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.

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.

Breaking News: McNair School Shooting in DeKalb County, Georgia: Lessons in Crisis Communication

We interrupt this blog with Breaking News. A school shooting at McNair Elementary School in DeKalb County, Georgia is sadly duplicating the same crisis communication failures that we began to outline in this morning’s article and the serious written and awaiting posts in the coming days.

Our goal is not to belittle this school or the DeKalb County schools. Our goal is to have all schools and school districts wake up and adopt crisis communications plans and modern communications techniques. News about a school shooting must come from the school with great effort. Schools must not relegate information to the media, who will speculate about what they don’t know. Schools must not let social media go wild with panic and speculation.

Here is a breakdown of how information is and is not flowing about this shooting, just as it has in many other school shootings:

News helicopters hover with overhead images:
Chapper2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The DeKalb County School website has NO information about the shooting. Within one hour or less of the onset of the crisis, the county should be posting truthful, honest information about this crisis.

DeKalbWebsite

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eyewitnesses post iPhone video.

Online news organizations repost the iPhone video.

McNairCh2iPhoneVideo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Twitter information about the school comes from observers and the media.

McNairiPhoneCh2

 

 

 

 

McNairTwitter1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are no Twitter updates from DeKalb County Schools. In fact, DeKalb hasn’t posted to their Twitter page since July 3. Today is August 20, 2013. Ideally, they should have a short Tweet with a link back to their official website.

DeKalbTwitter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The DeKalb Facebook page only gloats about happy news, ignoring this as a viable way to send timely and accurate information to the public. Ideally, they should have a short post with a link back to their official website.

DeKalbFaceBook

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parents are being interviewed by the media, expressing their fears and frustrations. Police are trying to manage frustrated parents at a time when school officials should be managing this task.

Parentsw:Cops

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read these Tweets to hear the frustration of parents amid the lack of official information from school officials.

TweetParent1

 

 

 

 

TwitterParent2

 

 

 

 

So far… now in our third hour, we’ve seen no sign of a news conference from the DeKalb County School system. We do know the superintendent has spoken to parents at an area where children are being taken.

The bottom line is, it is time for educators and the education establishment to get educated about crisis communications. If you were being graded on this today, you would receive and F in communication, like so many other schools before you.

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 messages 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.