A school is criticised in the media – national, local or both – almost every day. This might be due to the actions of a rogue teacher, a student tragedy or a policy decision that’s backfired and resulted in outraged parents, staff or students. But it’s still a major issue for the school – one that can set back years of hard work in building a strong reputation.
These crises aren’t going to stop, and there’s a good chance that one day it will be your school’s turn. However, there’s a lot you can do to prevent a crisis from becoming a reputational disaster. The first thing is to make sure you’re well prepared. Every school I know holds regular fire drills, but fewer create – and far fewer practise – emergency communication plans.
As well as setting out actions to take, these need clear lines of command that will work at any time of the day or year, easily accessible contact details for key stakeholders (local media, parents, staff, governors), and fast access to the school’s own communications channels (website, social media, parent and student apps). Copies need to be widely available, taken on trips and kept at senior leaders’ homes.
Once you have your plan in place, the next way to avoid a crisis is to listen systematically. If you’re planning major changes in the school, such as redundancies or even just a new uniform policy, give stakeholders the chance to give their feedback – and don’t be afraid to make changes if good suggestions are made.
If you receive a complaint, make sure you investigate it. It used to be the case that problems would spiral out of control because a parent who didn’t get a sympathetic hearing called the press.
Now they’re more likely to start a protest on Facebook. You need to monitor social media mentions of the school – if you don’t already, try using tools such as Hootsuite (hootsuite.com) or Mention (mention.com) – and if you find something brewing, try to diffuse it face to face.
If a crisis hits despite this, then be proactive. The ‘no comment’ stance didn’t work back when relatively responsible media were the only audience. Refusing to comment now just inspires online conspiracy theories. Make a clear statement and put it on your website so that everyone can see it and staff can refer people to it. Acknowledge what has happened, say what you will be doing in response and state what support is available for those affected.
At the same time, look for expert help from your local authority, your trust or from crisis experts (ask your lawyers for recommendations if you’re stuck). These people will take the weight off you and your team while you deal with the personal (or personnel) issues.
Finally, don’t see a crisis as a reason to stop communicating good things. Your reputation will need rebuilding, and in the same way that new growth eventually covers forest fire damage, the best way of doing this is to put out positive messages.
Simon Hepburn is the founder of Marketing Advice for Schools