It has been a year of crises for individuals and organisations, and schools have not been exempt. Covid-19 has thrown school comms teams endless curveballs to deal with and we are far from the end.
But even in calmer times, every school in the world is vulnerable to crises. Historically, organisations could “play ostrich” and hope that the problem would go away in time, but the rise of social media, the 24-hour news cycle and enhanced consumer activism means that is no longer the case.
Reputation takes years to gain but can be lost in seconds. Therefore, schools need strategies in place to try and manage issues before they become a crisis. This is easier said than done, so what can you do to build a crisis communications plan that manages impact and protects your brand?
Defining a crisis
Communications professionals train and study their entire life to take charge when a crisis hits, but very few – with the exception of those working in finance, politics and professional services – actually have substantial experience implementing crisis management strategies and seeing them through. In fact, some comms professionals would reluctantly admit to jumping the gun and diving straight into crisis management mode before identifying whether they’re actually dealing with a crisis or just a bit of bad press.
In the corporate world, crises are usually defined by threats to public safety, financial security and long-term reputation. Whilst a Daily Mail reporter turning up at the front gate for a quote about a tittle-tattle story might seem like the end of the world when it happens, it’s unlikely to require a full crisis response as a major child protection incident or building collapse would.
The majority of crisis management case studies come from publicly listed companies, where the success of communications response is measured by share price. In schools, these metrics are more difficult to determine as the true effects of a crisis might not be felt for many years.
As the old saying goes: “fail to prepare, prepare to fail”. Whilst it is impossible to know exactly how a crisis might manifest itself, schools can implement prevention plans to reduce known risks and plan for certain eventualities.
-Understand your key stakeholders
-Create a crisis management plan and update it (at least annually)
-Create and train a crisis management team
-Undertake simulation exercises to test your crisis management plan
-Draft crisis management messages and templates for crisis statements
Critical to effective communications activity is an understanding of stakeholders. Schools have a range of audiences that will need to be kept informed to different levels of detail throughout the development of a comms plan. Assigning ownership to each stakeholder group in advance is crucial, as it allows for the seamless flow of information.
“Avoid defensive responses, such as ‘no comment’. The perception will be that you’re trying to hide something.”
Messaging and communication
In the majority of cases, the head will be the best person to act as spokesperson. Whilst we would always recommend formal, simulative training for your senior team, here’s a few simple tips that will ensure you don’t make problems worse!
Be pleasant. Whilst it might be difficult to smile your way through an interview, a spokesperson should give strong eye contact and try to avoid hesitating wherever possible.
Present information as clearly as possible, avoiding technical or sector-specific jargon. This ensures that audiences don’t think you’re trying to dodge through confusion.
Avoid defensive responses, such as “no comment”. The perception will be that you’re trying to hide something, even though that likely isn’t the case.
In a true crisis, time is precious and information must be distributed as quickly as possible in order to comply with pressures from parents, staff and external bodies. Therefore, creating pre-draft messages for a variety of circumstances could help to save valuable time. Circumstances such as accidents that injure employees or students, child protection or safeguarding incidents, substantial data breaches or product quality issues (such as students being taught the wrong exam syllabus) would be good places to start.
Mapping audiences to channels
An understanding of your audience is critical to determining the channels that you will use to communicate clearly and effectively.
The majority of leaders turn to social media platforms when crises hit. Although it is important to consider social media, it is a “mass market” communication channel used to reach a large group of people quickly. Needless to say, your current parents will be unlikely to forgive you if they read about a major incident on Twitter, and current staff will be up in arms if you expect them to refresh their Facebook feeds for regular updates.
-Social media – ideal for mass communication and for controlling the narrative
-Company website – for long-form messages and statements
-Mass notification systems (e.g. texts & email) – to direct audiences to another channel
-Intranet or VLE – to keep staff in the loop
-Press releases and media activity – to tell your side of the story and build credibility
-Conference calls – to update large groups of people with more detailed information
“A holding response within the first 30 minutes of a significant event will prevent a vacuum that you can’t escape.”
Your initial response to a crisis situation must be accurate, quick and consistent. Whilst it might not be possible to present all the facts immediately, a holding response within the first 30 minutes of a significant event will prevent a vacuum that you can’t escape.
When crafting long form responses and statements, keeping audiences and your school’s brand values at the forefront of your mind is crucial. This ensures that your school deals with crisis situations in a way that it can be proud of in the years to come.
As an example, a professor at a girls only university in the USA was accused and later convicted of having inappropriate relations with a student. On release of the story, it became clear that this was not an isolated incident and many former students came forward and reported the professor to the police. Historically, crisis statements to internal stakeholders often ended with the phrase: “do not engage with the media under any circumstances. Please direct any enquiries to the communications department at the earliest opportunity”. However, for an institution that prided itself on empowering young women, this response infuriated staff and alumni, and caused an almost blanket boycott of the university.
An understanding and consideration of audiences and brand values would have ensured that statements: praised the student for coming forward, apologised for historic failings, directed other victims to the relevant authorities, provided links to organisations that could offer additional support and detailed steps that the university was taking to ensure a similar incident couldn’t happen again.
“Whilst a crisis always causes hurt and resentment in the early stages, it is important to evaluate what went wrong.”
Whilst you may have come through a major crisis relatively unscathed, your post-event activities are just as crucial as your crisis response in managing impact and protecting reputation. In schools, the head is ultimately responsible for post-event deliverables – acting on the lessons learnt and delivering on promises – but, as always, it’s the role of the comms team to ensure all future steps are consistent with brand values.
Experienced comms leaders would all agree that crisis management situations provide the greatest opportunity for learning. Whilst a crisis always causes hurt and resentment in the early stages of rebuilding, it is important to evaluate what went wrong and fix the issue. Whilst it is often a single event that appears to be the major issue on the surface, it is usually a series of events that lead up to a major incident that is the true crisis. If schools can iron these out, then a major threat to reputation will always be lower.
Whilst it is almost impossible to explain effective crisis management procedures in 1000 words, I hope this whistle-stop tour provides a strong foundation for you to implement a plan that allows your reputation to remain strong when difficulties arise.