By Thom Fladung, Hennes Communications
The title says “schools,” but everything below is applicable to all
businesses, organizations and professional service firms.
Congratulations, School Leaders. You survived 2020-21 – a school year unlike any other, featuring the continuation of a public health pandemic, the most hyper-charged political atmosphere in memory and social justice issues that roiled the nation.
Your reward: Start getting ready for 2021-22.
But unlike, say, January 2020, when we began hearing mysterious reports of a serious illness in China, lessons learned from the past year and a half can be carried into the coming school year and many school years to come.
Those lessons include how to apply the best practices of crisis communications along with the specialized practice of outrage management and make it work in a culture dominated by social media, where every slight or disagreement seemingly turns into a battle royale.
This has all placed a greater premium on communicating with your key school stakeholders – your teachers, your staff, your students, your parents – than has ever been the case.
The Damage Control Playbook
Let’s start with the fundamentals of effective crisis communications. At Hennes Communications, we depend on our Damage Control Playbook and its five simple concepts:
Steps to Managing Outrage
Headlines from news stories across the nation have had a familiar ring:
“Parents outraged that school district will begin the year with virtual classes”
“Parents outraged over decision for blended learning in schools”
“Parents outraged after school board meeting on reopening plans”
There’s a lot of outrage to go around out there.
A specialized subset of crisis communications has emerged that now is commonly referred to as outrage communications or outrage management. Peter Sandman, a colleague and friend to Hennes, has been one of the leading proponents of this discipline. Here are some steps he’s outlined and that we’ve refined for outrage management.
Communicating Your Way Through A Pandemic
We’ve also gotten new lessons – or been reminded of old ones – while communicating through this pandemic.
What to do on summer vacation
Now is the time to take those learnings from communicating during a pandemic and turn them into a communications action plan for the fall. Take advantage of this time.
Here are some of the strategies and tactics to consider as your school’s communicators begin that work.
What else to do on summer vacation
Show me, don’t tell me
This is one of journalism’s oldest, truest clichés. To make people believe what you’re saying, don’t just recite policies and practices. Show them what you mean.
Consider using Facebook Live or videos or some other method to show and not just tell your stakeholders what you’re doing. Before school starts, show me what your classroom in 2021-22 is going to look like. Recruit student volunteers or ask your teachers to play the part. Show me the hallways between class changes. Show me the lockers. Show me how you’re continuing to clean high-touch areas. Take me inside what you’re planning to do – before you do it.
Plan and adjust
Remember that communications plans are not evergreen documents. Review and update regularly to address emerging issue and concerns. This golden rule will be even more relevant during the 2021-2022 school year. Adjust your communication methods and perhaps add some new ones. Study what other districts are doing and adopt some of their good ideas.
Most important, you will want to hear from parents, teachers, staff and students and adjust your plan to address their needs.
They looked to you for leadership during a challenging time. They’re still looking.
Thom Fladung is managing partner for Hennes Communications. Contact him at [email protected] or 216-213-5196 to learn more about presentations on crisis and issues communications for educators and more.