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Today’s Lesson for Schools in Crisis: Make Communication Part of the Solution

By Thom Fladung, Hennes Communications

So far in 2022, as of the end of September, Hennes Communications had worked with dozens of schools, school districts and other education organizations.

Our work involved serious issues and potential controversies including:

  • Sexual misconduct allegations involving teachers
  • Sexual misconduct allegations involving students
  • Tense labor negotiations
  • Superintendents facing no confidence votes from teachers
  • Superintendents and school boards attacked on social media by parents
  • Property tax disputes
  • Transportation issues
  • Challenges from charter school incursions
  • Workplace discrimination allegations
  • Controversial books in school libraries
  • Controversial speakers invited to appear at school events
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion issues

There are just three months left in calendar year 2022 – and the 2022-23 school year just begun.

Schools have always been vulnerable to reputation-challenging problems that may occur in a moment’s notice. Schools are among the most public-facing organizations, employing a lot of people in operations that encompass – besides education – childcare, security, transportation, food services, building services and more. And for good reason, schools are under intense public scrutiny.

The past two-plus years and the COVID-19 pandemic, though, challenged school leadership to an unprecedented degree.

And, driven in large part by social media, the adjustments and changes to the pandemic came amid one of the most tense, socially and politically charged atmospheres imaginable.

It’s little wonder that when schools seek help for communications we see a wide range of issues. The situations we encounter, including those listed above, all have one important factor in common: the school leadership team must talk about it.

They can’t ignore it. It isn’t going away. And the people the schools care about the most – the teachers, staffers, parents and students – are waiting to hear what’s going to be done about a particular situation.

While each situation requires its own communications strategy, with tools and tactics tailored to that situation, there are some basic principles and best practices that apply.

Effective crisis communications: The best practices

First, you can’t communicate your way out of a challenge. You must act your way out. But you also need to communicate those actions in clear, concise language.

Second, follow the fundamentals of effective crisis communications. At Hennes Communications, we depend on our Damage Control Playbook and its five simple concepts:

  1. Tell the truth.
  2. Tell it first – if you don’t, someone else will. 
  3. Tell it all – if you don’t, someone else will. We realize that sometimes, for very legitimate reasons, you can’t tell it “all.” Student privacy must be paramount, for example. And as we experienced in communicating about a pandemic, you also can’t know it “all.” Change will continue. Tell people that. One more important caveat: Don’t provide any information until you know it is true to the absolute best of your ability to know that in the heat of the moment. One of the most damaging errors, from a communications and reputation standpoint, is to have to walk back “facts” that you’ve shared with the public. As we saw with the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting, the result is extreme frustration and distrust on the part of your community.
  4. Tell it fast.
  5. Tell it to the people who matter most. Your teachers, staff, students and parents are eager to hear from you.

Third, “no comment” is no answer. Tempting as it may be, “no comment” equals a guilty plea in the court of public opinion. Because, after all, if you have a story to tell, why aren’t you telling it?

An insurance policy for your reputation: the crisis communications plan

 Your greatest uninsured asset is the reputation you’ve spent years building. Build insurance for your reputation by preparing for the worst with a crisis communications plan.

Districts and schools are required to develop comprehensive emergency management plans meeting state law requirements.  While communication with emergency services, staff, parents and other parties is a key part of these plans, districts also should consider the development of a comprehensive crisis communications plan.

At its essence, a crisis communications plan establishes who says what, who you’re saying it to, when and how.

When working with districts to develop a crisis communication plan, we place a great deal of emphasis on the “what” – messages for your most important audiences that have been approved by the superintendent, principals, legal, human resources, communications – by all the key players – for a variety of crisis scenarios.

We identify the crisis scenarios by conducting a vulnerability audit with schools. We gather in one room with the heads of different departments and disciplines that cut across the organization and ask, what keeps you up at night? What potential crisis are you worried about?

In an hour or so of brainstorming, the group usually comes up with 50 or 60 potential crises.

We then rate which of those crises are most likely to happen. From that most likely list, we choose the most potentially damaging – to your day-to-day operations and your reputation.

That usually yields about a dozen potential crises that are most likely to happen and most damaging.

Then, we write messages designed to talk about the crisis immediately, as it’s happening, with accompanying social media posts, particularly for Twitter and Facebook.

Having a crisis communications plan positions you to react quickly when the crisis hits because you don’t have time then to think about what you want to say and get your leadership team to approve it.

Your school community is waiting to hear from you. These planned, approved messages get your voice out there in those crucial early cycles of a crisis. They establish you’re working on the problem. And we’ve found they are crucial in protecting and maintaining your reputation.

The plan also establishes a crisis communications team, with complete contact info – including mobile phones – with backups for the primary contacts, because there’s a better than even chance the crisis will hit while your crisis team leader is on vacation.

This plan includes a clear delegation of responsibilities for each member of the crisis team, along with information about how to reach each in a variety of different ways.  The plan also includes protocols and procedures for activating the crisis communications team, with immediate first, second and third steps.

The plan also includes a section on social media, with passwords for your sites, instructions for use of social media, guidelines for monitoring, etc.

Want to survive a crisis? Have a plan for doing so before the crisis.

For information about how your district or organization of any type can have a crisis communications plan tailored to your exact situation and specifications, please contact Hennes Communications at or 216-321-7774.

© Can Stock Photo / Nevenova

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