Leading Through Communication in Times of Crisis

October 10, 2018
by Rick J. Kaufman, APR |

The midst of a crisis is not the time to let students, staff and families know what to do in an emergency. That needs to occur before it happens.

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If the top priority in a crisis is public safety, then the top objective for crisis communication should be to prevent harm to stakeholders.

We start by developing an understanding about what happens in school when an incident occurs, particularly with parents and guardians. Consider as a parent the types of questions and thoughts they have around school safety, or worse if an incident occurred at their child’s school:  What is a lockdown? Where will students go if they need to evacuate? How do I know my child is safe?

When schools build a rapport and understanding with parents, they build credibility and enhance their reputation. Timely communication to parents is also critical to reduce anxiety and fear.  

It stands to reason, then, that we must not only be first with communication, when possible, but credible … always. To achieve this requires a robust strategy and plan that focuses on traditional and social media.

The Key is Balance

Knowing that school and community stakeholders receive their information from a variety of sources, crisis communication plans must account for multiple approaches and vehicles. The more schools engage in the use of traditional and social media from the onset of a crisis, the better positioned they are to anticipate, communicate and regain trust in order to manage and recover from a crisis.

Crises often create an information void. The public abhors a vacuum. Absence of communication or undue delays has consequences. Stakeholders will be motivated to reduce uncertainty, which leads to increased information seeking. And that information may come from the ill informed, misinformed or persons with less than desirable motivations.

The Accountability Principle

Stakeholders expect schools to adhere to an accountability principle by providing a thorough explanation of events, responses and assurances that the causes do not contribute to a repeat. Any other strategy risks long-term impacts and may delay the recovery or restoration of the educational process.

Local media become a bit rapid in the wake of school violence, aiming to “localize” the tragedy that may be hundreds or thousands of miles away. While some school leaders opt out of responding to these types media inquiries, others that choose to participate will do best to focus on a few key messages that reinforce XYZ school district’s crisis response plans and safety measures.

There are pros and cons to each approach. Determining whether to participate in this very public discourse, and in some cases scrutiny, must be measured carefully and with one goal in mind… how does this help our schools, our students and their families, and our staff.

Key Lesson

Communication is the foundation of any crisis planning, response and recovery effort. The essential element to crisis communications – in addition to clear, accurate and consistent messages – is the need for rapid delivery of critical information to large numbers of people. Even the best crisis management plans and personnel play catch up when school systems have no crisis communication infrastructure already in place.

As strong of a conviction as I have for timely communication, I’m convinced that managing any crisis successfully is less about saying the right things and more about doing the right things. People remember how a crisis was handled longer than the details of the incident.

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