In a recent conversation with Kyle Bueschlen, Senior Communications Specialist & Systems Supervisor at the Western Academy of Beijing (WAB), we were keenly interested in their approach to communication due to the school’s closure arising from the coronavirus (COVID-19). The school’s ability to continue communication regardless of where students, faculty and staff were (inside or outside of China) and the ability to continue with lessons via online systems is commendable and informative. We asked Kyle to share WAB’s story so that other schools might benefit from their experience, not only during this ongoing crisis, but also in the future. Below you will find our guest blog written by Kyle.
No matter what industry you’re in, much of the value of effective public relations comes from being proactive and getting out in front of challenges before they develop into bigger issues. Every so often, however, an unprecedented external crisis emerges that has wide-ranging effects on an organization. COVID-19 “coronavirus” is just such an event and has had a profound effect on the international school community with closures in China and beyond. At Western Academy of Beijing, our goal in this situation was how to best support and help ensure the safety of students, parents, teachers, and the wider community.
What is Best Practice for School Communication During a Crisis?
The latest research shows that the following five elements are key to effective crisis communication strategy:
1. Respond to a crisis as quickly and professionally as possible.
Crises are a time of great uncertainty and the community needs information to act on.
2. Lead the conversation.
Provide facts as they become available and keep the community updated on any changes as they happen. This is especially important during a crisis as fluid as COVID-19, where changes and new policies may appear daily.
3. Become part of the solution.
Let different groups in the community know in tailored, targeted communication what steps are being taken to ensure students are safe and their quality of learning continues, together with the well-being of parents and school employees.
4. Foster an environment of trust, respect, and transparency.
This will go a long way to preserve and foster those great relationships the school has with its parents, students, employees, and greater community.
5. Finally, communicate with compassion.
Creating and maintaining goodwill through caring, empathy, and feedback mechanisms can go a long way to preserving and fostering relationships with your community. Look to your school’s mission and values to guide you.
Why Online Systems are Crucial for Effective Crisis Communication.
The best crisis communication strategies are supported by excellent technology solutions – mass emails and SMS messages can get information to constituents instantly, no matter where they are in the world. Online message boards offer opportunities for two-way communication, and video offers a more personalized touch. However, best practice indicates an integrated approach to crisis communication for best coverage.
Western Academy of Beijing’s crisis communications use this approach with a strategic mix of both Finalsite and Microsoft platforms. The more robust and flexible the platform, the easier it is to be agile during a crisis – for example, making a crisis page infrastructure personalized to user needs as quickly as possible using Composer, or setting up different discussion groups for staff on Yammer.
In our situation, parents are given constant updates with tailored emails through Messages that link back to a comprehensive set of web pages on our private Parent Portal that serves as an information hub. This may include:
- A landing page with important information and news, as well as counselor tips and wellness articles
- A customized FAQ generated from updates the school receives and parent questions
- Detailed pages for each school section to support online learning if necessary
Learning Must Still Go On.
Online learning is facilitated through Moodle, which our faculty and middle and high school students are already familiar with. Even so, it’s important to offer support for those that need a refresher during a crisis where school closure and online learning becomes necessary. Online learning is a constantly evolving process, where feedback and improvements week-to-week help ensure that the quality of student learning is as high as possible.
On the employee side of effective crisis communication, we’ve used internal emails, discussion boards on Yammer, WeChat groups, and video conferencing. This mix of communication allows for constant contact and dialogue with employees.
Connecting, Inspiring, Challenging and Making a Difference.
The most effective communication strategy takes long-term school goals into account but is flexible enough to be reactive to change, which is a necessity during a crisis. By incorporating all of the various elements of best practice in crisis communication, shared values between a school and its community are reinforced and relationships that might otherwise be strained can be preserved and even strengthened.
In closing, it may not always be possible to plan for every crisis, but every crisis strategy can benefit from following the guiding principles of a school’s mission, which almost certainly follows communication best practice in spirit. WAB’s is “Connect, Inspire, Challenge: Make a Difference,” and this shines through in all of our communication decisions and content – putting our students, parents, and employees first, keeping them informed, and remembering that we are all in this together, no matter what challenges we face.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kyle is an American communications professional with almost 15 years of international experience in the field. He has worked in healthcare, agency public relations, and now education. Kyle is trained in crisis communication management and helped lead communications for China’s largest international healthcare provider during the H1N1 pandemic, the country’s vaccine scandal, and many other local-level crises. He is currently working as Senior Communications Specialist & Systems Supervisor for the Western Academy of Beijing.