Donovan Group Insights

Identifying Communication Obligations in a Crisis

No district leader likes to think a crisis will happen at their schools. The unfortunate reality is that a crisis can befall any district at any time. If a crisis occurs, you must be prepared to address it. This means creating a solid plan about who to engage, when to engage them, and what information they need to fully understand the situation.

While a crisis is often scary, a communications plan can help you stay calm and get the word out as efficiently as possible. You’ll need to decide not just what your role is, but the roles of everyone on your school board and administrative team. Figuring this out well in advance will ensure you communicate with the right stakeholders in the right order. But most importantly, a communications plan will help you act fast.

Quick communication is key during a crisis

District leaders must be able to act fast during a crisis situation. When a crisis occurs, a lot can happen in a matter of minutes. Crises are often unpredictable, and the situation could change from one moment to the next. It’s critical that district leaders send timely, accurate, and clear messages to groups who will help stabilize the situation.

Fast communication is crucial for ensuring the safety of students and staff. There are some cases where first responders and law enforcement will have to visit school property. When a person’s safety is at risk, district leaders must be able to call the right people and provide the right information. The faster you communicate, the sooner students and staff can receive help.

Communication isn’t just important while a crisis is unfolding. District leaders have to communicate quickly after a crisis as well. Affected individuals aren’t the only people you need to communicate with—the community will want to know what happened, too. Once the crisis is under control, get in contact with the media so you can tell the district’s side of the story. When something happens in your district, it’s better for the community to hear it from you rather than someone else.

Establish first- and second-tier communications

During a crisis, district leaders must know who to contact first. There are many groups who need information, such as parents, students, staff, law enforcement, and the community at large. Unfortunately, you can’t communicate with everyone all at once. You have to prioritize certain groups during and after a crisis.

Communication is generally split into two categories: first tier and second tier.

First-tier communication involves contacting the most critical stakeholders before anyone else. These are often the people who will help you get the situation under control. The first tier of communication also includes groups who are directly affected by the crisis situation.

The groups in your first-tier communications may include:

  • Law enforcement
  • Emergency services
  • Involved students
  • Involved staff members
  • Administrative teams

Second-tier communication involves contacting stakeholders who aren’t directly connected to the crisis situation. These groups weren’t present during the crisis, and they play no role in getting the situation under control. Nevertheless, communicating with these groups is crucial to minimizing the aftershocks of a crisis.

People in your second-tier communications may include:

  • Uninvolved parents
  • Uninvolved students
  • Local news stations
  • Community members
  • The Department of Education

Decide who to contact (and in what order)

Crisis communication requires more than acting quickly. District leaders must act quickly with the right stakeholders. Everyone will need to hear what happened, but some people need to hear about it before others. To get a situation under control, you’ll need to contact the right people in the right order.

Let’s take a look at people who fall under your first-tier communications. You’ve identified several groups who are directly affected by the situation and who will help you control it. Next, figure out which groups to contact first by asking yourself a series of questions. Who do you need to contact right now? What about within the next 10 minutes? The next half hour?

The next people to focus on belong in your second-tier communications. These groups often can wait until after your district has resolved the situation. The order in which you engage second-tier groups can influence how uninvolved individuals perceive the crisis situation. Ask yourself this: who do you need to contact within the next couple hours? The next morning? The next couple of days?

Relay information to the right people

Before communicating with any group, you have to get the facts about the crisis situation. Communicating alone isn’t enough—stakeholders need the right information to paint a clear, comprehensive picture of what happened. District leaders can get most of the information their stakeholders need by assessing the who, what, when, where, and how of the situation. Gather the facts in a document, and store it in the cloud so your administrative team can access it.

Not everyone will receive the same level of information. For instance, the family of an involved student may receive certain details that would be inappropriate to share with the general public. There are some facts you can share with your community, such as a basic overview of what happened, where it happened, and when it happened. However, community members don’t need every last detail to get a sufficient picture of the crisis situation.

After a crisis occurs, your phone will be ringing nonstop with media calls. Before speaking with the media, it’s important to know what you can and cannot say. There will be some details you’re legally not allowed to disclose to the public. This often includes information that could identify a student. When you release a public statement, only share what’s necessary for telling the district’s side of the story.

Assign roles to your administrative team

As a district leader, it’s your responsibility to collect the facts and relay them to the right people, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it alone. During a crisis, many things have to happen at once to ensure critical groups receive information in a timely manner. Communication shouldn’t fall solely on one person’s shoulders.

District leaders should create a crisis communications plan long before they need it. That way, everyone on your school board and administrative team will know their roles during a crisis situation. Assign different tasks to each person so your team can communicate clearly and accurately to the right groups as quickly as possible.

You’ll need to form a backup plan, too. During a crisis, you or a member of your administrative team might not be available to perform your assigned roles. When you create a crisis communications plan, make sure each team member knows what to do in another person’s absence. Delegating tasks to different people boosts efficiency and prevents multiple team members from attempting to complete the same task.

When a crisis occurs, it’s easy to get swept up in everything that’s happening around you. By planning well in advance, you and the administrative team will know exactly what to do if a crisis afflicts one of your schools. A crisis communication plan can help you collect the right information and communicate it to the right people at the right time.

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