The recent evil in Newtown, CT, shocked our nation. Stunned by the tragedy that took so many innocent lives, our nation will grieve this for a while. Why? Because it is centered around the place our children are at almost 8 hours a day….school.
In the wake of this recent events, but also triggered by a few regional and local school communications situations, I thought I would carefully offer a few suggestions on ensuring a sound crisis response from your school:
- Empathetic Response – nothing manufactured I’m advocating here….absolutely not. But an authentic response from your administration communicates your understanding that a crisis at one school a thousand miles away could happen anywhere. Genuinely allow the comforting presence of your administration to shine through. Parents will watch and respond if a video message communicates that their child would not only be safe, but be loved and cared for as much as the parents do (READ: Keeping company leadership involved in crisis management ensures others view your organization as one that genuinely cares]. If your school has a time of prayer for a community a world away, then you need to document this . . . not to brag or boast, but to let prospective families in on how great your students are. Every family wants to be a part of something where kids care more about the suffering than themselves.
- Showcase Existing Security Measures – does your school already have a security system in place? Would a prospective family’s kids feel safe? Do you have regular security drills where at least the staff/admin know what to do in the event something awful happens on your campus? Certainly after times of crisis, but even all year long, parents want to feel that their kids will be safe. How are you communicating and demonstrating this? I saw a church once describe on video the inner workings of their child check-in system on a busy Sunday morning. I was impressed with the Children’s Pastor who said, “I would never drop my kids off at a new church if I didn’t know how secure they would be. So let me show you how our sophisticated check-in system ensures that your kid will be safe with us until you pick them up.” Simple message, but powerful video (if I could just remember where I saw it, I promise I’d share it). Blog about it, show pictures and vide0, and certainly highlight these measures during an Open House or on a private tour.
- Crisis communication tools – how do you inform off-campus parents of any campus-wide emergency alert (this could be weather-related as well). Do you use a text messaging alert system? Do you post on Facebook, Twitter, or your website? (Speaking of the latter, you need to have a website that you can manage yourself, so in the event of an emergency, updated information can be supplied to the home page of your school’s website almost immediately!) If you do not have a crisis communication system in place today, then I suggest you spend considerable intentional time in creating one that can be followed (not thrown together) in a time of crisis. Having a plan in place for dealing with the media is a must as well. Parents (and media) will be clamoring for real-time hard facts. Where is the one place where people can find out what’s going on? You don’t want to communicate chaos, or worse, nothing at all.
The most notable tactical takeaway is the importance of having a strong, consistent communication and PR effort. Such cannot be developed at the moment a crisis hits. Chris Syme, principal of CKSyme.org, a strategic communications agency, suggests:
“The best crisis communications strategy is comprehensive and ongoing. The real-time response to crisis is just one piece of that strategy.” Read the full article about her comments in “The Failure of Crisis Response on the Fly.“