You do have a school Crisis Communications plan – don’t you?

Posted by on May 20, 2013

If you ever face a major crisis at your school – and we hope you don’t – you’ll learn the real meaning of the phrase “misery loves company.”  Hundreds of reporters will descend upon you, and they’re not just the local reporters on the education beat. You will face reporters from major newspapers and online news sites, network correspondents and anchor teams, documentary producers, and bloggers from across the country and around the world.

At the worst time, you will have to deal with cameras, microphones, and social media. You cannot walk into such a situation cold and deal with it effectively.  You have to be prepared, starting with a Crisis Communications plan.

It’s hard to think about Crisis Communications when the sun is shining and the school year is winding down. But now is the exact time to build your plan.

Your Crisis Communications plan should be thorough and detailed.  Don’t try to slide by with a few policy statements that nobody has read in the last 5 years.  I’m talking about a living plan that you update frequently.  Here are a few things to get you started:

  1. Define the kind of emergency that would require you to put this plan into action. For example, a bus accident with injured children, a fire or explosion at school, an active shooter in or near campus, a tornado.
  2. Create a step by step plan for the first few minutes of a crisis.  Close your eyes and walk through the actions you might take in the first 30 minutes. Who would you call first, what do parents and school staff need to know right away, where will you hold your first news conference, who will update your website and social media?  Plan now to save time later.
  3. Who does what during the first hour?  Assign specific tasks to people you can trust.
  4. Make a complete list of priority contacts with office, home and cell phone numbers, plus email addresses. Assume that you won’t have time to look up these contacts in a tense situation. Your list should include:
    • Emergency agencies such as your school resource officers, police, fire, sheriff, emergency management, hospitals, Red Cross, poison control, utility companies
    • School district executive staff, principals, facilities managers, bus drivers, IT team, school board members
    • Community support groups such as churches, counseling, Social Services
    • Media, including all local TV, radio, newspapers, Associated Press, network and cable news
    • PR and community relations volunteers from other school systems who might offer mutual aide.
  5. Determine who is authorized to talk to the media. One person cannot handle all media inquiries and news conferences. It’s a 24/7 job.
  6. Create a list of evacuation and meet-up sites so you can tell parents where to find their children
  7. You will need certain hardware and software:
    • Smart phones are essential. Cell phone service may go down or get cut off, but you can still send text messages that take up less bandwidth.
    • Internet access for your cell phones.  Most cell phone carriers will let you upgrade your voice and data plans at any time.
    • Two-way radios for essential staff
    • Televisions, radios and computers will help you monitor the media and communicate with reporters.
    • Extra batteries and chargers for electronic devices
    • Your parent alert system should be programmable from an off-campus site
    • Instructions for logging onto your website and social media to update these important communication channels

Information travels at lightning speed on social media. That’s why social media must be part of your crisis communications strategy. Reporters use Twitter, Facebook and YouTube extensively. Twitter is an essential conduit for breaking news.  Use social media and school websites to put out current information and correct misinformation.  Assign at least two people from your team to handle social media during an emergency.

If you are evacuated from your building you may be working from your home, your car, or the middle of a street. Do you have remote access to your school email system? Make sure everyone on your executive team is trained to send email and text messages, and navigate the Internet on a mobile device.

In the event that you have to get out of your building fast, the last thing you’re going to do is search for a document. That’s why I recommend that you store all emergency plans on a secure Internet site that you can access from anywhere.  Keep copies of all emergency plans in your car and at hour home, and make sure your executive team does the same.  Whatever is in your plan won’t help unless you have it with you.

There is a lot more to your planning process, but this is a starting point. Are you prepared?

Ellen Miller

Communications and Media Consultant

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One thought on “You do have a school Crisis Communications plan – don’t you?

  1. John Henderson says:

    In essence, this sounds like part of a Business Continuity Plan and the advice in Ellen’s column is excellent. Having designated media people is of enormous value and can help the crisis manager maintain control of how things are unfolding. There is nothing worse for an employee or responder than having a microphone thrust into his/her face with questions being fired at them, and they don’t know what to say or have the skill to deliver sensitive information properly. Media persons can be anybody in the organization with a little bit of training on how to phrase information and how to organize their thoughts. With media trained personnel on staff, the risk of saying something wrong or inaccurate goes down and there is less risk of getting embarrassed by a savvy reporter who led someone into saying something they did not mean to say.

    As Ellen infers, being prepared is the best way to go. Having those contact numbers already at your disposal with previously established relationships allows your operation to proceed much more smoothly and professionally in the middle of a crisis. It saves critical time and reduces confusion.

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