Some schools will never have had to deal with a media storm. A lot more have not been so fortunate. Former TES editor Gerard Kelly says that there are steps schools can take to prepare for and better manage a communications crisis even if they can’t predict when one will happen or how it will develop:
1. Anticipate likely crises
It’s impossible to plan for every eventuality but crises in schools are likely to fall into one of six categories: sexual; financial; academic (qualifications and inspection); industrial (strikes, boycotts and nepotism); extremism; acts of God. All schools are vulnerable to some of those misfortunes but some are more exposed to certain crises than others. Where do you think your school is especially vulnerable? What would the worst-case scenario be?
2.Identify a spokesperson
Usually this will be the head or executive head. But if they are likely to be unavailable or would prefer not to engage with the media it’s as well to nominate an alternative. Once identified make sure that everyone knows who they are and that in the event of a crisis only the designated spokesperson(s) will communicate on behalf of the school.
3. Draw up holding statements
These will have to be adapted to suit the situation but they can save schools valuable time when a crisis breaks. Practising likely responses also allows a school to sense-check what it wants to say, to whom it wants to say it and if there are any obvious omissions.
4. Avoid saying ‘No comment’
When people hear those two words often as not they immediately think of a few others: ‘We’re guilty’ or ‘We’ve got something to hide’ being the most usual. It’s far better to acknowledge that you take the situation seriously, that you are investigating the matter but that it would be inappropriate to comment further while an investigation is under way.
5. Say something
If a school refuses to tell its side of the story then others will. Even if you can’t go into details, some form of communication is better than none because it acknowledges you are addressing the issue. Use the opportunity to put forward your narrative as far as possible because in most cases a story involving a crisis will be written about your school with or without your input. Let the media know that when you have more information you will share it.
6. Inform others
The media aren’t the only ones who have to be informed of a crisis. Colleagues, parents and carers, governors and in some circumstances outside regulatory bodies should also be notified. In most cases it’s better that you update them rather than leaving all communication to the press.
7. Never lie
If you don’t know the answer to a media question never make one up. Say you don’t know but that you will endeavour to find out and will respond once you do. If people have been hurt in some way express sympathy at the outset – don’t be evasive or defensive. It is not an admission of responsibility to acknowledge that people are suffering, merely human.
8. Keep control of the message
The easiest way to do this is to restrict responses to the written word. If journalists ring up and ask for an immediate response to a crisis, ask them to put their queries in an email and tell them you’ll be happy to respond shortly. That gives both parties a record of the exchange. Live interviews may be appropriate occasionally and if you trust the channel. But if your spokesperson lacks experience dealing with the media they should be avoided.
9. Cultivate the local media
If you have an existing relationship with the local media – and the majority of issues schools face are invariably local – then it is much easier to handle delicate issues when they arise. So if you don’t have one establish one. Most local media outlets will be happy to report on your successes when times are good. Use that relationship should events turn sour.
10. Learn lessons
Most school crises will not follow totally predictable routes – so don’t worry if you have to adapt your planned responses and don’t beat yourselves up if the media reaction isn’t always the one you wanted. No communications teams can make a disaster disappear. But good ones can make sure the response is proportionate, reassuring and doesn’t make a bad situation worse. No communications crisis lasts forever. So make sure that your team analyses what they did right and what they can learn after the situation has settled down.
If you’d like to talk to us about how Gerard Kelly & Partners can help you with your school’s crisis PR plan then please do not hesitate to contact us.