How schools can prepare to respond to a crisis

This is an extract of an article that was originally published in the August 2010 print edition of Teacher.

Pick up today’s newspaper – or if you’re like most school kids, check online to get your fill of breaking news. There’s probably a yarn about a drunken footballer mucking up. A group of young people have been caught drag racing. There might be tales of increasingly violent street crime and youth gangs. The use of knives is on the rise; a rave party got out of control; a bullied child has taken his own life; and a young woman was killed after connecting with someone she met on Facebook.

These are the everyday social horrors that – like it or not – have become part of life, and consequently part of the media. Welcome to life as we know it. Now, it’s fair to say schools and the people in them are a microcosm of what’s happening in society with all its attendant issues, trends and possible tragedies. Throw in the fact that you’re dealing with children and teenagers – didn’t they invent the concept of high-risk behaviour? – and you have a powder keg. A loaded gun. A time bomb. A disaster waiting to happen. Name your cliché!

The added danger in the mix – the flame to the tinder pile – is that the world has also changed inexorably in two other ways. Firstly, Australia has become litigious and schools, as the custodians of our precious children, are a new hotbed of potential legal challenges. Secondly, the media has changed almost beyond recognition. The sorts of things that have become news have changed markedly since the death of Princess Diana. People’s private lives are now much more public.

The advent of new media like Twitter, Facebook, blogs, YouTube and so on has meant that information, often misinformation, can travel around the world to an audience of billions in the space of minutes. It’s also brought with it ‘citizen journalism’ – where everyone is potentially the messenger of news. Traditional filters, which meant a story needed to be accurate, appropriate and in the public interest, no longer apply.

There’s an obvious relationship between the media, a crisis or issue, and schools. The three together are the perfect recipe for a story – at its worst, for a raging media bushfire. That’s brought with new potential avenues to damage a school’s reputation, says Sam Elam, the Managing Director of Media Manoeuvres, which specialises in crisis and reputation management. Elam should know: Media Manoeuvres has represented many private and government schools when dealing with everything from reputation management to a full-blown crisis.

‘Teachers and principals are today suddenly faced with a range of threats and possibilities which carry potentially devastating consequences,’ says Elam.

‘It’s so hard for teachers, principals and administrators these days,’ she says. ‘Most joined the profession because they have a passion to educate and make a difference in young people’s lives.

‘Now, they also have to be so astute in so many, often unfamiliar, areas of communication, law and process.’

It should come as no surprise to educators that the key to handling a crisis is homework. Every Australian school should have a crisis plan which integrates with the business continuity plans under risk management. ‘This is a basic strategic imperative and is the responsibility of the school council and executive management,’ says Elam.

‘A school can live or die on the strength of its response to a crisis. Our experience in dealing with crisis events indicates two things. Firstly, the best defence is always preparedness. Planning is key.

‘Secondly, the way people respond, especially in the first hour, is absolutely crucial.’

Preparation for a crisis involves everyone in the organisation, from the top down.

‘All schools need a crisis communications plan. It’s as simple as that. Once a crisis strikes, it’s too late.’

How to be crisis-prepared

Firstly, do your homework. What are the potential, emerging, current and legacy issues facing your school?

Secondly, identify your stakeholders. Determine your friends, foes and champions, as well as fence-sitters, and their position on the issues you’ve identified. What are their current perceptions of your school?

Third, prepare key messages. What are your school’s core values? Do you have key messages for your different stakeholders? Are your messages media friendly?

Fourth, prepare your spokesperson. Who is going to deliver your messages? Are they media-trained?

Fifth, determine your strategy. Do you have communications protocols in place?

Do you have a documented plan to manage a crisis, if and when it occurs? Have these protocols and plans been communicated clearly to staff? Would your frontline staff know what to do when confronted by the media? Have you tested your plan? Do you have recovery strategies in place?

‘A comprehensive crisis management plan gives staff, at the very least, a sense of calm, control and direction that is most critical in times of crises,’ says Elam.

The first few minutes after a crisis becomes public can be spent in blind panic or denial.

Ducking for cover might seem like the best strategy when the news crews are arriving at the front gate, but research shows that this is the very time when it’s vital to take control of the situation by facing the media in a controlled environment to begin a dialogue on your terms.

‘Shutting yourself away sends a negative message to the public,’ explains Elam. ‘It shows the school is not in control and probably in panic mode. If you’re not talking, the media will find someone else to do the talking.’

Timing is everything. If a crisis is dealt with swiftly, strategically and efficiently it may not only minimise the crisis but end it. It can also be the foundation for a positive rebuilding strategy. The most effective crisis management is dealt with quickly.

How to work with the media during a crisis

  • Don’t hide from the media – even if you have nothing to say, you can at least say that the problem is being investigated and you will keep journalists up to date.
  • Make sure your spokesperson has been media trained, understands the issues, the key messages and the overall strategy.
  • Be cooperative and professional at all times.
  • Be a reliable source of information.
  • Never say ‘no comment’ – it will only cause speculation and send the media elsewhere for their story, and may even send them to your opponent.
  • State the facts – don’t speculate and never provide false information.
  • Stay calm – your tone is all-important.
  • Remember that there are times when your aims and that of the journalist will be incompatible so be objective and professional.
  • Never respond to a request for interview randomly – always refer to your media policy.

Reputation recovery and image rebuilding

Once the crisis communications are in place, decide what the next course of action will be.

This includes putting measures in place to prevent the crisis from happening again. The focus of the communications will be the management strategy adopted by your institution.

A post-crisis communication strategy needs to be implemented to reposition your school as quickly as possible. This involves internal and external communications to all stakeholders, irrespective of whether they were directly affected or not.

Ongoing review and evaluation is vital to ensuring the crisis communications plan is up to date. The simplest outdated item, such as an incorrect phone number, can be the difference between averting and escalating a crisis.

Crisis simulation can be invaluable, but needs to be conducted at least every year as staff and industry best practice change.

Potential crises for your school

  • an accident where staff or student is injured or killed at school
  • sexual abuse of children by teachers or other students
  • drug taking or alcohol consumption
  • harassment or violence towards teachers or students
  • natural disaster like fire, storm or flood
  • power failure
  • transport accident involving students during ‘care’ times
  • contagious diseases
  • riot or gang wars
  • bomb threat
  • suicide of student or staff member at school
  • bullying of students or staff
  • illegal or unsafe activity by students or boarders in a school’s care
  • strike or work stoppage
  • sexual harassment
  • damaging rumours peddled through the media
  • the leak of confidential documents
  • computer virus, system shut down
  • disgruntled and vocal employee, parent or student
  • equipment malfunction
  • sudden drop in grades
  • sudden drop in enrolments

This is an extract of an article that was originally published in the August 2010 print edition of Teacher. The author biography may not be accurate at this point in time.

In what ways have you prepared staff for any potential crises that may occur? Does everyone know what their role is? Has each person been trained to carry out their role in a crisis?

Does your school have a crisis plan in place which integrates with the business continuity plans under risk management? If so, are all staff made aware of it?