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but in this case Facebook is a place for ugly discussions while Twitter is a repetition of both current and out of date tweets.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