ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
Crisis-proof communications with principles, priorities, planning
by Faith Behr
Faith Behr is principal/consultant at Behr Communications. She advises and counsels school boards and school administrators on crisis communications and public relations. She is a 20-year veteran of school public relations and has worked with dozens of Illinois school districts.
Social media and digital communications have great power. They have toppled governments, ignited election campaigns, and been blamed for corporate stock drops. In schools districts, I have seen social media derail a school boundary decision, cause a renege on a superintendent’s contract, and crush a board member’s re-election chances.
Communications practices cannot thwart a crisis but can help manage one so that a school board can have a consistent and positive relationship with its constituencies in good times and bad. Here are some suggestions on how to develop effective communications protocols for a crisis.
Every communication plan should include these principles:
- Openness: Information about a current or soon-to-be-known district problem should be released voluntarily.
- Truthfulness and transparency: Complete honesty and disclosure that tell the whole truth while adhering to applicable privacy laws must be the foundation of all communications.
- Timeliness: The release of information or the response to an issue should be prompt and timely.
- Responsiveness: A school district should be accessible and willing to respond. It should acknowledge that the concern is legitimate and needs to be addressed.
These are, in essence, expectations of what all constituencies expect and demand to engender trust in their school system. These are especially necessary in a crisis and even truer in the era of social media, smartphones and digital communications, where issues, problems, and rumors are quickly circulated — often before school officials are aware.
Although each situation warrants different audience priorities, in general, communications in a crisis should follow this order:
- Those who are most directly affected. Victims come first. Their needs always are foremost and unless they are addressed, the crisis will continue. This audience includes students.
- Those who are indirectly affected. This audience is often employees and parents.
- News media and friends.
- Community. Reaching this group requires the use of the school district’s broader communications channels to communicate in a crisis.
Emergencies may require simultaneous communications to multiple priority groups, but the order is critical. Even communicating with those directly affected a few minutes ahead of the broader release, you will respect their need and right to know first. This action will reduce reputational damage to the district leadership and the community at large.
School leaders are encouraged to use the following to develop a plan that serves communications needs, in both every day and crisis situations:
Develop communications and social media policies and guidelines. With social media, these guidelines should be updated to address the community users of the district’s social media channels, the district’s official communications use, and internal employees’ social media policy. They should also address what can or cannot be used when staff members and faculty communicate with students.
Implement a communications/social media management and monitoring system. The majority of school-related issues arise when districts fail to identify and act upon a potentially contentious matter at an early stage, which then impedes officials in building an action plan and navigating through an impending issue. Having in place a monitoring system for listening to social media is critical to success. If there is no communications director, this monitoring must be performed by a social media savvy person who is close to the superintendent – a “cabinet” member or other direct report. Regular monitoring of social media is essential in learning about and getting ahead of emerging and complex issues.
Establish a community manager. Ideally, this is a communications director. If there is no communications director, the superintendent or his or her designee should serve as a manager.
Decide on communications tools. Most districts have email and phone communications to households but neither of these are as immediate as social media in preventing or handling a crisis. At the very least, I recommend a Twitter account for school districts, either as a superintendent’s account or as the school district’s account. News reporters and your community’s movers and shakers are big Twitter users. If you are not tweeting about your problem or crisis, unfortunately, they are. Facebook is also a key social media tool for even the smallest of school districts. The two platforms can be updated weekly if not daily, and their power and reach can be harnessed during a time of crisis.
Appoint a media spokesperson. A seasoned media spokesperson is important to help communicate in a crisis. News media are essential for help in a crisis, to communicate warnings and eliminate rumors. Determine in advance who will speak to the media and prepare talking points, so they can speak clearly and effectively in terms that can be easily understood. If provoked by misleading statements, falsity or hiding behind “no comment,” the media can quickly inflame or prolong a crisis.
Create a crisis plan and be able to access it in digital and written form. Here is a checklist of a good crisis communications plan:
- Names and contact information of the crisis team.
- Understand what kind or level of crisis you are facing.
- First response. What information has top priority?
- Notification procedures. Who needs to know and how will you get them that information?
- Situation room. What is required in terms of physical space, software, hardware, staffing, documents, and tools?
- Contacts. Name of media outlets, reporters, message boards, and databases of staff, parents, students, community leaders and others.
- Template responses. Standardized formats for communications.
Managing a crisis is often the ultimate test of a school board or superintendent. A well-managed crisis with an effective recovery will leave your constituents with renewed confidence in its school board and school district.
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