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School Communicators Take Note: For Flawless Execution, Prepare Beyond Your Written Crisis Plan

Yesterday, it was the dismissal of a teacher at the Fieldston private school as a result of anti-Semitic remarks that enflamed tensions between Jewish parents and school administrators.  Today, it is concern over the Coronavirus and its impact on boarding schools with Chinese pupils and international study programs abroad.  What will it be tomorrow?

While most private schools – especially those with boarding school programs – have had had to put their crisis communication plans to the test with issues ranging from student fatalities to inappropriate teacher/student relationships – how many have solid issue anticipation programs in place to prepare for the crisis around the corner?

In our experience, spending a little time and money upfront on thorough preparation goes a long way.  For consideration:

  1.  Updated contact information for ALL key internal audiences.  Most schools have their Board members and leadership team on speed dial…but anticipate everyone you want to communicate with directly in a crisis.  This means working with Development to insure you have up-to-date text/email information for alumni, and with Admissions in case prospective students need to be reached.  When the crisis hits, you want to be able to press a button for instant notification.
  2. Spokesperson training in advance.  Chances are, your Head of School and Communication Director have had the most experience with on-camera or phone interviews – but how about your subject matter experts?  For example, you might have your Head of Security as the spokesperson in a data breach situation, or Human Resources for a roundup story on your school policies impacting transgender students.   Mock interviews — where your spokespersons can practice staying calm and circling back to key message points in the face of tough media questions – are a valuable exercise.  Take it one step further by recording and playing back the interview to observe body language, nervous habits etc.  Make it engaging by involving the others in the recap of what worked well and what needs improvement.
  • Make time for issue anticipation and social media monitoring.  Whether you appoint someone inside or work with an outside firm, your Communications Director should be asking themselves this question everyday: “What’s going on out there, and could it happen here?”  Social media monitoring tools like Hootsuite Insights and Synthesio allow you to monitor news sites, blogs and forums by specific topics and audiences.  Cultivate relationships with your PR/communications network of professionals for best practice sharing.  Google search recent cases on topics of concern to see how other schools handled – or mishandled – issues and learn from their situations.
  • Prepare templates for likely situations for a “headstart” on your holding statement.  While you can’t have a statement for every situation, you can identify likely issues within specific categories (e.g. mishandling of finances, security issues, personnel issues, accidents and fatalities etc.).  Decide with your leadership/crisis management team on key messages to deliver in each situation – then get the holding statement templates blessed by the legal team in advance.
  • Update your media, social media and spokesperson policies.  It’s one thing to have these on paper, buried on page 60 of your crisis plan, and another to proactively and regularly communicate them to all members of your school family.  You want everyone to know what to do when the media calls, or how to handle student friend requests on LinkedIn and Facebook.  When new employees come on board, make sure they are up to speed as well.
  • Have a system in place for the “Lessons Learned” review.  Decide who from the crisis team should be involved and schedule the review right after the crisis ends, while it is fresh in everyone’s minds.  Important:  appoint a good note-taker to capture the conversation … chances are you, or a colleague, will need it for future reference.

For more information on issue anticipation programs and proactive media training, contact Robin Schell, APR, Fellow PRSA, Senior Counsel and Partner at Jackson Jackson & Wagner at 603/770-3607.

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