The conventional wisdom around handling a crisis likely to result in negative publicity is to focus on how you will deal with the media. Sadly, in my view, that is often what PR consultants providing crisis communications advice will do. Above all else, they will want to get the media release written and prepare for potential interviews.
Preparing for the media is important but it is just one element you need to consider in your response. It’s also NOT what matters most.
At the top of my priority list for clients dealing with a reputational crisis is effective communication with key stakeholders. In the case of schools, that predominantly means parents.
The fact is that most media coverage of an incident or an issue tends to be relatively short-lived. Journalists are easily bored and the era of the 24-hour news cycle means stories get turned over very quickly. The reporter who hotly pursued your story today will have moved on to something else by tomorrow.
On the other hand, your parents will be highly engaged for a very long time afterwards. They have a lot more skin in the game, so to speak. Will the issue impact their children? Does this mean they can’t trust the school?
So, here are a quick few rules to consider in how you communicate with parents, especially in a crisis:
- Be proactive. The worst thing you can do is allow parents to hear about what has happened at your school from someone else. It doesn’t matter if that ‘someone else’ is the 6pm news, another parent or a Facebook post. The two biggest downsides of not being proactive are:
a. The version your parents hear is likely to be sensationalised or just plain wrong.
b. The perception of a cover-up.
- Be as honest as you can about what has occurred. It is okay to let parents know that you cannot tell them everything for particular reasons like legal limitations, etc. Most reasonable people will accept that.
- Don’t speculate. Only communicate the known facts.
- Tell parents what has occurred, what you are doing about it and if there is anything they need to do.
- Provide a committed assurance to maintain the flow of information over the coming days – and deliver on your promise!
- Invite parents who are concerned to contact the office. This is important because it acts like a lightning rod for worried parents who might otherwise express their anxieties on social media or at school pick-up time with other mums and dads.
- Brief your staff as much as you can about what has occurred and provide them with the opportunity to ask questions or to express concerns. That’s important because they will feel much more confident to advocate on your behalf if they feel like they have been trusted and respected.
- Encourage staff who are approached by a worried parent to direct them to your office.
- Proactively brief those key stakeholders who have the potential to influence the opinions of others. For example, personally telephone the Parents’ Association and Alumni heads.
- Prioritise communication with your parent body until such time as the crisis is resolved. This is not the time to head off on that study tour or go to that conference. Your visible presence is essential.
John Le Cras has nearly 40 years’ experience in journalism, public relations, marketing and corporate executive roles. John launched his own consulting firm in 2011 and works extensively in issue management and crisis communication in the private school sector. jlca.com