“Panic is not a Plan: Crisis Communications for School Districts”

By Clint Campion of Sedor, Wendlandt, Evans & Filippi, LLC

Part one of a series on Interacting with the Outside World – School District Style.

Welcome to part one of a new series of columns on interacting with the world outside of the schoolhouse gates. In this installment, we focus on recommendations to ensure that school districts are prepared to communicate during a crisis.

School shootings. Teachers charged for inappropriate interactions with students. Cyberbullying. Bus accidents. It seems that when we turn on the news, there is almost always a story about a school district in a crisis situation somewhere in our country. These crises arise when a school district least expects them, so it is critical for districts to have a crisis communications plan.

In developing a crisis communications plan, school officials must consider the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA). FERPA restricts the disclosure of information from education records but FERPA’s “emergency exception” allows disclosure of information in education records if knowledge of the information is necessary to protect the health or safety of students or other individuals.

Most school districts already have media relations and communication with the public policies which emphasize the importance of community awareness and involvement with school matters while also protecting the privacy of students and student records. But putting that plan effectively into action requires a more than following policy.

The first step is simple but critical; District officials (often the Superintendent) should seek to cultivate a working relationship with local members of the media. A superintendent should never meet a local reporter during a crisis. Strong, trusting working relationships are built by timely and accurate responses to media inquiries and by regularly providing information to reporters. These relationships give you the benefit of the doubt in crises.

A crisis communications plan should include the identification of a crisis management team including the identification of a person who will be responsible for the receiving and collecting inquiries during a crisis. The crisis management team is set up to work with the Superintendent during the crisis. The team can be supplemented or modified depending on the nature of the crisis.

A school district should respond to a crisis by convening the crisis management team, gathering information about the crisis and then preparing a fact sheet on the crisis. The fact sheet is designed to provide accurate, consistent messaging about the crisis. After consultation with the school district’s attorney, the fact sheet can be distributed to faculty, staff, parents, board members, reporters and members of the community. The fact sheet can be posted to the district’s website and social media platforms. The fact sheet should be updated regularly, and it can be used as the basis for talking points in any subsequent interviews.

If a reporter requests an interview with a school official, the interview should be conducted by the designated spokesperson, usually the Superintendent. The spokesperson should prepare for interviews by reviewing the fact sheet. In any crisis interview, the spokesperson should always be truthful, never say “no comment,” and never be afraid to say, “I don’t know the answer to the question, but I will get back to you with an answer.”

The crisis management team should reconvene regularly during the crisis, and school officials should provide updates as necessary to all platforms – district website; emails to faculty, staff and parents; social media; and community meetings. Effective communications require school officials to listen to community concerns and to show compassion.

School officials should always remember that a crisis will not go away if it is ignored. Once the crisis is over, the crisis management team should re-convene to evaluate the crisis communication plan and to discuss lessons learned during the crisis. The goal of the crisis communications plan is to reduce the negative impact of a crisis by providing accurate, timely and redundant information. Remember, panicking is not a crisis communications plan.

More from Sedor, Wendlandt, Evans & Filippi, LLC:

Five-part series: Union Issues in Schools

Four-part series: Freedom of Expression in Schools

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The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Association of Alaska School Boards. AASB welcomes diverse perspectives and civil discourse. To submit a Guest Column for consideration, see our Guest Column Guidelines and email your 400-1000 word submission HERE.