Crisis Communication for Schools: Part 1

By Gerard Braud

TulaneGerardBraudIf you have school age kids, you’ve likely gotten a text message or phone message about some type of emergency or non-emergency at school. While useful for emergency notification, these systems are not a substitute for having and using a Crisis Communications Plan.

Out next few articles will answer the questions:

  • What is a Crisis?
  • What is a Crisis Communications Plan?
  • How to Write a Crisis Communications Plan?
  • Do I Need a Crisis Communications Plan?

Our goal is to give you practical information that applies if you work for a school, things you should be asking if you are a parent, and we’ll draw some parallels between crisis communication for schools and crisis communication for corporations.

Like building blocks, if your school or business has a text message alert system, it is time for you to add the next layer of protection. This will help you build a holistic system surrounding all of the aspects of communicating during a crisis.

You need a crisis communications plan. This plan must be a system that addresses all of the modern communications challenges created by mobile technology, social media and traditional media.

What is a Crisis Communications Plan? A crisis communications plan is a manual that will guide school administrators (or corporate officials) through the process of rapidly and effectively send credible, actionable information to key stakeholder audiences. These will include the media, employees, parents, students and the community. (In the case of a business, it includes getting information to your customers, just as a school sends information to parents and students.)

For all of the benefits of text message alert systems in schools, there are unintended consequences that must be and can be addressed.

1) The lifesaving use of text messages triggers an onslaught of media arriving at the school to report on the unfolding event.

StudentsGerardBraud2) The text and voice message systems brings an onslaught of parents in panic arriving at the school to rescue or comfort their children, and thereby creating traffic jams that delay life saving emergency vehicles and emergency responders.

3) The speed of the notification system hastens and triggers an instantaneous disbursement of panic, misinformation, rumors and inappropriate comments on social media.

All three of these unintended consequences can be mitigated and managed to the safety and betterment of parents, students and educators. It requires the use of a comprehensive Crisis Communications Plan.

Rapid or Mass Notification Systems versus a Crisis Communications Plan

Some schools and school systems mistakenly believe that their policy to send out rapid communications via text messages or phone messages is their crisis communications plan. This is incorrect. A system that sends out mass notification by way of text messages or telephones requires us to make a fine distinction between notification and communication. Notification screams panic! Communication uses words and information to calm fears by sharing actionable, honest and accurate information about the severity of an event. For example, a 140 character text message cannot convey the details of a web posting, email blast or news conference.

A mass notification system can quickly send messages such as, “gunman on campus,” “shelter in place,” etc. These are only short bursts of actionable information, which create the unintended negative consequences of panic that we mentioned previously. In contrast, a crisis communications plan must be used in addition to the mass notification system, but often it is used when the mass notification system is not even required, as we will explain in upcoming articles. The crisis communications plan provides the actionable and informative words and details that will be used in news conferences, on websites, in emails, in meetings with parents, student, and employee, as well as on social media sites.

As you will learn in this series of articles, a crisis communications plan can be vital before, during and after a crisis.

In our next entry we will define the word “crisis” and examine why many schools and businesses think they have a crisis communications plan, but very likely do not.