3 Keys to Effective Crisis Communication
Crises are, by their nature, unpredictable, but school leaders can ease their impact by preparing ahead of time, connecting with local partners, and using every communication channel at their disposal.
By Derik Moore
Effective crisis response and communication begins well before a crisis is on the horizon. Crises are, however, by their very nature, unanticipated. So how can you make sure your district is ready to hit the ground running and mitigate disaster once a crisis strikes? At Sheldon Independent School District, we weather tough times by having broad plans in place, developing ongoing partnerships, and making use of multiple communications channels before, during, and after crises.
Planning and Training
First and foremost, when it comes to crisis communications and crisis management, you need to have a plan in place prior to the crisis. When I started in school communications in the mid-1990s, the communications team would sit down and largely come up with a plan on its own. But there’s been a pretty dramatic shift in the intervening 25 years, with a lot of legal requirements coming from the state and federal level. As a result of those changes, the communications plan is now part of a larger crisis-response strategy, all of which is headed up by our safety coordinator, Ray Watson.
This is good news. It means that as long as you’re in compliance with federal, state, and local laws, you already have pretty good plans in place. These plans are usually quite broad and, though they may be created for fairly specific events, are usually adaptable by an experienced staff ready to reprioritize the specific steps in the moment.
It also means that we’re required to participate in trainings and other opportunities that prepare our own staff in appropriate responses right alongside the agencies that are likely to be involved in an emergency response.
Forging Community Partnerships
At my previous district, we held quarterly meetings with first responders such as the fire chief and chief of police. They all had their own incident response protocols that were pretty similar to the ones we had at the district, and these meetings gave us all an opportunity to see inside one another’s response protocols so that, in the case of an emergency, we had a general idea what the people around us were going to be doing.
We knew that the city would set up a command center and I knew that, as the communications director for my district, one of my first orders of business would be to show up there and look for my point of contact with, for example, the police—who I already knew pretty well from our quarterly meetings.
These days, because of our familiarity with one another and the protocols we both follow, we are already in a position to create a message that reassures our community we are working together to address the issue.
But these partnerships also help everyone in the community prepare for disaster. At a district I worked at previously, for example, we held a mock active shooter response at one of our schools. One of the first responders told me, “I’m glad we’re having this exercise. I’ve always seen your building, but I’ve never gone through the hallway.”
That familiarity and the practice of actually moving through our hallways to respond to a dangerous situation is of course incredibly important, but another benefit of that event was that it opened a discussion within the community about our processes and protocols. Nothing will take away the fear of a parent when their child is in danger, but they can at least have the comfort of knowing we’ve prepared and practiced and they’ve had a little insight into what they can expect in these situations.
These partnerships also provide a great wealth of experience. When Hurricane Harvey devastated the Houston area, I had no idea what to expect. I was new to the area and didn’t know what a hurricane would do. In the leadup to the hurricane, the fire chief, who’d been through Hurricane Rita several years before, met with our superintendent, who was also new to the district, and told him to expect three feet of water in the buildings. Advice like this helped us prepare for when Harvey hit, despite its arrival during the first week of school when students had only been in classes for two days.
Broadcasting to Many Channels
Once disaster arrives, it won’t matter how carefully prepared you are to offer the vital information your community needs if they can’t find that information. We address this by releasing all communications on multiple channels, whether it’s emergency information or not.
Our website functions as the repository for pretty much all of our information. We use Edlio, a turnkey CMS provider, to manage our website because their focus on K-12 schools means that it’s easy for anyone in the district to update information with a bit of training and the correct permissions.
During a hurricane, the message shifts, of course, from the next PTO meeting or the upcoming school carnival to the locations of shelters, food distribution centers, and information on where to find loved ones. When dealing with such vital information, it’s important to be able to update our website from a phone or any device available because you’re unlikely to find yourself in front of a desktop computer.
We also release all announcements and other vital information through Facebook and Twitter. Those channels are important because nearly all of our parents and other stakeholders are on one or the other, and they allow for real-time two-way communication if necessary. For longer messages, we sometimes have to link back to the website from Twitter because of the limited character count on that platform, but the key for us is that people can easily and quickly find access to the information they need at a moment when they may have very limited options for reaching the outside world and certainly have a million more pressing things on their mind.
Derik Moore has been working in school communications for more than 25 years. He currently serves as the director of communications for the Sheldon Independent School District in Houston, Texas. He can be reached at [email protected]