Q&A: When a Crisis Hits is Not the Time to Plan

November 13, 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 rrkaufman154@gmail.com with a question or comment, and don't forget to check back regularly at www.SchoolSafetySeries.com for this and other great resources.

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In your crisis communication plan, how do you decide how widely to share an incident? For example, a bomb threat at a middle school: Immediate area school staff? All district staff? Parents of just that school? Schools in the area? All parents?

Effective communication will instill a level of confidence that your district/school is doing everything possible to address the situation and prevent a similar incident or tragedy from occurring again. Leaders can lose the confidence of their communities not because of the crisis, but because of how they responded. A lot of the response it driven by the incident, how much info you have and “what’s the buzz” among students and staff within the school, and parents and stakeholders in the community. It’s important to treat the site and its stakeholders - internally and externally - first with respect to sharing of information, response and what are you doing to ensure the issue/incident is addressed. The larger the incident or threat, and potential for greater exposure will dictate communication to other stakeholders in the community. Ask yourself, “will sharing information of an isolated issue/incident benefit others in the community to know?” Often, smaller school systems will inform all stakeholders, while mid-size to larger systems will limit info sharing to specific target stakeholder groups.

The problem with bomb threats - nearly all are a hoax and intended to disrupt the educational process - is the likelihood of contagion crisis. An over-reactionary response - actions and communication - can create a series or copycat threats.

Lastly, one of the most important requirements for effective communications during a crisis is gathering and understanding the facts and implications of the situation, and then providing accurate, consistent and redundant information to stakeholders concerned.

What should we do about Facebook groups for the community that share information during a crisis, especially when some of that information is incomplete or incorrect?

Communicate the same message on all communication platforms, including social media - your organization’s and those community groups that are engaged in commenting on the issue/incident. Correct misinformation directly and engage when appropriate. Monitor when/if possible, but the key is directing followers and commenters to the school/district’s source for information. It’s natural to take a defensive posture when your school/district is being attacked, but not every situation requires a response. Heed the warning to “not feed the trolls” … they are not your supporters, friends or converts. Ignore them.

What are your favorite media and social media monitoring tools?

I’m partial to real-time monitoring using a staff member who is also charged with analyzing the content of the posts, comments (verbal and written) and what responses are trending. However, that’s not always practical for one or two-person PR departments. If you have a key communicators network or communications advisory committee, consider calling upon them to be your eyes and ears regarding crisis communication messaging. This will require some advance prep and training of these groups, but again, you have individuals that are more connected to your school system and live in the community. They are likely to have a greater understanding of the community, and are vested in the recovery and post-crisis landscape.

Here is a list of top-rated monitoring tools in no particular order:

How is texting impacting crisis communication?

Texting is one of many communication platforms used in crisis communication. It’s greatest benefit is it is quick and easy to meet the demand for efficient communication. It’s greatest downfall is the short, abbreviated messages that may not provide a clear picture of what you’re trying to convey in an initial message. It also may be limited to persons who have opted in to receive text messages. We have found this number is very small compared to our students, staff and parent contacts. We use text messaging as an initial message to alert stakeholders of an issue/incident followed by an “action call” to go to our website for more information.

How do we navigate community feedback when the facts shared are incomplete and a full accounting is likely to violate student privacy?

Be as forthright as possible. Share what you know: a) what is happening; b) where and when; c) who is involved and what is being done to respond to the issue/incident. Commit to providing frequent updates as more info becomes available. And, it is okay to state why you can’t share some information due to state and federal laws regarding student and staff privacy.

Remaining silent or appearing removed, perhaps on the advice of legal counsel, is likely to infuriate stakeholders. A balanced communications strategy is one that supports an organization’s legal liabilities while satisfying the demand for information and response.

 


 

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