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    Q&A: Leading Through Communication in Times of Crisis

    October 22, 2018
    by Rick J. Kaufman, APR |

    The following is a sampling of the questions and answers from this month's installment. Questions are edited for brevity. Feel free to email with a question or comment, and don't forget to check back regularly at for this and other great resources.


    Most PR professionals in school districts are one-man/woman departments. How can one successfully rally others to assist when a crisis hits? How do districts with only one communication person handle the management of so much info dissemination?

    Identify and assemble a cadre of professionals with communication, emergency management and social media skills from businesses, organizations and non-profit groups within your community and neighboring school districts. Assign roles based on their skills and create an activation protocol when the need arises. This approach may provide the necessary person-power needed in the first moments to initiate critical communication steps. Members of your state NSPRA chapter may also be recruited to assist for larger and long-lasting incidents. Some states have also created regional crisis response teams. You don’t have to go it alone. But it will take some pre-planning now.

    How can we be first with the message when we’re carefully crafting a statement while others are jumping on social media posting whatever rumor they’ve heard?

    Create the structure of response or holding statements in advance and fill in the appropriate information once the incident occurs. Statements should acknowledge the incident, provide known facts and commit to sharing more info as it becomes available.

    • Statement structures:
      • Alert: Initial statement (who, what, when and were … hold on how and never why) “SCHOOL is experiencing an emergency situation of an unknown nature. The school is (RESPONSE PROTOCOL) and emergency personnel are on scene. We will share additional information as it becomes available. Please check the (WEBSITE) for frequent updates. Specific instructions for parents only will be shared via email, voicemail or both.”
    • Inform: Priorities and actions
      • “We have implemented our emergency response plan and working with (NAME OF AGENCY) to determine what happened, and further impacts on (NAME OF SCHOOL). Parents of children impacted by this incident will be contacted directly with additional information on next steps …”
    • Reassure: Goal to reduce level of anxiety
      • “The health, safety and well-being of our students and staff is our highest priority. We are doing everything we can at this time to manage the incident and provide support to all impacted. We are working with law enforcement to ensure the safe release of students and staff from the school. Please be patient as we gather more information to share with you as it becomes available.”

    Stay focused on your crisis communication plan and key messages. Chasing every rumor to refute or correct initially is not a wise use of your time.

    What information and other communication elements should be posted on a ghost website that is activated during a crisis?

    A ghost website - also known as a dark website - provides useful background through images, videos, illustrations, explanations, contacts and links. Brainstorm the elements specific to your school/district, but consider these:

    • Available facts about what happened as part of a response or holding statement describing the crisis and the school/district’s response.
    • Special instructions telling everyone affected by the crisis what they must or must not do.
    • What specific steps are being taken to get the situation back to normal.
    • Relevant background information describing the school/district, the nature and likely impact of the crisis; anything that promotes clear understanding of the situation.
    • Contact information for the news media.
    • Contact information for parents and others affected by the crisis.
    • Regular fact- and action-based updates.

    Communicating with families before a crisis on what to expect if there is a crisis in schools. What does that look like and how deep should we go?

    Parents have a stake in school safety - their children. They also have an important role in preparing their children for emergencies. It is important to prepare the parent community in advance what to do in an emergency - before, during and after the incident - and how the school will communicate and at what intervals to keep parents informed. Elements may include emergency response protocols (e.g. lockdown, evacuation, etc.), what parents can expect in a school crisis response, the steps for parent-student reunification, and how to talk to your child in the aftermath of a crisis.

    How did you reach out and cultivate a relationship with families of victims? That seems like a very tricky line to walk.

    Crisis Communication guru Jim Lukaszewski says the highest priority and most crucial aspect of managing a crisis is tending to the needs of victims and victims’ families immediately, fully and compassionately. We can’t do that from afar. School and district leaders should be supportive, break down barriers, be the “go to” person to those who are injured or suffering as a result of a school crisis. Act as a victim’s advocate. Go to the hospital, be in the homes of affected families, and meet with groups of those affected sharing comfort and understanding. An organization’s focus on victims sets the tone for the entire response effort.

    Dealing with tragic, emergency situations is emotionally draining and can be a challenge for all involved. Do you have any advice to help prepare staff to deal with the challenge and effectively fulfill their role in the midst of an emergency?

    Knowing what to do in a school emergency should be part of a well-defined crisis response plan, with clear procedures to successfully manage and guide staff to resolving the crisis, minimizing its negative impact, and restoring the teaching and learning environment post-incident.

    In high-stress, high-anxiety, high-fear events, our cognitive function and manual dexterity are impacted in varying degrees. In short, our brain is searching for a “trigger” to tell us how to react. We default to what we know and are trained to do in these incidents. Thus, the more we train and deploy emergency response drills (often state required), the more we condition ourselves to know what to do in a real-world crisis. This is what will save lives.

    Have journalistic standards changed regarding public sharing of victims’ names? Recently, journalists revealed the name of a minor victim based on the statement of a minor friend who was standing at the scene.

    High-profile school incidents, particularly mass casualty events, carry a risk of aggrandizing coverage that has been known to contribute to contagion, mistakes and regrettable errors. The Radio Television Digital New Association (RTDNA) have created guidelines for covering mass shootings. Though rare, I have challenged reporters to follow these guidelines when their journalistic standards waiver from more acceptable norms.

    Do you recommend doing a reunification drill?

    Yes. How else will we know if a crisis communication and response system meets the established objectives? When a crisis occurs is not the time to start figuring out who ought to do what. At that moment, everyone involved should know their role and responsibilities.


    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