By Fiona de Villiers
Consider how many years it’s taken for your school to build its impressive reputation.
Now consider that in an online age, coverage of a crisis on campus – in the form of a photo, a video, a blog post, an e-mail or a news byte can be transmitted around the globe in six seconds. A crisis could take various shapes: an issue known to those at school but not yet made public (students caught with drugs, for example), a scandal that you’re the last to discover (inappropriate behaviour), or an unpredictable occurrence (an accident or act of violence).
Put in place a PR package
When something untoward happens – and odds are that it will, at some point – the key to survival is a public relations package that’s been prepared ahead of time. You should ensure the following:
- Solid relationships with community leaders, as well as with a preferred – and therefore trusted – reporter. Celebrate your triumphs via these conduits, so that when a crisis hits, they’ll be more sympathetic because they know you.
- Established, tested, flexible and adaptable protocols for communicating both with the media and with parents and board members.
- A trained, properly briefed and appropriate team to represent the school when necessary.
- An ongoing – but centralised (i.e. from the Principal’s office), carefully controlled and coordinated – flow of reliable information to be passed onto the media.
- A way to track and respond timeously to rumours and gossip.
- Regular sessions where the whole school learns about – and rehearses – the crisis control plan.
Put yourself in their place
Newspapers are often accused of a salacious attitude to reporting the news. But while you’re putting together your PR plans, put yourself in the media’s place. They have a job to do. When a crisis hits, they’ll claim the public’s right to know – disaster’s what drives them.
More importantly, left to their own devices (think of that perilous statement “No comment”), the medial will flock to the scene, compile their own sources and resources, and publish whichever photographs will create the most impact. Remember they’re competing with other papers, magazines and stations, so being first, or having the most powerful angle, is what they’re after.
Get the media on your side
It may feel like the least important thing on your list, but in the madness that makes up a full-blown crisis, you need to get the media on your side. You may need them to assist with a search, for example, or to publish an appeal, a proclamation or a promise. To gain their support, you may want to use this simple, general plan:
- Whatever you’re planning to tell the media, make sure you tell parents, students, staff and governors first. Decide how you’re going to deal with the fact that the press will undoubtedly attempt to solicit separate interviews from these stakeholder groups.
- Be proactive. Proffer a short, accurate press release as soon as possible. Rule out speculation, stick to the facts and correct inaccuracies immediately. Your biggest potential enemy is confusion.
- Be consistent: provide ongoing updates on a need-toknow basis.
- Get the best advice on when to use which media to keep the public informed. It may depend on what kind of crisis you’re dealing with. Radio is often underused: drive-time chat shows may offer you access to a large audience. Facebook and Twitter may reach millions, but could also invite the rumour-mongers. Your school website may be the best place to post updates, so make sure it’s looking good and working properly. On the other hand, SMS facilities may be the best way to issue updates to your community without jamming phone lines.
Put a personal face to crisis response
It’s always best to put a personal face to a crisis response, and that face should really belong to the Principal. These PR tactics may ease the pain:
- Consider what overall message is going to emerge from the crisis once it’s over. You want the media to see a school community united under strong and decisive leadership.
- Decide whether it’s best to speak individually to reporters as they appear, or to address a press conference.
- Remember it’s permissible to issue a preliminary statement to the effect that you need time to collect information – as long as you include mention of when you’ll disclose that information.
- If public speaking puts you off, do some preparation. Watch TV interviews to learn what and what not to do.
- In a crisis, treat everything as though ‘it’s on the record’. If you don’t want it repeated, don’t say it. The press can smell a cover-up.
- Don’t be sarcastic or lose your temper. Don’t patronise reporters, but don’t allow them to push you around.
- Do not release information that breaks the law; identifies an injured or deceased person before the next of kin are notified, or before the information is released by the police; jeopardises a person’s health or safety; or reflects on a person’s character, reputation, innocence or guilt.
- Keep your answers simple. Stick to the known, and don’t embellish.
- Avoid negatives. Create a future-oriented picture predicated on positivity.
- Don’t avoid the questions, but take time to answer. Think first before speaking.
- Tell the truth. If you don’t know the answer, say so. If you do not have the requested information, ascertain the reporter’s deadline and offer to get back to him or her by that time with a response.
- Don’t be afraid of silence. Don’t feel you have to fill a conversation gap. It’s not a cocktail party.
- Call on your allies. At a time when the school leadership may be called into question, you need a show of support from community leaders, education-related professionals and parents.
Evaluate and re-establish your position
When the media glare fades, spend time evaluating your media crisis plan. Then work on re-establishing your position. Get all the good news about your school out there to a variety of media. Get out into the community and talk face-to-face to people, and see where your school can offer assistance to community projects. Take part in local events. Schedule an open day so that outsiders can celebrate your triumphs with you, and can experience your school first-hand. It’s widely agreed that openness and prudent responsiveness during a crisis can enhance a school’s respect and credibility with the media – and the public – and can in fact help boost an already-solid reputation.
Clawson, S.K. (2011) ‘Crisis Communication Plan: A PR Blueprint’.
Available at: http://www3.niu.edu/newsplace/crisis.html
‘Crisis Management Workbook: Fairfax County Public Schools’.
(2011) Available at: http://www.fcps.edu/fts/safetysecurity/
Grebot, M. ‘Managing a Crisis as well as a Reputation’. Available at:
‘Managing a Crisis’. Available at:
‘School Crisis Communications’. Available at:
Trump, K. (2009) ‘Communicating Safety’, American School Board
Journal. Available at:
‘Upper Grand District School Board: Media Protocol: Crisis
Communication’. Available at:
Vining, L. (2011) ‘Managing the Media during a Crisis at School’
Available at: www.marketingschools.net
Filed Under: Summer 2011
About the Author: