Donovan Group Insights

In Crisis, Always Seek the High Ground

When a crisis occurs, everything can seem to happen all at once. Classes are disrupted, reporters descend on school property and upset parents take to social media. Administrators and the school board are depending on you to decide the next move. How you respond to a crisis can make or break your district in the eyes of the community.

District leaders are not immune to the stress, fear and anxiety that often accompanies a crisis situation. No matter what’s happening around them, district leaders must learn to set their feelings aside and tackle the issue with a clear head. It’s crucial that you remain professional, ethical and polite in all your communication efforts.

Let’s cover some ways you can take the high ground following a crisis situation.

Stay professional during media interviews

A crisis comes with a whirlwind of emotions—stress, anger, fear, even grief. These are all perfectly normal and valid reactions, and it’s important to recognize the toll a crisis can take on your mental wellbeing. District leaders are allowed to feel their emotions, but not at the expense of their districts’ reputations.

When dealing with the media, it’s crucial to keep your thoughts and emotions in check. You are a representative of the school district, which means the public’s perception of you becomes their perception of your district. Most reporters are cordial, but some might try to push your buttons. As frustrating as this can be, don’t let them get a rise out of you.

Media interviews are stressful enough. Combine that with all the emotions of a crisis, and you become more likely to snap at reporters trying to aggravate you. If they’re running a negative story, agitation will only help their angle even more. Remember, the only person who can control your emotions is you. Stay calm, cool and professional, and you’ll have nothing to worry about.

Reporters can get pushy if you don’t provide the information they want. If it’s public knowledge, it’s best to hand over the information without a fuss. But don’t be afraid to stand your ground if they ask for something you can’t give. Explain that while you can’t disclose confidential records, you’re more than happy to share everything you can about the situation. Meet their agitation with a calm, composed demeanor.

Protect the district’s truth in the news

As a school leader, you’re obligated to uphold the integrity of your district. Part of this responsibility involves making sure the media publishes correct facts about a crisis situation. When you answer a reporter’s questions, your responses should be thoughtful, accurate and dedicated to telling the full story. It’s not always possible to protect the district from negative news coverage. What’s most important is that the community gets a clear picture of what really happened.

Following a crisis, it’s all too easy for the public to view your district in a negative light. You might be tempted to leave out certain details in the name of preserving your district’s reputation. This may sound like a good idea in the moment, but withholding information will only hurt your district in the long run. A good reporter can sense when you’re hiding something, which will prompt them to make an even bigger deal out of an already negative story.

What will help your district the most is giving reporters the full truth. Sure, the truth might not help your district look its best. But sharing the truth is the right thing to do. You’ll win the community’s trust, and the media will regard you as a credible source of information. By sticking to your ethics, you can help ensure a positive outcome for the school district.

An interview isn’t the only time to protect the facts. You have to make sure the reporter accurately conveys information in the news story. Despite your efforts to set the facts straight, a reporter could misinterpret them or take what you said out of context. Monitor the news, and politely ask local stations to correct any factual errors right away.

Share the full story with your community

A crisis touches the lives of many people in your community. It impacts stakeholders one way or another, whether they’re the parent of an involved or affected student or a non-parent who simply wants to stay informed. Stakeholders are invested in your district, so you owe it to them to share exactly what happened. Some details might be hard to hear, but it’s better to shed light on the situation than leave your community in the dark.

As mentioned earlier, purposefully withholding information does a disservice to you, the district and the community. Stakeholders need a full understanding of the crisis so they can stay informed and feel welcome to join the conversation. Share the full story, even if it makes your district look bad. At the very least, the community will appreciate your honesty. Their respect is crucial for making it through crises now and in the future.

After a crisis, you’re bound to get lots of phone calls from the media. Keep in mind that reporters don’t always ask the right questions. Their questions might not address the key messages you want to convey to the public. During an interview, politely suggest additional questions that ensure stakeholders receive all the information they need. Chances are, you’ll have to guide the interview process to ensure the full and accurate story gets out.

News coverage can be a helpful tool, but don’t rely on the media alone to tell your district’s story. Transparency involves taking action as soon as possible. Once the crisis is under control, begin drafting emails, website copy and parent letters informing stakeholders about the situation. Pursue every possible channel of communication, and get the word out in a timely manner. You don’t have to wait for the media to contact you first!

Establish good relationships with reporters

The media doesn’t have to be your enemy. When you get to know local reporters, they can become advocates for your district’s reputation. Ideally, you should establish good rapport before a crisis happens in one of your schools. Positive media relations ensure your district becomes a reporter’s top source of information.

Don’t wait until they reach out about a negative story. Create strong relationships with reporters by communicating on a regular basis. Share the district’s achievements with local news stations. Ask if they can run a story about a notable event, sports team or faculty member. This establishes a positive perception of your district, both in the eyes of reporters and the community. If a crisis arises, the media will be more likely to defend the district’s reputation.

A crisis can stir up some turbulent emotions. It’s hard to keep your composure after days of dealing with nonstop media calls, parent complaints and concerns from the community. No matter how stressed you get, remember that everything you say and do is a reflection of your district. Stay professional, protect the truth and make friends with the media. You will get through this!

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