Don’t panic — it’s time to talk crisis communications.
Why? Because at some point (and maybe that point is pointed on today’s calendar date), you’re going to need to be prepared to address a “crisis” at your school — whether mild or momentous.
As your school’s marketing and communications expert, the story starts with you. The way you choose to communicate in a crisis reflects your school’s brand, personality, community, and so much more. For that reason, it’s important to have a plan in place.
With full disclosure, I write this as the COVID-19 coronavirus spreads through global communities at an alarming rate. Universities and schools are canceling social gatherings, and many are moving classes online. While this is an unprecedented occurrence that of course requires careful communication with our communities, it is just one example of why crisis communications are critical.
Here’s how to put a smart crisis communications plan in place for your school, for any type of situation.
Crisis communications is a public relations practice that helps organizations face public challenges while hopefully defending or maintaining their reputation.
A true crisis situation should be “reserved for serious events that require careful attention from management*;” however, smaller public incidents can also benefit from following crisis communications best practices.
There are typically three phases of general crisis communications, according to communication scholar Timothy Coombs:
Unfortunately, most of us start to focus on crisis communications when there’s already a crisis happening. By then, your communications will be reactionary, and you may not have the time or bandwidth to put enough thought and strategy into your stories.
Here’s how schools can be proactive in their crisis communications, as well as stand strong during and after a current crisis:
Develop a crisis communications team.
These are the individuals who would be responsible for communicating to the public during a serious event. This could include marketing, PR, and admissions professionals, as well as your head of school. Make sure these are people who feel comfortable with public speaking if they will be the face of your communications.
Schedule quarterly team preparation meetings.
This is a great time to discuss any potential internal and external threats, and brainstorm how you could potentially address these threats if they occur.
Develop action plans.
Think through your courses of action during potential crises. How will you first address your school community? Will it be via email? Calls or texts to families? Livestreaming a message on social media? Make sure you have notification workflows in place, and you know which type of content you will need to produce (and in what order) during a crisis.
Create communications templates.
You don’t want to be designing and formatting communications during a crisis. Create any necessary document and graphic templates in advance, and include any boilerplate emergency content that would be required regardless of crisis type.
There are many ways to communicate during an active crisis, but regardless of event, you want to make sure that your communications are authentic, honest, and non-alarmist. Here are five fantastic tips on how to do that from crisis communication researcher Matthew Seeger:
Rely on credible sources.
Rumors are dangerous, and you don’t want to be responsible for perpetuating them.
The best way to communicate is to draw from the facts and be honest about what is unknown. Being as straightforward as possible is the best way to stop needless panic and anxiety.
If there are steps your community can take (such as the harm-reducing guidelines shared by the CDC regarding COVID-19), promote them heavily.
Turn to subject-matter experts.
You are not responsible for becoming an expert on an external crisis, like a public health concern. Lean on expert knowledge, and follow their lead.
This will also help cut down on unnecessary panic. Make sure your messaging is coming from a clear perspective, and share that same messaging on all of your communications channels.
Just because a crisis subsides doesn’t mean it should be forgotten. Learn from past events in order to strengthen your future crisis communications.
Review the entire communication process.
What worked? What did not? In what ways could you have been more prepared?
Develop additional materials as needed.
Perhaps these are follow-up messages to reassure and update your community, or they’re templated materials that can be used during future events. Fill in any gaps for future communications now.
While it’s impossible to be prepared for every type of crisis situation, following these tips will help independent schools better communicate during serious events.
Do you have any additional tips or best practices for crisis communications at your school? Share them in the comments!