate is, we never want to be the experts on coronavirus, because we never will be. But we did want to very much be the experts on everything that we've said, and make sure those things are consistent and linked, and kind of bread-crumbing decisions that we know we have to make.”
4. Stay in contact with government authorities and other schools
Each school has a core crisis team with senior leadership, and has kept in constant contact with government authorities. They also emphasized the importance of peer schools both locally and abroad to collaborate on topics such as: What are you hearing? What are government affairs officers saying? Are they looking at closing or not?
Kyle stated: “Having a fairly consistent message with all the other international schools makes it easier for our community and our teachers as well. So that, for me, and looking back at it, was something that was very, very important. And so, Kevin and I talk a lot. I know that my head of school talks a lot with Kevin's head of school. There is a group of directors of communications, directors of operations, and head of schools that all seem to. We now live on WeChat on a daily basis, just to see how everything's going.”
5. Keep teachers informed
Keeping teachers informed is critical in order to keep everyone in the loop and everyone on the same page. Director of Marketing Communications and Admissions Irina Mach from Western Academy of Beijing shared that they make sure that the teacher communication goes out first, and then the community communication. They prepare both, and the teacher communication goes out about five or 10 minutes before the community communication. This has proven to keep everybody in the loop and everyone on the same page.
6. Be transparent
They all concurred that they knew their decisions would not always be popular but it has been critical to share with their community the logic behind the decisions and what they were basing decisions on. Irina stressed; “We're a very transparent school, so we try to share as much information as possible, and some of the thinking behind why we did what we did. So I think that also helped a lot with the communication side as well. We have a lot of trust from our community, and we've had a lot of very positive responses for our communication.”
Kyle concurred stating: we're going to make sure that we're transparent in all of the different things that we're doing to keep the school safe and to promote student health and student safety and community safety as a whole. So, we continue to share topics like increasing the cleaning staff, number of nurses, and so on. We're showing how we're aligned with what the government's recommended, how we're trying to go above and beyond.”
"We're a very transparent school, so we try to share as much information as possible, and some of the thinking behind why we did what we did."
7. Be consistent
The panel stressed over and over again that clear and consistent messaging is crucial.
Irina detailed: “We knew from the moment that we sent out our first closure notice that communication was going to be really important. We decided for the first week we were going to try and communicate something every day. There was so much uncertainty from the community on what was going to happen next, as well as so much information on how online learning was going to work that sending out some information each day and reinforcing previous messages was key to ensuring that our families felt in control and knew what to do when online learning started. As our community settled into remote learning, we reduced from daily messaging to twice weekly. It was important to keep the same tone of can-do and working together to succeed, as well as continuing to refer back to our communications hub for all key information.”
Kevin shared how they have picked up frequency of a couple additional communications and now have weekly chief academic officer updates focusing on the academics and on the distance learning and how that's improving week to week. They also have a head of school update to reassure the community, to provide updates on when they might be coming back, and the process that they will be operating with on campus to assure safety once people do come back. These touch points are giving confidence that, as a school, they have a plan and know what they are doing.
8. Create a central location for all communications
All three schools stressed the importance of a communication hub. Some are on their public facing sites while others have them behind password-protected portals.
They all use email to drive traffic to their communication hubs which are constantly being updated. At Singapore American they send out a daily mobile message to funnel people to their communication hub. Kyle explained that having a series of links on the site to the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health so they can who they are taking guidance from.
This helps their community understand the different iterations of decisions being made. It’s constantly changing and having information in one place is critical.
9. Use email as main communication tool
Irina stated that they made it very clear that all official communication would come via email so everyone should check their emails. Social media has too much chatter and is not always clear. Irina shared that emails surrounding the virus have had the highest read rates and their microsite is their highest-performing site. She stated: “We can see every day parents were logging on. They were looking at it. They were reading everything. They were clicking back on old emails. So this, again, was very useful to see.”
10. Assure community that you are all in this together
Kyle stated that his school leadership really wanted to stress that they are all in this together as a community. “There are things that we can do to support one another, and we want to try and celebrate some of those little things that happen along the way. We've had several small groups, or subsets of the community who have had different concerns about different things along the way. And our head of school has been phenomenal about saying, "Okay, gather this group. Let me meet with them in a small group setting so that I can really address them and make sure that they feel heard as individuals, as opposed to just saying, 'Okay. Well, let's add it to the FAQs' ..." They are still adding it to the FAQ, but the personal touch has really been important in making people feel connected and heard.
"There are things that we can do to support one another, and we want to try and celebrate some of those little things that happen along the way."
11. Take care of emotional wellbeing
Schools shutting down, quarantine, missing events, missing friends, learning at home, cabin fever - all major stress factors for everyone — teachers, students, parents. The panel all concurred that involving your counseling staff is critical and each school has issued messaging around how to manage your emotions in these times, providing tips for talking to children of different ages about the virus, and links to other useful websites.
Irina elaborated that her school has a weekly message from the counselors to help support their community. The counselors also publish a weekly message for their teachers because they are also managing a lot of change. “Online learning was a lot more work, they had to suddenly learn to use technology, or more technology than they ever had before, and this was also taking time, and they were stressed about their own family and trying to teach and do online learning at the same time. So again, the counselors stepped up very quickly and shared communications for all the teachers as well as tips on how to manage all of this. And also to reach out. If people needed support, they could call and actually speak to a counselor.”
Setting good routines for online learning was also stressed. Talking to their families about setting routines, making sure children of all ages don't spend all day in front of their computers, making sure they get up exercise, get fresh air and try to have a normal and balanced life as well, because that is what will help with their health, wellbeing, and ability to learn online.
12. Be proactive, not reactive
Being thrust into this situation puts extreme pressure on schools to respond quickly. It's easy to do but very reactive and not always the best approach. Kevin explained the quicker you decide how you want to act and what your message should look like, you will be able to answer questions more quickly and ultimately be better off. That means even waiting a day or so to respond to something that's a hot topic on a gossipy WeChat or WhatsApp or what have you.
Be the thoughtful one to say, "Hey, you know what? The head of school messages come in every Tuesday, and this is a great topic. Let's do it in the context of that." There's an authority that comes with that and a thoughtfulness that I think comes with that time to reflect, to realize that the conversation sometimes finds a really nice middle ground without you having to go in and try and mediate.
13. Practice Empathy
As panic sets in and parents start calling and worrying about their children, empathy is key.
Kyle stated, if a parent comes to you and says, "Hey, I don't feel like my child is safe, and I want to take them out of school," our approach has been, "We completely understand. Here are the things that we're doing, just so that you're aware. But if you feel like this is what's best for you and your family, we support that. And we will support you as best we can.”
14. Share the Positive
Kevin eloquently stated: “We're here to inform, to celebrate, and to unite. And I think in a lot of cases like this, you focus so much on the inform part. You're just trying to keep up on the treadmill. But what's happening right now are some really heroic acts. There are some faculty members and students who are just doing above and beyond through unusual locations, or lack of resources that they would normally count on. And so, we're doing a lot of work in really celebrating those moments, not waiting to look back and go, "Wow, we really did some great things," but rather, in the moment. And then in terms of uniting, I think because we're not charged with the everyday structure of running a school, we do have that opportunity to step back and go, "How can we get everyone to participate?"
There are a lot of schools using social media to share the positive and to keep their communities connected. Little stories of how people are developing, how much more independent students are becoming because they have to manage their own time, and how teachers are doing amazing things with technology and creativity.
Finally, Kevin nicely summarized, and schools around the world will agree:
“My hope, certainly, is obviously to come back, but when we do come back, to make sure that we really appreciate the strides that we've made, the improvements that we've made as an organization, as individuals, and that that doesn't just get left back in that thing that we had to do that one semester in 2020, but rather as something that we can incorporate as we move forward.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
As part of Finalsite's marketing team, Debbie has worked with international schools for the past nine years while living in both Asia and Europe. From conference planning and presentations to association events and client success stories, she helps schools understand how they can maximize their web presence while partnering with Finalsite. As a parent of three children who attended and graduated from IB World Schools, she has keen insights into the marketing and communication operations and needs of international schools.
- Crisis Communications