Crisis Situations Deserve More Than a ‘No Comment’
By Jessica Lester
When a crisis erupts in your school district, delivering a curt “no comment” to the news media is simply not adequate today. Open and honest communication is necessary to allay fears and dispel rumors. But knowing what to say, how to say it and who will say it can be difficult to determine in times of crises.
Before troubles arise, it is wise to consider just how you and your fellow school administrators will react.
What you say in response to a crisis really depends on the nature of the situation. Here are several examples of real-life crises in a number of Pennsylvania school districts and the steps that our communications firm recommended.
When a fight with racial overtones broke out in the high school cafeteria of a 5,000-student district in southeastern Pennsylvania, we helped the high school principal draft a statement to read to the press. It emphasized the school’s use of a peer mediation/conflict resolution program to get to the bottom of the matter.
When a teachers’ strike broke out in a suburban Philadelphia school district, we worked with district leaders to communicate the strike contingency plan. Press releases were distributed to the local media and other written information was posted on the district’s website so that parents and students had access to the latest details.
When a school district near Harrisburg faced questions about the discovery of mold in a school building, we suggested the district invite reporters to see mold remediation efforts taking place. This helped dispel rumors and answer the public’s questions about how serious the problem was.
All of these school districts addressed the problems by communicating. Naturally, they were not always able to answer every question publicly, but the point is this: Saying something was better than saying nothing at all.
There are several ways to get a message across to the public during a crisis:
Prepare a statement. In this form, you have control over the message you want to provide to the public. Statements should be short and concise and written as though the words are coming from one person, probably the superintendent or school board president.
Issue a press release. A press release reads more like a news story, with the who, what, where, when and why of the incident or situation outlined. A quote from a school official is usually included so that reporters can use it in their stories in lieu of an interview. We used this tool in helping a Chester County, Pa., district communicate with the public after a student was murdered. A press release with advice for how to overcome grief was distributed.
Grant interviews or hold a press conference. Sometimes, a crisis will bring reporters looking for a comment to your school doors. When this happens, it is advisable to meet reporters so they can get the sound bite or quote they need. The Chester County district opted to grant interviews with the school’s guidance counselor after being inundated with media requests. This enhanced the district’s image of being responsive and compassionate toward student and community needs.
Use your website. Create a special link on the home page for crisis-related news, and post any statements or press releases that are issued to the media through that link.
Write a letter to district residents. A well-written letter can calm people’s fears, denounce rumors and direct parents with serious questions and concerns to the appropriate school district personnel.
Who Will Speak?
Choosing the right spokesperson hinges upon the particular incident, but the superintendent is usually a good choice because he or she is the head of the school district. Once you designate a spokesperson, notify all school district personnel so they know to whom they should direct reporters.
Another option to consider is outsourcing your public relations. A firm experienced in handling school public relations can save time and effort in managing communications with the press and the public.
It is always important to have a communication plan ready in the event of an emergency. A crisis communication plan should:
Spell out a series of steps to be taken once a controversial event takes place;
Designate a spokesperson to address media calls and direct the administration to contact this person once an event takes place; and
Outline an approval process for any written material.
With a thoughtful plan in place, your school district will be prepared. Although sometimes the news media may seem like your enemy, they often serve as your contact with the public during a crisis situation. Being ready to work with them can go a long way toward shaping your school district’s public image.
Jessica Lester is a public relations specialist with the Communication Solutions Group, 308 Old York Road, Suite 1, Jenkintown, PA 19046. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org