School crisis communications: don’t wait for things to go wrong

School leader crisis communications

by Just Add Parents

The team at Just Add Parents, drawing insight and knowledge from decades of experience of professional communication and education.

July 24, 2020

If you need school crisis communications right now, you can contact us immediately on this page.

One of the most common questions we’re asked is about managing school crisis communications. This might mean handling a small misunderstanding with a concerned parent. Or it might mean dealing with a full-scale reputation-rocking crisis. We have many years of experience across the full spectrum of scales and issues.

There are deep human issues and technical processes involved in crisis management. Yet it is relatively simple for a school to make sure it is in the right frame of mind to respond properly when things go wrong.

School crisis communications is a special case

While there are some universal truths in preparing for and handling crises, schools are a special case for three reasons:

  1. Children are involved
  2. Parents have an uniquely emotional bond with schools
  3. Public money is involved

Schools are typically well-drilled in risk assessment and safeguarding. They are usually good at dealing with the unexpected. That goes with the territory. Yet, as all school leaders understand, the issues that arise in a crisis go beyond correct reporting lines and following protocols. Quickly you get into the much less certain world of live communication, with staff, the children, wider stakeholders and, of course, parents.

Five things to consider when preparing for a crisis

Here are our five thought-starters to help you and your staff get ahead of the communication issues that arise when a crisis on any scale occurs. In September, this could help you deal with the unexpected.

1. Accept problems fast

The Change Curve is a useful tool in understanding people’s natural reaction to sudden change or upheaval. It suggests that the first stages when confronted by crisis are denial, followed by anger. Acceptance and commitment only come later. Knowing this in advance, you can prepare your team to report issues fast and adopt a position of acceptance. Our advice to every school leader or teacher: the worse something sounds, the more urgent it is you accept it.

Change Curve for schools

2. Be prepared

The best time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining. By the same token, the worst time to create a crisis plan is when one strikes. Being prepared for a crisis means:

  • knowing who has the keys to the building
  • knowing who has everyone’s mobile phone numbers
  • knowing who has the passwords for the SMS and email systems and the school website
  • having the police, local authority and the DfE on speed dial
  • having clear roles and responsibilities
  • having the right technology in the hands of the right people to be able to act as one, minute by minute

Being prepared means having all this and more documented in a place that can be easily accessed by those in charge the moment they need it.

3. Create a scheduleĀ for updates and stick to it

It shouldn’t need saying, but communication becomes absolutely essential during a crisis. Institutions like schools have an understandable tendency to want to operate under conditions of certainty, in full receipt of the facts. In reality the facts aren’t always available and this can render an organisation mute. We have seen this in the fast-changing situation over recent months. The solution is to agree a schedule of updates and then to stick to it religiously. This creates a strong incentive to build a clear and regularly updated body of agreed facts, messages and sensitivities. It also creates a comforting connection with your spokespeople.

4. It takes a team

Good leadership is often about stepping up when the chips are down. Nevertheless, a head teacher can’t be responsible for every part of communicating through a crisis. This is especially true if it is complex and unfolds over days or weeks. The head may wish to be the primary spokesperson. However, it is important that they are fully supported by teams dedicated to all the moving parts:

  • solving the immediate crisis
  • assembling a live updated body of facts
  • maintaining lines of communication with critical stakeholders
  • reflecting on the important legal, safeguarding and ethical sensitivities that may arise
  • presenting a serious but accessible face to children, parents and the public.

5. Learn from the crisis

Mark Twain said history never repeats itself but it rhymes. Whatever you’re dealing with today is likely to occur in a new form in the future. So do what schools do best: make sure your learning culture extends to how you handle difficult situations such as crises. A crisis can help you:

  • develop teamwork under pressure
  • understand how to work alongside partners in government or other public services
  • create a good handbook to help you through future scenarios

Lessons abound during a crisis.

In addition to supporting with day-to-day communication, the Just Add Parents team has school crisis communications experience spanning decades. We have supported school leaders through issues including communicating poor Ofsted reports, mishaps on school trips, legal cases concerning staff, succession planning, changes in premises, bullying, criminal activity and others. Our mantra is being prepared is less costly than being surprised.

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