School leaders are thrust into action when incidents of school violence garner intense public scrutiny and media coverage. They must be prepared to offer stakeholders assurances that children and staff are safe and measures are in place to respond to similar events, or run the risk of alienating traditional supporters.
As communications professionals we know one-way messaging does not work in a world where stakeholders crave dialogue. In a crisis, the importance of dialogue is more profound because stakeholders have an emotional need to be engaged, especially those who are sympathetic to an organization.
Sympathy - one of three emotions most dominant in a crisis, along with anger and anxiety - can lead stakeholders to engage in a range of supportive behaviors when an organization is in crisis. Conversely, angry stakeholders will direct their ire at the organization and its leaders, and may elicit a negative bandwagon effect on other stakeholder groups.
Stakeholders as Assets
Having worked for four school systems in three states, a state public education department, and consulting with dozens of districts across the country for the past 28 years, I’ve learned that no organization exists in a vacuum. Each relies heavily on the strength of its stakeholder relationships, whether it is with parents and families, employees, media, elected officials or the business community.
Good relationships don’t just happen. They take work. A constant pursuit. And when a school system embraces and cultivates these relationships they create social capital that is personified in the cooperation and loyalty of stakeholders … again, never more evident than during a crisis.
In calm seas and rough waters, school systems prevent harm to stakeholders by ensuring they remain supportive assets. This requires a little TLC and a commitment to keep stakeholders informed, which meets their expectation to be a source of information in a crisis, and at times included in decision-making.
It’s easy to get focused on the crisis and practice a “communication for all” strategy when navigating a firestorm. But any delay in providing timely information may lead stakeholders to join a chorus of others demanding information, or worse, becoming vocal critics of your communication response.
Provoking stakeholders will turn valuable assets into liabilities.
Therefore, successfully managing any crisis begins with well-organized strategies and tactics to quickly respond when needed. It’s not all that difficult nor a reason to fundamentally change your communication strategies:
Communicate with honesty, candor and openness while acknowledging risks
Communicate with compassion, concern and empathy … ALWAYS!
Collaborate and coordinate with credible stakeholders and sources
Meet the needs of key stakeholder groups, including media, and remain accessible
I often ask participants in my crisis training and workshops to define “perspective taking” … which is the ability to view the crisis from a stakeholders’ point of view, especially those who are victims, which I classify as anyone hurt and impacted in a crisis.
This is important to understand because stakeholders are most concerned with how the crisis will affect them. Any ill-conceived strategy or response is likely to create a loss of trust among stakeholders. Maintaining trust is crucial. In a crisis, trust is established by identifying who and how stakeholders are impacted.
Stakeholders will vary depending on the circumstances of the crisis. However, identifying stakeholders now - and how as groups they may be impacted - is sound strategic planning.
Employees are the most important stakeholders. Every staff member is a PR ambassador whether you want them to be or not. If they are not first to receive information about a crisis, they will share what they’ve heard from other sources, which is often inaccurate and perpetuates misinformed and ill-informed sources. Keeping employees in the loop helps shape their perceptions and ultimately reinforces the district’s key messages.
Parents (especially those most impacted by the crisis) want to know their most precious resource is safe and unharmed. Failure to allay fears and anxiety undermines your credibility and reputation. It’s a recipe for disaster when disaster strikes.
Media become a bit rabid in the wake of school violence, especially high-profile incidents. School systems dealing with a crisis know this all too well, but others may encounter local media focused on “localizing” a school tragedy that may be hundreds or thousands of miles away. While some leaders opt out of responding to these inquiries, others that choose to engage with the media will do best to focus on a few key messages that reinforce their district’s crisis response plans and safety measures. (We’ll have a lot more to share in next month’s blog, “Preparing for and Working with Media in a School Crisis.”)
Managing multiple stakeholder groups - often with varying and conflicting interests - is not an easy task. It’s best to focus on your goal to build and maintain lasting strategic relationships with stakeholders.
Take care to invest in the power of stakeholders. You’ll find these relationships are like currency, an investment that will pay big dividends during and after a crisis.
I’d love to hear your comments, feedback or your tips. Feel free to share so we become a community of learners.
Rick J. Kaufman, APR is the executive director of community relations and emergency management for Bloomington (MN) Public Schools. He is a nationally respected consultant, trainer and author on crisis management and communication. He served as the Crisis Response Team lead for the Columbine High School tragedy in 1999, and continues to work with school districts across the country to manage and recover from school violence incidents, including Broward County Public Schools and San Bernardino City Unified Public Schools. Mr. Kaufman is the author of the Complete Crisis Communication Management Manual for Schools (2016, NSPRA).