It’s not if, but when. With natural disasters, human-induced threats, new forms of communicable diseases, and the rise in social media threats, schools need to have a plan not only for the safety of everyone, but also one for timely responses to minimize damage to reputation of the school and stakeholders’ trust. When a crisis hits, you have precious little time to assess, formulate a plan, and act. There are no second chances, no do-overs. There are many factors beyond your control in a crisis; fortunately, there is a lot you can do to maximize your school’s chances for not only a good outcome, but one in which the community emerges even stronger. Four guiding principles should be front-of-mind while communicating during and after a crisis.
Preparedness. The impact of a mismanaged crisis can be costly, resulting in long-term damage, decreased enrollment, lost financial support from key constituents, and deteriorated employee, parent, and student confidence. Being prepared means you control the narrative. Know who is on the core and expanded crisis teams. Identify people who can think on their feet, are good spokespeople and have related experience. The core team should include a trusted advisor, the director of security, director of communications, IT director, school attorney, crisis communications consultant, and board chair. Expanded team members might include heads of advancement and admission, the school psychologist, division heads, the business officer, RSO or embassy contact, or others as appropriate. Have yearly training workshops with the crisis team to review the crisis plan and the roles of each member. Have a crisis communication plan that is updated yearly. Your crisis plan is your toolbox and should include best practices for handling a crisis. It should address an outline for first steps in a crisis, roles and responsibilities of faculty and staff, and protocol for communication. In addition it should include templates for your school’s crisis team contact information, sequencing of messaging, media policies and statements, and letters to constituents.
Accountability. The speed of your communication shows preparedness and willingness to accept responsibility. The objective here isn’t to necessarily have all the facts; it’s to convey a sense of calm concern. Stakeholders will be looking for any facts you do already know, so get them right the first time and repeat them consistently and often. Minimize the use of legal or professional jargon and focus more on a clear and concise message. Always acknowledge when there is a crisis and admit to any failure on the part of the school. While it’s important to confirm the facts, it is just as important to admit when you don’t know the answer. It’s ok to say, “We are still verifying the facts.” As the head, it’s important to lead the school in making the tough decisions when necessary to ensure the integrity of the vision and mission of the school. Lead the legal counsel and communications director into partnership in addressing any crisis. Understand the role of the board in a crisis and make sure they are aware of their role. After the crisis is over, debrief and meet with your team to discuss what went well, what could be done better or differently, and revise your plan as needed. Evaluate your team and your team’s performance. Determine whether you need to make any changes. If so, make them immediately to better prepare for the next situation.
You should anticipate that in certain types of cases, questions may arise from your stakeholders. Could the school have done better in its initial response to a problem? In retrospect, did the school fall short in the way the matter was handled? It is best to anticipate and address these questions in the school’s communication, rather than act defensively and hope that the hard questions will not be posed to school leaders. Hope is not an effective crisis communication strategy. Be proactive and show leadership. In so doing, stakeholders will recognize that a school has the humility to recognize that it is not always right, and the courage to address any prior missteps. That is when trust re-building begins.
Transparency. The old-school model of risk management is no longer; today’s best practice is transparency. It’s vital to communicate immediately and effectively. Consistent messaging from the school leadership to all constituents is critical. Be willing to address the tough questions in a question and answer session if necessary. If you aren’t open to address these “what if, how, and why” questions, someone else will, and the opportunity to manage the crisis and dialogue is lost. Best practice is to explain what happened; commit to and be diligent about doing what is “right”; communicate your plan to improve the situation and prevent a similar one from happening again, including initiating new procedures and trainings. If an internal or external investigation is necessary, explain that there is a process in place to learn more. It’s ok to acknowledge uncertainty and say, “It must be frustrating to hear that we don’t have all the facts, but when we do, we will share more.” Share facts and information while respecting confidentiality only after the investigation is complete.
Empathy. Paramount to all crisis communication is compassion and empathy. People can forgive mistakes if there is a perceived empathetic and genuine desire to do the right thing. And it’s never too late to do the right thing. Your response needs to always be mindful of the affected persons. All communication needs to be in an authentic voice and one in which local culture and customs are respected. To better serve the needs of multicultural stakeholders, adopt a cultural perspective and bring together the cultural differences to create a communications plan that in inclusive. When initially gathering the facts, remember three key components: maintain cultural relativity and remain unbiased and non-judgmental; minimize distractions by focusing on the person and issue and not the “group think” or “rumor mill”; and acknowledge that while there are cultural universals, we need to be ever cognizant of projecting and observing body language that is considerate of the local culture. Lastly, your communication should also include an apology if needed and reflect what you are doing to support the impacted party. Inform the school community what the school is doing to avoid that situation - to the best of your ability - from happening again.
School leadership must create a crisis-ready culture which is then “socialized” throughout the school. Remember, poor communication surrounding a crisis will always create a second one. Preparation will make all the difference in the outcome of the crisis. It’s not the crisis people will remember; it’s how you handled it that will matter. In the end, the best-handled crisis will bring the community together and allow the school to emerge even stronger.
Jim Hulbert, partner at The Jane Group, specializes in crisis and reputation management issues for independent schools internationally and in the U.S., including the handling of existing crisis as well as training school leadership and boards. See www.thejanegroup.biz. Jim can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 630-707-2509.