Donovan Group Insights

Evaluating the Impact: Post-Crisis Communication and Community Healing

You’ve seen a lot of things at your school. Many of those things have been positive, but some of them have been a real challenge. Seasoned school leaders know that crises aren’t a matter of if, but when. From the embarrassing to the tragic, negative incidents will happen. It’s how you respond to them that matters the most.

Don’t wait until a crisis is already here. Start formulating a plan for how your school will communicate to the public after a crisis occurs.

Create a post-crisis plan well in advance

One way or another, your community will make it through a crisis. However, creating a plan ahead of time can help everyone overcome it more smoothly. While post-crisis planning isn’t the most lighthearted topic, it’s important to put systems and protocols in place before you need them. Walk through different scenarios, create templates and identify the tiers of communication. That way, if a crisis does occur, your team will know exactly how to respond.

After a crisis, timing is everything. Affected families and individuals will need more information about the incident. Reporters will soon hear what happened and approach you for interviews. Word gets around pretty fast, which means your school must be ready to act. Post-crisis planning enables your team to mobilize faster and begin the community healing process sooner.

Crises can leave people feeling emotionally drained. It’s difficult for anyone to think clearly after a crisis because all sorts of emotions are running high. When you’re in this headspace, the last thing you should worry about is how you’re going to break the news to the public. Create thoughtful, professional messaging while your emotions are calm, and your mind is clear.

Address the incident with the public

Immediately following a crisis, many questions will run through your head: “What will the public think? Will this tarnish the school’s reputation? Will our students, staff and families lose faith in us?” While these are valid concerns, you can’t let them stop you from getting the word out. When you feel like hiding, that’s when you need to communicate the most. People will hear about the incident eventually; it’s best that they hear it from you.

Be the first to speak out. The incident occurred on school grounds, or at least involved people in your school community. For that reason, your school is the most equipped to explain what happened. By speaking out in a timely manner, your school becomes the primary source of information, which in turn allows you to control the narrative. The sooner you communicate, the better off your school will be.

Many school leaders avoid addressing negative incidents because they don’t want the school to appear flawed or weak in the eyes of the public. On the contrary, tackling uncomfortable situations head-on is a sign of strength. The community will appreciate your school’s confidence and transparency in the face of adversity. You can’t take back what happened, but you can walk away from the incident with people’s respect.

Be transparent while maintaining privacy

You’ve decided to tell the community what happened. The next step is deciding how to tell the community. When school leaders go public about an incident, many try to soften the blow by telling half truths or making the incident sound less serious than it actually was. Resist the temptation to alter the story. The full truth might not be pleasant, but transparency is key for recovering from a school crisis.

It’s important to note that you can tell the full truth without revealing sensitive details. Telling the truth doesn’t mean disclosing locations, student names or any other identifying information. It simply means you’re giving the community a clear picture of what happened. Not everyone needs to know who was involved, and a graphic retelling of events isn’t necessary. There is such a thing as sharing too much!

Communicate the plan moving forward

After a crisis, your community will need time to process what happened and to heal from it. A big component of the healing journey is reassuring students, staff and families that your team will do everything they can to prevent a similar incident from happening in the future. Acknowledge the crisis, then move forward in a positive direction. The community might still feel unsettled, but you can also help them feel a sense of hope.

Do more than say, “Our school will do better.” Be specific about how your school plans to mitigate future safety risks. Communicate actionable steps like implementing new protocols or preventative measures. Tell the public what your school has learned from this experience and how it will use that newfound knowledge to better navigate potential future crises. In order to heal, people need to feel confident that something like this won’t happen again.

Show the community that you’re listening

When people experience a crisis, one of the best things you can do is listen. Listening is crucial in the days, weeks and months following a school incident. Your community will feel a mix of emotions—anger, fear, confusion, sadness, even grief. Many students, staff and family members will feel better simply knowing that you’ve listened to their thoughts and concerns. Doing so demonstrates that you genuinely care about the community and want to do what’s best for them.

Some individuals will make themselves heard one way or another. However, some might be too timid or afraid to say anything. Encourage people to express their feelings about a recent crisis by creating sounding boards that amplify their voices. Platforms like social media, town hall meetings and community forums empower more individuals to speak up because you’re inviting them to contribute to the conversation.

Promote resources for affected individuals

People need support after a crisis. Consistently remind the community that your school is here to help along the journey to healing and acceptance. When you make a public announcement about a school incident, conclude your message by stating where students, staff, families and other affected community members can seek assistance. Offering support demonstrates that your school is willing to take ownership for what happened, and your school accepts the responsibility of helping individuals get through this hard time.

Assess the school resources that are currently in place, as well as additional resources you can implement to better support affected individuals. Call on community partners to offer mental health services or to raise money for families who have experienced loss. Once you’ve identified several sources of support, create messaging that includes website links, organization names and contact information for these support services. Make it as easy as possible for affected individuals to get the help they need.

Let your school be the guiding light

Crises aren’t always avoidable. Sometimes, things can happen when you least expect them. You never know what the future will bring, which is why it’s so important to be prepared for anything. Life will throw challenges at you; it’s how you overcome them that really matters. Start planning your post-crisis communications now, so if an incident ever happens at your school, you can recover faster and put your community on the path to healing.

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