It’s said that we are living in a “post-Covid world”.
The reality is that we inhabit a “long Covid world”, in which so many issues – behavioural and emotional, not to mention economic and political – remain heavily influenced by the pandemic.
Teachers and school leaders will have noticed changes in pupil behaviour since the pandemic, which go hand-in-hand with the ongoing rise in referrals to children and young people’s mental health services, as well as significant increases in absence since 2019.
New and unexpected types of behaviour (and misbehaviour) aren’t exclusive to students. In our reputation management and crisis communication work, we are seeing them exhibited by staff and parents, creating new reputational risks made even more complex by ongoing changes in journalist behaviour.
“Some of our clients are finding parents’ fuses to be shorter since the pandemic.”
As we have written previously, independent schools are particularly liable to sensationalist media coverage. Their preparations for and reactions to it can have a material effect on the wellbeing of a school and its community.
In terms of student behaviour trends since the pandemic, schools we work with are seeing new forms of misbehaviour and unusual criminal activity.
Some of this relates to the ever-changing, and seemingly ever more poisonous, world of digital and social media, such as pupils posing for school photos with hand gestures used by misogynist influencer and suspected people trafficker Andrew Tate.
Some of our clients are finding parents’ fuses to be shorter since the pandemic. Relatively low-level issues, which had previously been dealt with informally or at classroom level, are instead escalated. Increasingly, parents assertively threaten to “go to the media” or to shame the school publicly.
Teachers can struggle amid all this. Many experienced their own difficulties over the pandemic, or found it reshaped their outlook on life. They are also regularly being forced to react to polarising “culture war” topics, in many cases juggling personal views with school policies.
“Teachers are regularly being forced to react to polarising ‘culture war’ topics.”
None of this excuses unprofessional or misjudged conduct, but is important context for a rise in staff suspensions and dismissals, for various reasons. These often leave schools with a challenge; how to communicate a staff absence without explaining its precise cause, which would in itself break an employee’s right to confidentiality.
It’s not hard to see how the above issues can quickly conspire to create a reputational headache or full-blown media crisis for a school.
To some degree, schools today are less likely to be subject to media attention. Many news outlets, especially locals, were dealt blows by the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis, compounding years of struggles to remain financially viable. Their teams are therefore depleted of numbers and experience, and potentially less able to cover school stories, given the need to act very carefully when minors are concerned.
On the flip side, this means that there is a risk of inexperienced staff being dispatched to get 600 words on an emerging story, with an oppressively tight website deadline. Such writers can’t really be blamed when the pressures put on them make it more likely that their stories are confused, inaccurate or unbalanced – or fail to meet best practice around reporting on minors – all of which can inflame a situation.
“We’ve seen a trend towards more journalists ‘doorstepping’ when covering education stories.”
Simultaneously, there remain some highly experienced and well-resourced education specialists. It is also likely that national media outlets will assign more of their generalists to education stories ahead of the next UK general election, when culture wars and the tax status of private schools will be centre stage.
We also see trends in the tactics used by journalists in reporting education stories.
The first is more “doorstepping”, the practice of journalists ambushing a commentator in a public place, in particular outside their house. We recently saw this, for the first time, happen to school governors. If it happened to yours, would they have a clear idea of what to say?
The second is a revival of the “fishing expedition”. This journalistic technique involves emailing large numbers of organisations with a single generic yet provocative question, worded to make it seem imperative that you respond. It’s often about a transgender or gender identity issue. The journalist knows many recipients will see through the tactic, but they only need one to reply to enable them to write a story pitting them against a pressure group or prominent commentator.
“The new reputational risks created in a ‘long Covid world’ aren’t going to go away.”
The third is that journalists of all descriptions retain the ability to inadvertently come across as crass and insensitive. “Please send high-res pic of the deceased. My deadline is in an hour. Condolences. And thanks” are not sentences most of us would ever conceive of writing, but news journalism is a strange world with its own rules.
The new reputational risks created in a “long Covid world” aren’t going to go away. Even if we do return to something like the pre-pandemic “normal”, whatever that means, it isn’t going to happen quickly. What that means, is that it has never been more important for schools to ensure their crisis communication plan is given the same regular attention as any other business critical policy.