Domestic violence and child abuse cases involving National Football League (NFL) players have dominated the headlines this week. How the NFL and individual teams have managed, or in some aspects mismanaged, the cases have been even a bigger focus of news coverage.
The NFL experience provides five important teachable moments for superintendents, school boards and principals about managing safety incidents and communications:
- Child and family safety issues draw immediate, intense and emotional reactions from parents, educators, students, the broader school-community and the media. People respond emotionally to personal safety threats, especially those involving vulnerable persons like children and in places like schools. Emotional stories, conflict and tension lead to headline news stories. Add photos and/or video, mix in a world on digital and social media steroids, and you have headlines, new stories, visual effects and talking head expert analysis for days and possibly weeks.
- Downplay, deny, deflect and defend doesn’t work anymore. You can’t duck and dodge hot issues around personal safety. They won’t just “go away” if you sit quietly. Tell a partial truth, lie or try to spin a response, and you open the door for even more citizen and reporter digging, leaks of internal information and greater scrutiny that can bury your credibility and that of your organization almost overnight.
- If you blew it, admit it and do so quickly. It is better for your constituency to hear the bad news from you rather than hearing it from a 13-year-old student outside of your middle school or a parent who is angry because you won’t share information. Tell your community as much as you can tell, articulate concrete things you will do to remedy the incident and engage the community in meaningful activities to help your schools to prevent a reoccurrence.
- Good public relations = good behavior, well-communicated. Even the best of crisis communicators can only present a situation with the best possible light given the facts and context that she or he is working with on a crisis incident. If an individual or your organization had bad behavior, it is what it is and you can’t put lipstick on a pig, as the old saying goes. The best way to communicate with the goal of getting good public relations is to have good individual and organizational behavior backing the communications.
- Build your community credibility on school and child safety far before a crisis occurs. School leaders and their staff do so many meaningful things to make schools safer on a day-to-day basis. But we find that many principals, superintendents and school boards fail to take full advantage of opportunities to communicate proactively on school safety, security and preparedness. A school administrator’s credibility on school safety, and that of her or his school district, must be built step-by-step over time in order to have a solid foundation that won’t topple if and when a critical safety incident or crisis does occur.
An up-tick in school threats involving digital communications and social media has thrust school superintendents and principals into the national, and sometimes international, spotlight almost overnight. School leaders with decades of administrative experience are suddenly put into the media and parent spotlight like never before in their careers. Unfortunately, and sometimes unfairly, their credibility is under attack with questions about their threat assessment and response, and oftentimes moreso the adequacy of their communications, on safety incidents.
The good news is that with electronic communications and social media, and a good strategic communications plan around student safety, school leaders are getting out front with proactive communications on student and school safety. The preparedness of a school for communicating safety issues is such an important aspect in today’s electronic communications world that we have built in a communications assessment component as a standard part of our school safety assessment services and developed the new STAT – School Threat Assessment Training to help better prepare school leaders for these challenges.
School leaders can effectively manage a safety incident, but if they drop the ball on the communications end, they may lose the game. Let’s learn from NFL so school leaders can protect their children, teachers and schools, as well as their leadership credibility and community reputations.
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