Crisis Communication Planning for Heads of Schools

September 10, 2018 Stacy Jagodowski

Crisis communication planning for heads of schools

Unfortunately, most school leaders know that it’s not a question of if a crisis will occur at some point, but when a crisis will occur. Schools regularly review safety practices and hold drills for fire, evacuation, shelter-in-place and other vital actions that may take place when tragedy strikes. But there’s one crisis area that isn’t regularly practiced: communication.

While just about every school has an emergency manual, rarely do they contain information about how the school will communicate both internally and externally during a crisis situation. Fortunately, heads of school can play a vital role in ensuring that a proper crisis communication plan is in place. By partnering with the marketing and communications office and addressing these steps in advance, your school can be better prepared to communicate both internally and externally when a crisis occurs.

Know your crisis communications response team.

Most likely, there’s a plan for who is responsible for attending to the students and sweeping the classrooms, but there isn’t often a plan in place for communicating during a crisis. In addition to the captains responsible for the safety of the students, there should also be positions determined in advance for communicating during a crisis situation. A team of the top five people called for every crisis situation should be determined, including someone for communication.

Most people immediately think of media relations, and while yes, it’s important to know who will field media questions, crisis communication also goes beyond that to actually documenting the crisis situation and determining the messaging that is sent out to the community. This role is often called the recorder, and every emergency plan should list the names and contact information for all approved recorders.

A complete and thorough documentation of the process during a crisis can be useful when recapping and reviewing the situation, working with insurance companies, and with the authorities, as well as determining the messages that need to be conveyed to the school community and beyond. Having one person designated as the recorder, with a backup recorder also pre-determined, means other members of your crisis-response team and faculty know who to call and turn to at a moment’s notice.

In addition to a recorder, many schools look to have backup support for sending information out at a moment’s notice; these people are part of your crisis communication response team. From email and social media to website updates, it’s important that you know who has access and the ability to make these updates, including contact information, should a crisis occur outside of normal school hours.

This team also needs to know how to communicate with each other and where they can meet, assuming it is safe. Group chat options are important for ensuring everyone is on the same page, be it via conference calls or walkie-talkies. It’s also important to determine a meeting place if the lines of communication are down, which should be stocked with necessary supplies they may need.

Set a protocol for communicating.

It is typically assumed that the head of school is the spokesperson during a crisis, but the reality is that the head will be dealing with the actual situation and needs help. Having a pre-planned chain of people who can be spokespeople—ideally members of your crisis communication response team—allows for flexibility and consistency of message. Every member should be familiar with outreach methods, messaging tone and language, and able to log into all communication services—make sure to test these in advance.

Plan your communication messages and needs in advance.

Every school should assess its most-likely crisis scenarios. Fire, shelter-in-place, and evacuation are common examples, but it’s important to figure out what else could happen and what you would need to communicate. Many schools have added active shooter and intruder drills, as well as less obvious situations, such as unexpected school closures, delays, and early dismissals.

Weather and acts of nature may not feel like a major crisis, but schools have to address these situations quickly and often at odd hours of the day. Extreme heat, snow, lightning, storms, and even poor air quality are all crisis situations that likely should be on your list, as well as earthquakes, tornadoes, and floods.

Predetermined and scripted messages give you time to think during a crisis situation. Having pre-approved messages by the head of school and the communications department allows you to inform people of the situation and prepare them for how you’re going to send follow up information without wasting time.

These communications should always include the name of the school and the date and time of the message. Parents with children at different schools need to know exactly who is calling and how they can get more information. Ending every scripted message with the same line for how to get more information via a URL or phone hotline will give them a way to check in.

Determine the tools you may need.

Knowing the potential situations you may face lets you draft a plan for each, including the necessary tools. When your internet and phones go down unexpectedly minutes before the dismissal rush, what are you going to do? Planning for something like this in advance will enable you to get a message out quickly.

The established crisis headquarters should be stocked with multiple phone lines, hard wired internet and wifi, several laptops, iPads, cell phones, and walkie talkies to ensure that you can reach the outside world. A radio and television with local and cable news networks can help you track developments of a crisis off-campus that may relate to you, and determine if networks are covering your campus crisis situation.

Don’t forget to have ample charging stations with power strips for powering multiple devices at once, as well as backup energy sources. Extra batteries and external chargers, including a crank charger, can be useful when power is affected by your crisis, as well as dongles and cords for connecting devices to those power sources. You’ll also want to plan for what to do if networks go out, so landlines, paper, and pencil supplies should also be handy, as well as flashlights in case you’re in the dark.

Know where and when you’ll communicate.

Communicating a clear and consistent message across dozens of channels can be a challenge, so streamlining your efforts is crucial. It’s often a good idea to create a crisis communications landing page that serves as your main hub for posting information, reducing the risk of missing an outlet or posting incorrect or incomplete information in one location. A unique URL such as myschool.org/emergency can be shared on social media and your other outlets to direct all traffic to this hub.

Not every situation needs immediate text messages and emails, so it’s important to determine what is warranted and when. Less urgent situations—a school cancellation with ample notice, for example—might warrant an email and website update only, whereas an unexpectedly early dismissal requires phone calls and text messages to ensure that information is received quickly. 

It’s also important to determine the frequency of outreach. A fast-moving situation that involves the authorities might warrant website updates on your crisis hub page every 15–30 minutes and communication via email and/or phone and text every 1–2 hours. A slow-developing situation such as a broken water main might need an initial message warning of potential closures the day before, a quick update on your website hub several hours later, and then nothing until the next morning when a final decision is made. 

You can also use your emergency outreach services to track the success of your message and determine if some families need more personal outreach to ensure the message has been received.  

Educate your community on what to expect.

The best way to ensure proper communication is to prepare your community on what to expect. Let them know that you have an emergency response system and test it more than once. Share the URL of your crisis hub landing page and encourage families to bookmark it. In addition, inform families of your plan during a shelter-in-place, where students will go when evacuating the campus, and how they can reunite with their children in each scenario.

If families know what to do, where to get information, and how you’re going to communicate, they will feel more confident during a crisis and will be less inclined to flood the school's phone lines.

While no one can truly anticipate every need during a crisis situation, planning for proper communication both internally and externally can make all the difference. For more information and an actionable list to share with your team, download Six Crisis Communications Tips for Heads of Schools

About the Author

Stacy Jagodowski

Inspired by her own private school experiences, Stacy Jagodowski has devoted her career as a faculty member and administrator to introducing others to the private school world. Her career has focused on institutional advancement, with five years of admission experience, and more than a decade in marketing and communications.

Stacy has led strategic marketing and communications teams at Cheshire Academy and Milken Community Schools; at Cheshire, her team earned award-winning recognition for their annual fund marketing programs and overall team development. She blogs for several private school organizations and has given several webinars and podcasts about private school marketing best practices. Stacy has also presented at national conferences including the NAIS Annual Conference, TABS Annual Conference, NAIS TABS Global Symposium, and Blackbaud K-12’s User Conference.

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