For many heads we’ve worked with, a parent protest is their worst nightmare – something seemingly out of their control, with the potential to seriously damage their own and their school’s reputation.
However, there are steps school leaders can take to reduce the likelihood of such events happening in the first instance, and things they can do to minimise the impact of any that do occur. Here, we’ll go through the options available to you for protecting your school from the start, defusing situations as they arise and getting your story across when issues escalate.
Protect your school
When setting up a communication channel with the wider community, the school must retain control and safeguard everyone involved, while making it easy to share facts.
With social media and online messaging dominating the way parents communicate, schools must own their social media platforms and have clear policies in place for those staff and parents who use them – the days of allowing a PTA group to manage your Facebook presence are long gone! Switching on the moderation function of a school Facebook page will enable negative messages to be intercepted, though they will, of course, still need to be acknowledged and addressed.
You also need to monitor wider social media, using applications such as Hootsuite or Social Mention. This will also help you find positive mentions of your school and could have other benefits. We know of one school PA who saw some comments one evening about a possible fire in her school building and immediately passed them on to the head, thus alerting others to the situation early and limiting the subsequent damage.
Every school has its own ‘dark social network’ – WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger groups used by parents of children in the same class or year group and set to private viewing by members only. Parents must be told to use these responsibly – they might use advanced privacy settings, but that won’t reduce the risk of offence being caused or prevent pictures from being widely shared. Parents should be reminded regularly to contact the school for facts, rather than spreading rumours and gossip – and to contact the school themselves if they feel a particular online exchange or message thread has gone too far and started to damage the school’s reputation.
Yet while social media and messaging might have become parents’ chief means of communicating, you also need to keep talking to them. Organising regular parent forums or a weekly ‘open door’ morning will provide opportunities for concerns to be shared face to face.
Defuse the situation
Taking the steps above should help you become aware of potential crises at an earlier stage. Having been made aware, here’s what to do next:
1. Arrange a meeting and open it up to all those who have concerns. You should always have another member of staff or a governor present, with one of you taking notes.
2. Once you’ve heard the problem, begin your response by clearly setting out the facts and the purpose of any change or decision you’ve made, as there can often be a lot of miscommunication. In one recent example, parents heard that a school’s new food supplier would not be supplying truly halal meat, but were reassured once they had a chance to question the school further.
3. While you won’t want to change or roll back a policy (and in 95% of cases you’d be in the right), you should always listen to any concerns regarding its implementation. Every year, schools introduce new uniforms or hairstyle policies at short notice that can carry harsh penalties; allowing parents and students more time to adjust will often solve the issue.
4. Communicate what happened at the meeting and what was agreed back to your community, and again let them respond. That might seem to take up a lot of time, but it’s nothing compared to what a full-blown crisis will involve.
5. Try to involve parents in solving the problem. In one school, a parent who had been upset by a lack of awareness raising around LGBT parenting was delighted when they were asked to research and select suitable books on the subject for the school library.
6. Consider making exceptions for individuals. An example of this might be allowing a child to carry a mobile phone so they can contact a surviving parent after a bereavement.
Tell your story
Seek help from within, and potentially outside your organisation. Tell your chair of governors, LA or trust about your problem and what you propose to do. Consult your crisis or reputation management policy, and consider bringing in additional support to help you monitor your social media or manage your media relations.
Create a short, clear statement that sets out the issues and actions you’ve taken. The statement should be easy to share by email, on your website and via your social media channels, so make sure you have access to these at all times, all year round.
If you have a good relationship with the local press, talk to them first. This can works well, for example, with issues revealed in a poor Ofsted report. There will still be a negative story, but at least the context for the issue can be communicated. You can also arrange to give a statement on camera – this will often be the best way of dealing with serious legal issues, such as convictions for abuse.
Negative stories on social media will inevitably reach the local papers. Share your statement widely with parents, staff and governors, and ask them to pass on any media enquiries to the school. This will reduce the pressure on them if they are ‘doorstepped’, and hopefully avoid them having to say ‘no comment’!
Finally, it’s rare for parents to progress to the stage of threatening members of staff, but it does happen. In such situations, you need to focus on safeguarding your team and your pupils – report any incidents to the police and LA and ask for their support.