Crisis Communications for Schools Part 2: Defining a Crisis and a Crisis Plan

By Gerard Braud

For the purpose of our discussion in these articles, we will define a crisis this way:

StudentsGerardBraudA crisis is any incident that may seriously affect the safety, function, operation, reputation and/or revenue of any organization, public or private.

We will not debate or parse words as to whether what is called a crisis in this article might otherwise be called a situation, incident, event or any other synonym. Furthermore, we will divide our crises into two types: sudden crises and smoldering crises. A sudden crisis has a sudden flash point, such as a school shooting, tornado, fire, or explosion. A smoldering crisis might involve a labor dispute, issues of discrimination, and incidents of executive misbehavior such as embezzlement or sexual misconduct. In a smoldering crisis, details are known to internal decision makers, but not yet known to the public.

In our last article, we introduced you to the concept of the text messaging notification system and the crisis communications plan. While a text message notification system is intended for use in only a sudden crisis, the crisis communications plan can be used to communicate vital information for both a smoldering and a sudden crisis.

Confusion in “Crisis Plans” – Defining a Crisis Communications Plan

A great flaw in schools, in corporations, and in the world of emergency response is the generic use of the term “crisis plan” and crisis team. A crisis plan is not the same as a crisis communications plan. Each school and school system must operate with a collection of three unique plans that are executed by three unique teams, with each team being composed of individuals with specific skills and areas of expertise. Although the plans each serve a unique purpose, they are also designed to be executed in unison without any plan overriding or contradicting the directives of another.

The three types of plans needed are:

1) An Incident Command Plan, which is sometimes called the Emergency Response Plan, Coordinates police, fire and rescue. It is executed by the Incident Command Team.

2) A Risk Management Plan, which is sometimes called a Business Continuity Plan, ensures the components of the business operations are restored following a crisis, including identifying alternate facilities and supply chains. The Risk Management Plan is executed by the Risk Manager.

3) A Crisis Communications Plan, dictates prescribed measures for communicating accurate and timely information to key audiences, including parents, students, employees, the media and other stakeholders. It includes the components of public relations, media relations and stakeholder relations, and is executed by the Crisis Communications Team.

TulaneGerardBraudAll plans and all actions during a crisis should be managed by the Crisis Management Team.

Further confusion takes place in this area when the incident command plan makes reference to crisis communications. Usually this refers to details about radio systems and other technology used for interactive communications among emergency responders. This confusion must be avoided. We must emphasize that in this document, crisis communications is a function of public relations, media relations, employee relations, and social media management.

A sudden crisis, such as a school shooting or tornado would trigger all three plans. But a smoldering crisis such as an accusation of sexual harassment, would trigger the use of only the crisis communications plan, without causing a need to use the incident command plan or the risk management plan.

Your assignment for this article is to have a discussion with the leaders in your organization to identify the types of plans you have. If you think you have a crisis communications plan, I will be giving you come criteria in future articles by which you can determine if your plan is written properly.

You can also email a copy of your plan to me at gerard@braudcommunications.com and I will be happy to give you 15 minutes of free feedback.

Effective Communications for Your School’s Shooting – Lone Star College – Houston – Shooting Update

By Gerard Braud

Do the communications surrounding school shootings drive you nuts? The repetitive crisis communication failures are enough to drive a communications specialist insane. While the debate over guns rages, no one debates the merits of good or bad crisis communications. Here are my thoughts on what you should recognize and work to improve…

Einstein is credited with saying that the definition of insanity is when you keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. I’m watching television right now – January 22, 2013 – and there is another shooting at another school, with the same crisis communications failures.

 

Here is what I’m seeing – and it is the same as what I see 99% of the time when there is a school shooting:

1) The media show aerial video and speculate because no official spokesperson comes forward in a timely manner.

2) Social media becomes both helpful and harmful. On the one hand it can be a place for updated information, but in this case Facebook is a place for ugly discussions while Twitter is a repetition of both current and out of date tweets.

 

3) Without an official spokesperson, the media are interviewing as many students as possible. Some are more knowledgeable and forthcoming that school officials and some are fueling rumors in the absence of an official spokesperson.

4) The school’s website fails to give accurate, timely information. The message is poorly worded.

This is what I expect from our school leaders and public relations teams:

1) Stop living in denial and thinking it won’t happen to you. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best. That means that on a clear sunny day, you must write a crisis communications plan to guide you through your communications challenges on your darkest day.

2) Stop saying you don’t have the time or the budget to write a crisis communications plan. You are responsible for the lives of thousands of people. The lawsuits you face after their injuries and deaths far exceed the cost or time you spend upfront. A communication plan should be considered a vital part of your operations, just like turning on the lights or putting chairs in a classroom. And let’s be more honest… these are the lives of people who trust you – not just an economic decision.

3) A crisis communications plan is not a 6 page free document you download from the Internet. It must be a precisely crafted document that anticipates every twist in the crisis and the precise communications steps you must take. The heart of a good plan will be about 50 pages long.

4) You should never be at a loss for what to say. Your crisis communications plan should be filled with 100 or more pre-written statements that you can read to the media, post to your website and e-mail to your students, faculty and staff. Every plan must have a document called a “First Critical Statement” which quickly shares the basics while you gather more information for a more detailed release. On a clear sunny day you can write 75%-95% of what you will need to say on the day of your crisis.

5) Go beyond texting. Texting only tells your students to take cover. The downside of texting is the panic and media attention that follows, as well as the firestorm that you ignite on social media.

6) Manage the expectations surrounding an emergency text message. People who get their texts late get mad.  It may take 20 minutes before everyone gets a text. People who get their text late will often take you to task, especially complaining on social media.

7) A text may cause an instant traffic jam on roadways, which limits the ability of emergency responders to reach your campus.

8) You still need to hold a traditional news conference for the media as quickly as possible. This should not come as a surprise. Whether in person or over the phone, someone must be able to do this in the first 30 to 60 minutes of the crisis. Your first critical statement template is exactly what you will read to the media. There is no need for anyone to attempt to ad lib his or her way through this. A public relations spokesperson is my first choice for this first statement, not the top dog, who should be managing the crisis.

9) A bad or confused spokesperson undermines the credibility of your institution. You expect your students to go to class to learn. Likewise, all potential spokespeople should take an annual media training class so that you are well educated and prepared for your media interviews. It is part of your job. Failure is not an option, but too often is a reality. Media Training must be like a sport – you must practice to be good at it.

10) You won’t perform well on your darkest day if you don’t practice on a clear, sunny day. Hold at least one crisis communications drill each year. This will test your plan, your spokespeople, and your ability to communicate quickly and effectively.

11) Be wary of Twitter. Hours after you give the all clear, well meaning people will re-Tweet messages about the shooting and further fuel the confusion and panic.

My files are full of case studies like this. Beyond adding text messaging, I really haven’t seen any significant improvements at schools since the first major shooting in 1997 at Pearl High School. Instead, it appears that many in education have yet to learn the craft of effective communications. I find that sadly ironic.

About the author: Gerard Braud helps organizations achieve effective communications during a crisis and effective communications with the media. He has successfully helped organizations on 5 continents.

www.braudcommunications.com

gerard@braudcommunications.com

 

 

 

University of South Florida All Clear

Interesting Tweets… trying to find out how many students are talking.

Interesting that media, including Ann Curry, are sending Tweets to students.

Other news media giving a live video feed link.

University of South Florida

University of South Florida in Tampa — A story is unfolding about a possible gunman on campus. It appears text messaging and loud speakers are being used on campus. The school has a notice on their home page. Good use of the website.

http://www.usf.edu/index.asp

I have not yet found a news release in their online newsroom:

http://usfweb2.usf.edu/university-communications-and-marketing/news/usfnews/index.asp

I’m finding evidence of a NIMs type emergency operations plan, but I’m not finding a true crisis communications plan.

Stand by for further evaluation.