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8 Steps to Develop a Strong School Crisis Communications Plan
Andrew Martin

School crisis situations 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 and more content moves online.

With so much essential information now stored online, crisis communications today should not only focus on student safety, but also on proactively protecting constituent information. Having all the right tools at your fingertips — aided by the right people at your side — will ensure that your school is prepared for whenever a crisis occurs at your school, no matter the form.

Brief disclaimer: we are not doing a deep dive into creating an intensive communications plan. Instead, we will focus on one small part of that plan: privacy and data protection.

Here's what you'll need to consider when developing a strong crisis communications plan:  

  1. A Data Privacy Policy

  2. Private and Safe Digital Communication Tools

  3. A Post-Crisis Public Relations Strategy 

  4. Keen Insight into Your School’s Current Policy 

  5. Plan for the Worst

  6. Practice, Practice, Practice

  7. The First Few Hours are the Most Crucial

  8. Review, Learn, and Revise After a Crisis

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?

The list of vital questions schools frequently ask can seemingly go on forever. 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, as well. 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 is 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:

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

  2. Photos in a public media gallery should not contain photos of students or teachers that are personally identifiable. We encourage liberal use of stunning imagery across all Finalsite websites as a marketing essential, but exclude names, graduation year, hometown, and any other personal information. Constituent privacy always tops marketing.

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

  4. Public pages should not reflect student or teacher schedules. The same goes for athletic schedules.

Two men reviewing notes on a page between laptops

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.

2. Private and Safe Digital Communication Tools

Personally identifiable and private information should always be placed behind a password-protected page.

The only people who really need to know detailed information about faculty, staff, events, and media, are your constituents. They can quickly and easily access this information using their passwords for password-protected pages.

Finalsite calls password-protected pages Portals. These private online communities provide constituent groups — including students, parents, faculty and alumni — immediate access to any information they need, be it athletic and class schedules, to directories and online forms.

Private communities also provide immediate and safe communications during, and even after, any form of crisis. Use notifications (or timed notifications) to display important information right on the login screen. Portals can be your safest and best communication tool during a crisis.

If privacy of constituent data is ever compromised, you should seek alternate forms of communication — such as social media or email — to communicate next steps for constituents. Social media and email are also useful for emergency situations that require a school to shutdown access to their full website. 

Finalsite partnered with Alert Solutions to provide an all-in-one notification system through their award-winning school notification system, SwiftK12

SwiftK12 works alongside your student information systems (SIS) to more effectively communicate with parents, students, volunteers, and staff members. SwiftK12 includes social media integration, multi-language translation, parent call-back hotline, emergency notifications, and more.

3. A Post-Crisis Public Relations Strategy

Crisis situations are incredibly stressful for faculty and staff, administration, constituents, and even their families. And 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.

Fortunately, you can reduce the stress before it emerges by leveraging social media and SEO.

Social Media

Use social media during a crisis situation to make it clear that constituent safety is a top priority. Social media is already an excellent way to communicate with constituents; being timely and honest during a crisis will help form a positive, long-lasting image and relationships in the long run.

Share updates publically as soon as they become available and are approved by your administration. But make sure you also share information through a private Facebook group to share constituent-only communications during the crisis to ensure those remain secure.

A New Search Engine Strategy

Even in today’s internet world, search engine optimization (SEO) tends to slip under the radar.

As we mentioned earlier, the news media tends to inflate already stressful situations. This extends to the coverage they release during and after your school’s crisis situation. The last thing you want to deal with after handling whatever happens at your school are angry calls and emails from families who read a “negative” or “bad” news story that slams your school for whatever action you take.

As the popular news saying goes, good news tells, but bad news sell. 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 incompentent or slow to act.  

Beat that bad news coverage with your school’s coverage at the top of Google’s results pages. You don’t want the information that your school releases buried on the second or third results page while the news stories are prominently placed at the top of the first page.

After all, 60% of all organic clicks go to the top three search results in Google.

Taking a second, third, or even fourth look at 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 into Your School's Current Policy

Location, location, location. It’s what every real estate agent learns when they first start. Location is just as important when it comes to your school’s privacy policies and strategies.

Your school’s online security and privacy is just as important as your school's physical security and privacy. A rural Oregon boarding school faces far less risk than a school in the heart of  New York City or Boston. Still, any school anywhere can face any variety of crisis situations. 

Two men talking and taking notes on a small wood table

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.

5. Plan for the Worst

There are so many factors in crisis situations 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 can think on their feet, understand confidentiality, 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.

6. Practice, Practice, Practice

Train the crisis team you identified with regular practice. Meet at least annually to practice, review case studies that reflect likely scenarios, and make sure each team member knows their role to play in any given crisis situation. 

Discuss and embrace these four elements for successfully handling any crisis:

  • Timely response

  • Regular, ongoing communications

  • Empathy in all communications

  • Transparency

Annually, your team needs to review your school's crisis plan, update all contact information for team members and board members, and discuss what changes have taken place 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. 

Pencil on a notebook covered in sketches and notes

For example, student civil rights and safety concerns, student-on-student violence, and terrorism threats have all become significant challenges for schools to address. Does your school have a plan in place to address these situations should they ever present a problem? 

7. The First Few Hours are the Most Crucial

The first day of a crisis is critical. The actions your school takes or doesn't take during the first few hours reflects your school community, as well as 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: 

  1. Gather the crisis team - Meeting as a team will help to ensure that everyone has correct and complete information about the situation and can strategize as a team.

  2. Gather the facts – Your decision-makers need to know only the accurate information to make wise decisions. Ignore rumors and speculation. Talk with all parties involved or who might have information. And continue to plan as you gather more information.

  3. 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 at all times. 

  4. 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. Better safe than sorry!

  5. Discuss how you will communicate – Will you be communicating by text, email, via the school's website, or on social media platforms? Make sure you know the answer as soon as possible. 

8: Review, Learn, and Revise After a Crisis

Congratulations! Your school survived a crisis situation. Now it’s time to kick back and relax, right? Wrong! It’s back to business as usual. We know how tempting it can be to get things back to normal as soon as possible, but there are two important steps to handle first:

  • Review

  • Revise

Reviews are important considering the "on-the-job" training your crisis team just received is invaluable. The crisis allowed you to test your plan, see what you may have missed, and allowed you to determine what you can do better or differently for future crisis situations.

There are several important factors to consider:

  1. Do you have the right people on your crisis team? Should you make any changes or additions to the team?

  2. Do team members need any additional training?

  3. Is your contact information complete, accurate, and up-to-date? Review team members, board members, media, and outside resources.

  4. Did your communications systems work smoothly and efficiently?

  5. Was security able to adequately handle the media, if that was an issue?

  6. Was your messaging well-received by all constituents? 

  7. Was your communication plan RETT: Regular and ongoing, Empathetic, Timely and Transparent.

  8. Is your list of outside resources adequate?

Carefully update your crisis plan as needed. It can take a while, but every minute spent reviewing and editing your crisis plan could shave hours or days off the next post-crisis round-up.

Key Takeaway

We at Finalsite pride ourselves on the relationships we build with all of our schools. They’re relationships that we’ve built over the years, sometimes more than a decade for schools that have been with us the longest. Regardless of the crisis situation your school may face, our Support staff is here to provide 24-7 emergency support to ensure your constituents receive the communications important to them as soon as possible.

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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.

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