‘The more prestigious the school, the more lurid the story gets’

Leaders must be sure of their school crisis management plan as reputational risks rise, writes Jack Myers

school crisis management needs a plan, says Jack Myers from Alder

You wouldn’t let your students get away with not doing your homework, would you? Of course not: homework is essential as a key means of embedding learning and preparing students for exams.

And yet, many schools themselves are guilty of procrastinating with their own homework when it comes to planning for reputational risk and school crisis management. Not only do schools already face a whole host of reputational risks – from safeguarding to inspections to health and safety – but the independent sector is facing unprecedented challenges. These include everything from the cost-of-living crisis to political volatility to culture-war debates.

Reputation is a primary driver for a healthy student roll, and when schools are making difficult financial decisions and resources are stretched, the potential for a crisis to rock the boat increases.

The media and regulators are extremely sensitive to even the slightest disturbance in a school environment, making the perceived bar for a crisis event much lower than in many other sectors.

“When schools are making difficult financial decisions, the potential for a crisis to rock the boat increases.”

At times, of course, scrutiny is far from constructive: many journalists take satisfaction in reporting on independent schools with an emphasis on their famous alumni and gratuitous mention of their fees. The more historic and prestigious the institution, the more lurid the story gets.

Despite this, too many schools still adopt a muddle-through approach. With so much going on, senior leadership and the board will only commit time and energy to reputational risks when one lands on their doorstep, only to regret this as the full scope of communication challenges rushes into view. Too often, crucial time is lost to indecision, and parents are prone to quickly losing confidence.

“The school leadership needs to treat their crisis preparation as a campaign.”

Like examinations, schools can’t leave the hard work until the last minute. The school leadership needs to treat their crisis preparation as a campaign, with a calm and considered approach over time that enables front-footed messaging. You will never be entirely rid of all reputational risk, particularly with constant social media innovation and shifting cultural norms, so regular appraisal and vigilance is key.

It is why a growing number of schools are seeking to get ahead of the curve. Leaders need to think of school crisis management not just as something done in the moment, but as a cycle, much like the audit cycles a school will undertake to review their safeguarding procedures.

This cycle consists of preparation for potential events, then the event itself and the reaction to it. There must then be a plan to both make amends and to update crisis planning based on lessons learned, in order to avoid or mitigate future incidents.

Most schools will be in a resilience phase to begin with, building their internal structures and discipline to handle crises effectively when they arise. It is essential that a culture of openness is nurtured, in which the potential for crisis is acknowledged and discussed. Resilience also means having a strong crisis communications protocol, including practical and easily-navigable guidance for a range of scenarios.

“It is essential that a culture of openness is nurtured.”

Once red flags are raised, schools will enter a readiness phase, priming their support structures for an imminent surge in media or stakeholder enquiries. In order to manage mounting demands, you will need to gauge your in-house team’s capacity, efficiency and knowledge of the crisis protocol: what happens when the school’s reception starts getting calls from journalists? What happens if parents try to get in touch out of hours, or during school holidays? Can your senior leaders articulate the school’s position on diversity and inclusion, bursaries and access initiatives, or gender identity?

During a crisis, you will need to be ready for the response phase, prioritising clear and fast communication catered to each of your primary audiences. Stakeholders value a smooth response to a crisis, especially media management, social media strategy, and liaison with law enforcement or regulators. In the heat of a national news story, you will need to ensure your spokespeople are rehearsed and understand terms of engagement with reporters, producers and editors.

Lastly, schools will need to consider their recovery phase, taking stock of the crisis event and ensuring plans are in place for any long-tail impact. This will include measuring the impact of the event on the school’s online reputation, as well as facilitating training to build better responses in future.

“What happens when the school’s reception starts getting calls from journalists?”

A crisis event will also test the strength of your stakeholder relations: parents, pupils and staff that feel their school has invested in them are far more supportive when difficulties arise. The recovery phase is therefore a good opportunity to raise your empathy capital, i.e. the work invested in engaging your stakeholders and building up your school’s profile with positive press. Strong empathy capital will provide a cushion for any future hard knocks.

The critical element missing from most crisis management planning is expertise. You may know your own school’s risk profile but be entirely unaware of wider risk trends in the sector. Media tactics also evolve fast, and your arsenal of strategies to handle hostile enquiries can be your undoing if they’re not kept under constant review.

The good news when it comes to crisis preparation is that support is readily available. Sharing experiences with other school leaders or using the expertise of a specialist consultancy gives you a shortcut to best practice guidance and structured responses. Although crisis communications and reputation management can never be off the peg, given every organisation has its own circumstances requiring a tailored plan, reaching out to your networks is a useful first step.

“The recovery phase is therefore a good opportunity to raise your empathy capital.”

Indeed, understanding your exposure to risk is a key step to building your defences. If you are at a loss of where to start, you can access a free online diagnostic tool we have created, designed to assess your performance and offer recommendations across the four key phases of the crisis cycle.

When it comes to it, a crisis is much like sitting an examination. You aren’t in control of what questions you’ll be asked, but if you have done your homework and prepared properly, you’re giving yourself the best chance.