Donovan Group Insights

3 Things School Leaders Should Know About Telling the Truth in Difficult Times

“No news is good news.” It’s a common saying, but not one that ever makes it into an organization’s mission statement. Regardless, it has been said in many boardrooms, likely as often as common mission-statement words like “integrity” and “character.”

Navigating a crisis situation is never easy. But, as a school district, you can manage these situations more easily if you have a plan in place.

Here are 3 things all school district leaders should know about crisis communications:

1) The rush to judgment is a sprint

The news cycle is 24/7. I know that from working in newsrooms at 1 a.m. and 1 p.m. Today’s news consumer demands content now, and in the event of a crisis in your schools, you must be prepared to communicate so that your stakeholders do not go elsewhere for the information they’re seeking.

A few years ago, I covered a school district crisis situation. Student safety was not in question, but school integrity was. The circumstance was so unique that it generated public interest to the point of becoming a lead story. The local media had enough information to report, but the school district was not communicating with anyone. We didn’t hear a word for more than 24 hours.

By the time the district did communicate with stakeholders and the media, it was overwhelmed with damage control. The 24 hours of silence allowed inaccurate social media rumors to fill the vacuum. What would have been a one-day story about an unusual incident became a week-long report about trust during a crisis.

School leaders must be ready to take control of the narrative before someone else does.

2) Forethought before the flashpoint

As the previous example illustrated, it’s important to stay ahead of — or at least keep up with — the news cycle.

There could be eyewitnesses on social media telling their version of your school district’s story. They could be broadcasting live on Facebook or Periscope.

How do you counteract that? With a plan.

School districts that are prepared to communicate in a crisis have a process they can enact at any moment. This typically involves a team of communicators, with each team member responsible for a different aspect of crisis communication.

One team member will gather facts, while another will determine what should and should not be shared with the media right away. Another will monitor social media for possibly inaccurate stories and prioritize the list of contacts you need to reach immediately.

A good crisis communications plan will also include a timetable. Review past crises to gauge how quickly you need to share information before you run the risk of someone else telling your story.

For example, your plan might state: “Once we learn the facts, an accurate social media post must go up within 10 minutes. From there, we have 30 minutes to communicate directly with parents, school board members and the media.”

It’s important to note here that you do not have to have the answer to every question when communicating during a crisis — especially in the early stages. Share what you can as quickly as possible, and make sure your stakeholders know that you will share more once you are able to do so.

3) The transparency payoff

During a crisis, you will likely be concerned about protecting your students and staff, making sure they’re safe and limiting disruptions to learning. Those are the priorities. You can do all of those things while keeping stakeholders informed.  

By communicating effectively during a crisis, you will forge a strong bond with parents, staff members and other community members. Engaging them during difficult moments makes them feel as if they have a seat at the table and that their voices are being heard.

And here’s the payoff. Not only will there be trust during a crisis, there will be a shared confidence when the mood is calm. That gives you the opportunity to present the school district’s vision about instruction — or any other issue — with a greater sense of trust between you and your community.

They will come to trust that you are giving them the information they need and want when it comes to their local public schools.

Jerry Gallagher is an associate with the Donovan Group. He assists schools and districts throughout Iowa with needs related to communications planning, crisis communication and referendum planning. 

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