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    Crisis Communications Principles that School Emergencies Taught Us

    An essential tenet following a school crisis is to debrief, or hotwash in emergency management parlance. As I wrap up the #SchoolSafetySeries blogs, my own hotwash of the topics we covered this year revealed these crisis communications and school safety principles.


    1. Creating Safe Schools. There is no greater challenge today than creating safe schools. It requires a major commitment and effort by school leaders, parents and a supportive community. A safe school is an absolute foundation to the success of its academic mission.

    2. Relationships. The most important take-away from the many lessons learned in responding to and managing school crises is quite simply … relationships, which is best described by one of my teammates on the Columbine Crisis Response Team: 

    “Strong relationships within the communication team, within the organization, with other agencies, with community leaders, and especially with students and parents can make or break a successful crisis communication program.” ~ Christian Anderson

    3. Crisis prevention is always cheaper than crisis response. Crisis prevention costs are a fraction of the losses incurred as part of responding to a crisis. In other words, the more we promote a culture of preparedness and prevention, the greater the benefit. If we only prepare to take reactive measures, we are exposed to greater risks and reputational damage . 

    Prevention is evident each day when …

      • Teachers and school staff build a rapport and trust with students.
      • Students feel empowered to “see something, say something.”
      • School culture embraces and celebrates the physical and emotional safety of students.

    Accidents and tragedies are a part of life. As educators, we protect students the best we can and we’re prepared for the unthinkable. In a crisis, we serve children best by recognizing and responding to their psychological and emotional needs. Doing so helps to restore students’ ability to learn, and enhances their coping skills and social development.

    4. Planning to Fail. No one wants to deal with a crisis, but scrambling to determine what to do when the proverbial “IT” hits the fan will take things from bad to worse. Waiting to create a plan means you’re too late. Being prepared for the unexpected and having a comprehensive crisis communications plan are fundamental to any crisis response. Planning provides strategies to react quickly and puts us at the forefront to define the incident.

    Successful crisis communications requires preparation. Professionals who do it well do so because they were prepared, not because they were lucky. Put the time in now so when a crisis hits, your focus can be on what matters most - communicating effectively and efficiently to those who matter the most. Don’t leave it to chance.

    5. Managing a crisis is the art of avoiding trouble when you can and reacting appropriately when you can’t. It’s an art, not a science because there are no formulas that can be applied to all incidents or guarantee success.

    If public relations is about building an image, then crisis management is about protecting that image.

    The challenges of responding in a crisis has a lot to do with understanding and managing a lot of spinning plates - from defining the crisis based on limited facts to articulating the ever-changing response efforts. As a crisis unfolds, we learn that information can be inaccurate, contradictory and maddeningly sporadic. At the same time, we are pulled in many directions that shift our responsibilities and focus.

    The skills we must hone is the ability to stay on track, focus on what’s important and adapt accordingly.

    6. Be Authentic. In all you do, express your core values. Communicate your values with a human voice, not a legal one. Stakeholders want to hear directly from the source, and will see through the charade of a canned response. I recognize there are times when state laws prevent us from providing more info, but state this clearly to stakeholders. 

    Delivering the news when bad stuff happens is never easy. Take the lead and acknowledge  what is known about the incident and specific action steps being taken to respond and correct. Define the story or others will define it for you.

    7. Grief and Loss. Those don’t go away. We can’t wish them away. They stay with us. In time, we learn to live with the experiences. The feelings. The memories.  

    Those experiences shouldn’t define you or your work. Take a cue from school crisis victims and their families who have channeled their grief into making a positive difference.

    8. Don’t Leave the Challenge. Leave a Legacy. I never met an educator who believed working with children would bring riches and fame. Of the thousands of educators I’ve worked with, each will leave behind a piece of themselves, something that withstands time and is carried for generations. Their influence can never be erased.

    What is your legacy?

    My father - a man of few words, perhaps broken by experiences encountered in the jungles of Vietnam - shared with me two personal reflections that at the time I didn’t put much thought to. Years and many experiences later, I have come to understand the meaning of his words.

    He told me in the months before he passed away at the age of 46 that at times in our life the mantle of responsibility will come our way. I had two choices: leave it for someone else, or pick it up and carry it.

    I took it and set out to make a difference. To turn grief and loss into a promise, and then to deliver that promise in a way that would quantify the difference I wished to make in people’s lives. That work continues today.

    Find your purpose. Your mantle of responsibility and leave a legacy.

    Parting Thought

    Our greatest glory (and challenge) exists not each time we fall, but rising after each fall.

    ~ Willis R. Kaufman (1936-1983)

    I’d love to hear your comments, feedback or your tips. Feel free to share so we become a community of learners.

    rickkRick 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).

    Categories: School Districts