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Communication is key in times of crisis

October 27, 2015

It’s 10 p.m. when you get the call.

The police have one of your teachers in custody. They just raided his home and found a basement full of marijuana plants, as well as bags of dried leaves. The teacher was turned in by a high school student, who reported that the teacher not only sold the drug to students, but also hosted “smoke parties” at his home. She provided photos taken on her phone, some of which are already posted on social media sites.

       The media has been calling for the past hour, but you decide to ignore them. After disconnecting your phone, you go to bed.

       Tomorrow is another day. 

 

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to visualize circumstances that could throw a school district into crisis. From bad weather and school violence to legal problems, health epidemics, and facility breakdowns, the opportunities for a crisis present themselves daily.

How your district handles that crisis, however, could have a significant impact on community and taxpayer support.  Denial, failure to communicate, or a slow response, are simply unacceptable.

When a crisis does occur, experts offer these tips:

  • Designate one spokesperson. One spokesperson ensures that all information imparted to the public will be consistent and accurate. Too many “cooks in the kitchen” can not only result in inaccurate information, it also sends a message your district is in chaos. Authorize one person to speak on behalf of the district during a crisis and make sure every employee knows who has been designated as that spokesperson.  Also make it clear no other employee is to speak to the media during a crisis. Finally, select a spokesperson before a crisis occurs, and provide them with the training required to respond calmly, factually, and intelligently when communicating with the media, the general public, parents, students, and employees.
  • Get the facts. It is important to access all available information immediately to develop a strategic response. For example, if an employee is arrested, secure a copy of the police report, and speak with the local district attorney about potential charges and whether the employee has been released from custody. Contact the school district attorney to clarify the procedures for handling the arrest of an employee. Will they be suspended with pay?  Placed on unpaid administrative leave?  Until you are up to speed, disclose what you can about the crisis. A brief statement, such as “We are aware Mr. XXX has been arrested and the matter is under investigation,” is much better than, “No comment.” As more information is secured, keep the all publics informed, updating and correcting information as it becomes known to you.
  • Identify key messages: Determine what must be communicated to your publics. Generally, your information should address who, what, when, where and why: What is the nature of the crisis? Who or what is responsible? When and where did this occur? Why did this situation occur? Who was hurt or otherwise affected by the crisis? What will be the district’s response? What will the district do to minimize the damage?
  • Tell the truth. It may seem wise to hide or slightly alter unsavory facts, but that will, in fact, create more controversy. The public and the media love to catch officials in a lie, and that often becomes the story. Disclosing the truth, no matter how ugly, is always the best approach.
  • Seize the spotlight and hold on to it. It is in a school district’s best interests to get in front of a crisis and control the narrative. Districts slow to respond may find other so-called experts seizing the microphone, speculating, hypothesizing, and distorting the facts. They become the spokesperson and that forces the district to operate on the defensive. Once that occurs, you have lost the media war. It then becomes difficult, if not impossible, to set the story straight, and get your messages heard.
  • Bring in outside experts, if necessary. Your spokesperson may not have the time nor the experience to become an expert on the issues involved, especially if there are medical, environmental, or legal implications. It may be necessary to bring in an outside expert to respond to technical questions, such as possible short- and long-term consequences, and appropriate procedures.
  • Utilize your communications network.  All of your “publics”–teachers, students, parents, the media, and the general public — require access to accurate information. Depending on the nature of a crisis, robo-calls, emergency alert systems, press conferences, press releases, social media, websites, hotlines, or town meetings may be appropriate. If necessary, bring in a public relations consultant to coordinate crisis communications.
  • Be accessible to the media. The spokesperson should be accessible to the media 24 hours a day, until the crisis is over. In addition, receptionists and other key staff should be aware of procedures for handling media calls. That ensures a prompt response. “The school district did not return telephone calls” or “The district spokesperson was unavailable for comment” leaves a negative impression, even if the reporter did call late at night.
  • Keep cool. Emotions heat up during a crisis. Lack of sleep and stress can lead to argumentative or inappropriate responses in a public setting. That will generate the wrong type of media coverage. When the heat starts rising, terminate the situation as quickly as possible. If necessary, leave the room!
  • Follow-up. When the crisis is over, report on what occurred and how the crisis was handled. Tell the public what steps will be taken to avoid future crises. Internally, document procedures followed during the crisis, and determine which were successful.  Put those strategies in writing.

 

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