School crises come in several forms: a PR scandal, cyber hacking, a natural disaster, and even an on-campus security threat.
As if managing a school isn’t already difficult, these extraneous circumstances make it even more challenging for schools to maintain a strong safeguard for their constituents and their information, especially as technology advances.
Having all the right communication tools at your fingertips — aided by the right people at your side — will help you prepare for whatever comes your way. Here's what you'll need to consider to develop a crisis communication plan for your school:
The list of vital questions schools frequently ask can seemingly continue forever.
- What kind of information should we put on our website?
- Should we provide the location of our events?
- Should these policies carry over to our social media?
- How do we prepare for a school emergency crisis?
- How transparent should we be?
- What communication tools should we use for our crisis response?
Discuss these questions with your school administration office and/or board, and come up with appropriate solutions to privacy concerns unique to your school.
It’s always a great idea to involve your school community. Send out a survey to ask for their input and thoughts on how they would like their information shared and how they would like to access information that's important to them.
If your school or district ever finds itself in a situation where maximum privacy and security are top priorities, here are some important considerations:
- Public calendar events should not contain detailed information regarding the location, time, and names of internal and external constituents.
- Photos in a public media gallery should exclude names, graduation year, hometown, and any other personal information. Privacy always comes before marketing.
- Public pages on your site that list after-school activities should not provide a specific location.
- Public pages should not reflect student or staff members' schedules. The same goes for athletic schedules.
Instead, use password-protected pages or Portals to make this information quickly accessible to your school community. When digital security is compromised, passwords for all Portal users can be reset in bulk — preventing further issues before they arise.
Personally identifiable and private information should always be placed behind a password-protected page.
During a school crisis, the efficacy and timeliness of communications can profoundly influence outcomes, mitigating panic and ensuring safety. Mass communication channels serve as vital tools in sending accurate information swiftly to all relevant stakeholders, be it parents, staff, students, or the wider community. It's essential to use multiple channels to make sure everyone receives your message.
How should you communicate the facts? Here are a few common approaches:
A single message can have multiple facets, and each communication channel has its strengths. While email newsletters might be excellent for detailed communication, mass notifications can be more immediate and direct for urgent updates. Use each platform to its maximum potential, but ensure the core message remains consistent.
Whether it's a direct text message, an email blast, a voice call, a mobile app notification, or a social media post, the right channel can make all the difference.
- Email newsletters, for instance, provide depth, allowing for comprehensive details, backstories, and context. They’re ideal when you want to dive deep into a subject.
- Mass notifications are direct, attention-grabbing, and immediate. They're your go-to when time is of the essence, like notifying parents of unexpected school closures due to weather conditions. Mobile app notifications are fantastic for quick updates and reminders; text messages are great for personalized, brief alerts; voice messages add a human touch and can enhance emotional connection; and website notifications are great for hosting and linking to more detailed information
Crisis situations are incredibly stressful for faculty and staff, administration, constituents, and even their families. As we all should know by now, the 24/7 news media inflates already hectic situations with added stress and pressure that comes with live and long-term coverage.
Alert the media
This extends to the coverage they release during and after your school’s crisis. The last thing you want to deal with are angry calls and emails from families who read a “negative” or “bad” news story that slams your school for whatever action you take.
No matter how masterfully you handle a situation, your local news station or newspaper will find a creative way to spin the story to create a more interesting story that usually paints the school as incompetent or slow to act.
Keep Reading: How to Improve Your School District's Public Relations
During a stressful and hectic time, the media becomes your best friend. The first 30 minutes after a crisis are the most crucial. Giving the public anything more than that gives them opportunities to conjure their own stories and opinions, ultimately affecting the truth.
Don't let the media cover the story before you get your message out. It's your job to minimize the negative rumors and communicate the positives. You can approach this in a few ways:
- Take to social media 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. Website notifications and push notifications can be on your public site or shared privately in password-protected portals
- Hold a news conference, which is a great way to notify many people quickly
Designate a spokesperson
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 a heavy weight on their shoulders. It is their job to communicate that the district has control of the situation and calm public concern.
Hopefully, the crisis is not that serious, but it is best to be prepared. The spokesperson should possess 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.
Your school’s online security and privacy are just as important as your school's physical security and privacy. A rural Oregon school faces far less risk than a school in the heart of New York City or Boston. Still, any school anywhere can face a variety of crisis situations.
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.
There are so many factors in a crisis that you can’t control. However, you, the leader of the crisis team, can do two things proactively:
- Determine who should be on the crisis team: Identify people who do well under stress and have proven skills and experience dealing with tense situations.
- Develop a written crisis plan that identifies: the most likely crisis scenarios, team members and contact information, school spokesperson, possible outside resources, communication methods to be used, and basic templates of constituent communication that can be edited to fit the situation.
Train the crisis team you identified with regular practice. Meet to practice, review case studies that reflect likely scenarios, and ensure each team member knows their role in any crisis.
Discuss these elements for successfully handling any crisis:
- Timely response
- Regular, ongoing communications
- Empathy in all communications
Your team needs to review your school's crisis plan, update all contact information and phone numbers for emergency managers, critical staff, and board members, and discuss changes in the last year. These changes include what new types of crises other schools may have experienced. Determine how your school plans to address new issues and crisis situations as they emerge.
For example, student civil rights and safety concerns, student-on-student violence, and terror threats have become significant challenges for schools. Does your school have a plan in place to address these situations should they ever present a problem?
The first hours of a crisis are critical. The actions your school takes or doesn't take during the first few hours reflect your school community and who you are as a leader. The right actions can either help or hurt your school's reputation for years to come.
Here’s what you need to do once a crisis happens:
- Gather the crisis team - Meeting as a team will help ensure that everyone has correct and complete information about the situation and can strategize.
- Gather the facts – Your decision-makers need to know only the accurate information to make smart decisions. Ignore rumors and speculation. Talk with all parties involved or who might have information. And continue to plan as you gather more information.
- Determine who needs to know what and when - Do you need to report the incident to Child Protective Services? Report to the local authorities? Should you put your insurance carrier on notice? Make sure you can answer all of these questions as soon as possible and have the necessary numbers or other contact information on hand.
- Form your messaging plan as you go - Keep your messaging consistent, empathetic, transparent, and timely. Prepare messages even if you will not be notifying members of your school community.
- Discuss how you will communicate – Will you communicate by text, email, via the school's website, or social media platforms? Make sure you know the answer as soon as possible.
Getting things back to normal as soon as possible can be tempting, but there are two important steps to handle first: Review and revise.
Reviews are important, considering the "on-the-job" training your crisis team just received. The crisis allowed you to test your plan, see what you may have missed, and determine what you can do better or differently for future crisis situations.
There are several important factors to consider:
- Do you have the right people on your crisis team? Should you make any changes or additions to the team?
- Do team members need any additional training?
- Is your contact information complete, accurate, and up-to-date? Review team members, board members, media, and outside resources.
- Did your communications systems work smoothly and efficiently?
- Was your messaging well-received by all constituents?
- Was your communication plan RETT: Regular, Empathetic, Timely, and Transparent?
Carefully update your crisis plan as needed. Every minute you spend reviewing and editing your crisis plan could shave hours or days off the next post-crisis round-up.
Schools today face a multitude of potential crises, from cyber threats to on-campus emergencies. Effective crisis management hinges on an agile, comprehensive strategy that ensures timely, transparent, and empathetic communications. Your school must be proactive in its preparation, and by integrating these strategies, you can safeguard your information and maintain your reputation in even the most challenging circumstances.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
As Finalsite’s Product Marketing Specialist, Andrew writes blogs and creates videos to share information about all the latest and greatest Finalsite products. Andrew has more than 10 years of video production experience and a journalism education from the University of South Carolina. He is excited about bringing his experience and expertise to Finalsite.