Art Credit: Mike Luckovich, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,
Schools from kindergarten through college are experiencing crisis at increasing levels. The pandemic threw education into turmoil. Societal and political issues began to seep into schools, turning classrooms and board meetings into battlegrounds.
Schools today contend with guns and school safety, gender identity and race education.
Everything is questioned, from reading lists to curriculum development, from admissions processes to extracurricular activities. The points of view and disagreements that are being debated in general society are now being vigorously debated in school settings.
This puts faculty and staff, parents, alumni, school administrators and boards on edge. It motivates them to organize and amplify issues in ways that can present financial, operational and reputational risks to schools and potentially harm students.
Most schools are unprepared to deal with the high-profile communications challenges that accompany issues management, much less a significant crisis. Responding to media inquiries is only a part of the challenge. Parents, faculty, staff, students and boosters expect transparent and trustworthy information promptly.
Who is authorized to speak for a school in crisis? How far can the spokesperson go to explain a particular situation? What channels and mediums will the school use to provide information? Has the school decided as an ongoing policy to be forthcoming and transparent in the event of crisis? How should the school respond when stakeholders are divided on the issue at hand?
As crisis communication professionals who serve on a public school board, chair a private school board and act as a college foundation trustee, we have direct experience helping schools understand risk and prepare for, respond to and recover from crisis.
Often in crisis communication, the quality of the response will determine whether the organization suffers reputational harm more than the underlying problem that created the crisis. People will forgive accidents or mistakes but not a lie or coverup.
When schools fail to comment fully and promptly, their silence can be easily misconstrued as school leaders lacking transparency, being tone-deaf or evading the truth.
The rights and treatment of LGBTQ students, as an example, involve students, parents, educators and administrators who support expanding those rights and those who do not. Activists on both ends of the political spectrum increasingly provide students and parents with confrontational messages to carry to school through speech, behavior and on their shirts or hats. What happens when such issues generate crisis?
There are a few key steps schools should take to help prevent and prepare for a crisis:
- Understand the Risks: Schools should develop a risk assessment.
- Ensure Issues Readiness and Response: Schools should prepare holding statements and response plans to be ready for use for the most likely issues.
- Prepare for Crisis: Schools should develop a concise crisis communications plan complete with a check list, chain of command and designated spokesperson(s).
- Practice: School leaders should get media trained and conduct crisis management simulations.
Schools are, and should be, focused on educating students.
When crisis hits a school, it can disrupt the learning environment and draw enormous attention in the local community, state, region and even nation. Few schools are adequately prepared or trained effectively to respond to crisis, especially when it draws national attention. For more information or further discussion, please contact us.