As a school or district leader, you never want to encounter a crisis situation. A select few are fortunate to go years without needing to handle a major crisis in their schools. But it’s a near certainty that, at some point in your career, you’ll need to engage in swift communications in response to a school crisis issue.
Please note that when we refer to a “school crisis,” we mean any issue that requires urgent communication. This can be anything from the simply unfortunate to the truly tragic.
When a crisis does arise, you’ll most often learn about it via a phone call, the police or the news media. Below are three important steps to take when managing a school crisis:
1. Gather the facts
Before you do anything, you must gather all the known facts. Get dates, times, locations and names. Journalists refer to this as the five Ws: who, what, where, when and why. Get this information as quickly as you can and write it all down for future reference.
Determine who else knows about the situation and find out if anyone has called the police. If so, get the officer’s name and contact information.
As you gather facts, double-check everything and ask for clarification on any gaps in your information. When you’re comfortable you have what you need, write down the time and date of when you received the information, along with how and who you got it from.
2. Prioritize your contacts
Next, determine with whom you should communicate and when. This can be more difficult than you might think. In fact, in the heat of a crisis, it can feel overwhelming.
There are generally two tiers of communication that need to take place during and after a crisis situation. Tier I communications are those that must happen right away. Tier II communications, while still important, can take place in the hours or days after the situation.
Below is a list of individuals and groups with whom you may need to communicate. Determine who you need to reach now (Tier I) and who you can communicate to in the next several hours or tomorrow (Tier II).
- The local police
- Involved parents
- Involved staff
- The school district’s attorney
- School board members
- Other parents in the school
- Other staff in the school
- Other district parents
- Other district staff
- Other community members
- State department of education or public instruction
- The news media
- Your key communicators network (if you have one)
Once you’ve determined to whom you should communicate, consider the following questions to help you determine when you should reach out:
- Who do I need to contact this minute?
- Who do I need to contact in the next ten minutes?
- Who do I need to contact in the next half hour?
- Who do I need to contact in the next hour?
- Who do I need to contact in the morning or later in the day?
- Who do I need to contact in the next two days?
Take a deep breath and double-check your list. The person you need to contact this minute, in the next 10 minutes and in the next half-hour are contacts you will likely make by phone. Make the calls now and keep a record of all the conversations you have.
3. Line up your team
Every superintendent or administrator should have at least one other trusted colleague who can assist in managing a school crisis situation. Ideally, this would be three or four people who can be ready to help right away.
Specifically, these are people who can help with the Tier II communications noted above. They may help draft letters to parents and staff and field calls from the media.
Having trusted colleagues ready to assist with managing a school crisis situation is critical for two reasons. First, Tier I communications, tend to take up a lot of time. This is especially true if you must work with the police.
Second, school and district leaders often underestimate the mental and emotional energy that communicating during a crisis takes. Having others assist you during this tough time can reduce the stress these situations tend to cause.
Planning for a crisis situation
Perhaps the biggest challenge of managing a school crisis is the fact that these situations usually come out of nowhere. Therefore, it’s wise to prepare for a possible crisis by lining up your team of communicators ahead of time and making sure everyone knows what to do when one of these issues arises in your school or district.
If you would like help with a crisis situation or would like to learn more about crisis communication planning, please call us at 800-317-7147 or contact us online.