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Digital Crisis Communications for Schools
Mia Major

Today, the word "crisis" connotes numerous situations: a PR scandal, cyber hacking, a natural disaster, and even an on-campus security threat.

And, as technology advances and digitalizing content becomes the standard and expectation at schools around the world, it becomes more difficult for schools to maintain a strong safeguard for their constituents and their information.

With that being said, crisis communications today should not only focus on student safety, but also on proactively protecting constituent information. And, having the right tools at your fingertips — and of course, the right people by your side — will ensure that your school is prepared for when a crisis takes place.

woman typing on laptop

Brief disclaimer: we're not going to take a deep dive into creating a communications plan. There are tons of great resources available that outline how to create and implement an effective plan. (We like this one in particular). Rather, we're going to talk about one small piece of that plan: privacy and data protection.

Here's what you'll need.

1. A Data Privacy Policy and Strategy

What kind of information should we put on our website? Should our staff directory include first and last names? What about emails? Should we provide the location of our events? Should these policies also be enacted on our social media? How transparent should we be during a crisis? What should we use to communicate during a crisis? What are the laws for data privacy at the state and national levels?

For schools, that list of questions goes on and on. Take the time to meet with your school administration and/or board to discuss questions like these in depth, and come up with appropriate solutions to privacy concerns. You can also survey your constituents to get their thoughts on how they would like their information shared, and how they would like to access information that is important to them.

With recent events in Europe, many schools there have had to quickly rethink the public nature of some info on their websites. If you find yourself in a time or place where maximum privacy and security are top priorities, here are some things to consider.

Public calendar events should not contain detailed information regarding the location, time, and names of invited constituents.

Photos in a public media gallery should not contain photos of students or teachers that are personally identifiable. Of course, including images of students on your website is essential to marketing your school online, but including names, graduation year, or hometown could be a risky move, and constituent privacy is your top priority.

Public pages on your site that list after school activities should not provide a location or maps.

Public pages should not reflect student or teacher schedules. Consider this same practice for athletic schedules.

You can use password-protected pages, or Portals, to make this information quickly accessible instead. When digital security is compromised, passwords for all Portal users can be reset in bulk — proactively preventing further issues.

2. Private and Safe Digital Communication Tools

It's always recommended that personally identifiable and private information is stored behind a password-protected page.

The only people who really need to know detailed information about faculty, staff, events, and media, are your constituents. And all this information can be easily accessible to them using private online communities.

At Finalsite we call these password-protected pages Portals or private online communities. These private online communities provide constituent groups — including students, parents, faculty and alumni — with immediate access to any information they need, from athletic and class schedules to the faculty directory and online forms.

Private communities will also allow for immediate and safe communications during a crisis. Using pop-up notifications that appear at login, Portals can be your safest and best communication tools during a crisis.

In the case where the privacy of constituent data is compromised, you will want to seek alternate forms of communication — such as social media or email — to communicate next steps for constituents. Crisis mode is also useful for emergency situations that require a school to shutdown access to their full website, or can be used to communicate an important message that should be seen on all pages.

3. A Post-Crisis Public Relations Strategy

A crisis triggers an immense amount of stress for and attention to school leadership and administration from constituents and their families. Even more so however, the news media has a tendency to intensify that stress and pressure with live and long-term coverage, but you can work hard to lift the shadows before they settle by leveraging social media and SEO.

Social Media

Using social media during your school's crisis will make it clear that constituent safety is a top priority to anyone who looks at your networks. Since social media is an excellent way to communicate with constituents, being timely and honest during the crisis will benefit your school's digital image and relationships in the long run. Be sure to share some updates publically as soon as they become available and are approved by your administration. However, you should also use a private Facebook group to share constituent-only communications during the crisis to ensure those remain secure.

Looking for a starting point? We love these five tips on using social media for crisis communications.

A New Search Engine Strategy

This one slips under everyone's radar.

As competition gets steeper and information becomes more easily available online, you are not going to want your school's crisis to be the first thing that pops up in a Google search.

60% of all organic clicks go to the top three search results in Google. So, revving up your SEO strategy to ensure your Admissions and Student Life sections come before local news articles on your school's crisis will keep "bad press" from hindering your school's image online.

4. Keen Insight to Your School's Current Policy

>When it comes to privacy policies and strategies, location matters.

Online security and privacy mirrors a school's physical security and privacy. A boarding school nestled in the hills of Wyoming faces much less risk then a school in the heart of a metropolitan city; if you have multiple officers checking IDs at your school's main gate, you maybe shouldn't share tons pictures of your kindergartners at the park; and so on.

Before enacting any new policies, conduct a complete review and analysis of your school's current safety and security to determine which kind of information can in fact be shared on the website, and which kind should be protected.

At Finalsite, we pride ourselves on the relationships we make with our clients. Whether it's a natural disaster or security threat, our Support staff provides 24-7 emergency support to ensure your constituents receive the communications important to them. Learn more about our team of experts and how we can help you be prepared.

  • Crisis Communications
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