Earlier this year, Joe Donovan and I had the privilege of writing an article (“Prepare For Tomorrow’s Crisis Today”) for an edition of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association’s monthly magazine.
Like you, we’ve been so busy that we didn’t get around to sharing it with you until now! We’ve all been living in some level of crisis mode since the pandemic began in March.
As a national leader in crisis communications for schools and districts, the Donovan Group has been on the front lines of the response to COVID-19 school closures and planning for the return to school this fall. We’ve created a free communications tool kit and a wide range of templates that hundreds of schools and districts have leveraged to prepare for fall instruction and plan for the many contingencies that could take place due to the pandemic.
The Donovan Group is a proud crisis communications partner with PSBA, the California School Boards Association, the Delaware School Boards Association, the Association of Wisconsin School Administrators, the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators and the Wisconsin School Administrators Alliance.
The start of the 2020-21 school year—in its myriad forms—presents a perfect storm. There are many points of tension, including how the school year should look and whether districts should implement virtual or in-person learning—or a combination of the two. There are serious concerns about health and safety, uncertainties related to how COVID-19 affects children and the stress and worry parents feel when attempting to balance work and childcare needs.
All this leads to significant turbulence within school district communities.
Preparing for school crisis situations
While the pandemic has likely demanded your non-stop attention as a school or district leader, it is not too early to prepare for the next crisis situation. While COVID-19 could be the most serious situation you will ever need to address, it likely won’t be the last urgent or crisis situation that will require your attention.
When a crisis arises in your school district, take the following steps to address the situation and communicate clearly and effectively:
Gather the facts: Before you do anything, gather all of 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.
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.
Line up your team: Every superintendent should have at least one other trusted colleague who can assist in managing a school crisis situation. Ideally, there are three or four people who can be ready to help right away. If you have a district-based communications office or coordinator, or you work with a communications consultant, involve them from the start.
A crisis situation like COVID-19 can offer an opportunity to build trust with your school community. You can better communicate the good news coming out of schools while taking preventive steps to keep crises or negative stories from eroding public confidence and support.
We see video as an excellent way to showcase the amazing work your schools and districts are doing, especially during these unprecedented times. Take a look at some of the return-to-school videos we have helped to script, film and produce for school districts across the country.
Ideally, the hard work you have put into your district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic over the last few months has been recognized in your community. Parents and students in particular have relied on your leadership. By effectively managing your district’s response to the pandemic and other crisis situations, you build goodwill and trust that will pay dividends over time.
Liam Goldrick is an associate with the Donovan Group.