03/30/2013 | DAVID R. VOSS
And that’s how some of his closest relatives learned that this beloved social studies teacher, husband and father would not be coming home. Barry Grunow had been shot and killed at close range by a troubled student on the final day of school at Lake Worth Middle School, just south of West Palm Beach, Florida. It was May 26, 2000, and officials in Palm Beach County Public Schools suddenly had a crisis of profound proportions.
In Sarasota, Florida, a fourth grade teacher suggested that non-combat military personnel should be honored on Veterans Day, even if they objected to going to war. A student told his mom, who called Rush Limbaugh, who grabbed his microphone, labeled the idea a disgrace to all fighting men and women, and in a bombastic monologue urged his listeners to call the school. He never checked out the story nor mentioned the fact that the school didn’t act on the teacher’s suggestion; but three days of media frenzy followed, along with hate mail and phone calls, castigating the principal for doing something she never did.
Crisis situations happen every day in our schools. Whether it’s a fender-bender bus accident, a misinterpreted comment on social media, a childish prank or a major fire with death and destruction, schools must be prepared to handle the avalanche of questions from media, parents and taxpayers. While everyone understands that a crisis may happen, educators will be judged by how they handle it, and in some cases, how they respond when the media get it wrong.
Most school districts have an Emergency Preparedness Plan, explaining procedures and remedies for managing crisis situations on the ground. But very few have a clearly understood Crisis Communications Plan for managing it on the airwaves and in cyberspace. A solid plan simplifies the process, spells out exactly who’s in charge, and provides tips, training and technology for communicating critical messages before, during and after the crisis.
The first rule of thumb is that there is only one spokesperson. During a crisis, no one should speak to the media except the official spokesperson, usually the superintendent, the principal or a public information officer. This avoids conflicting stories, the release of premature information, and potential liability lawsuits down the road. It also relieves staff of any responsibility for talking to the press.
Spokespersons must be trained in the art of clear and coherent messages delivered in a calm and compassionate voice, regardless of the question. This takes practice. Role-playing in front of cameras is the only way to prepare for such an event. They must know the public record laws, how to control the message, provide emotional comfort, and disseminate only accurate information as it becomes available. This means avoiding speculation, exaggeration, blame or hypothetical questions.
The Crisis Communications Plan designates restricted areas for media access. Access to students, dangerous areas and confidential records are off limits. Law enforcement should be aware so they can assist with crowd control, if necessary. The spokesperson should promise frequent updates to avoid a media frenzy, providing updates on a timely basis. Someone should monitor the media, website and blogs to update information, check for accuracy and correct misinformation.
Most importantly, today’s technology allows school districts to communicate directly to parents and stakeholders during a crisis. Phone notification systems, Twitter and Facebook accounts, eBlasts, blogs and websites should be fully leveraged during a crisis situation. Fact sheets with background information should be prepared before a crisis to answer basic questions. Updates are added as information becomes known. Someone has to be in charge of that.
All decisions should be filtered through a Command Center, staffed with key personnel and equipped with emergency electricity and computer access. In Charleston, South Carolina, shortly after Hurricane Hugo lifted sailboats onto Main Street in 1989; network crews arrived searching for answers. They found no one in charge, no command centers, no spokesperson. In desperation, they conducted “man-on-the-street” interviews, asking what the nation could do to help. “Send peanut butter,” one woman blurted, thinking non-perishable food would help. Truckloads arrived, but there was no one there to distribute it, so most of it was wasted, not to mention the fact there was no bread or jelly to go with it.
In Irving, TX, a gas leak caused young students to text their parents, scaring them with stories of toxic smells and loud fire engine sirens. The district evacuated the building and immediately sent a phone message to all parents, telling them their children were safe and not to rush to school and pick them up because that would cause more chaos. The leak was repaired and students returned to classrooms within the hour. Parents were notified that everything was back to normal, calm was maintained, and the skilled media interviews that followed demonstrated that the district had total control of the situation at all times.
All district administrators should be asking whether they feel confident that they are ready to manage communication during a crisis situation. Do you have a plan? Do you have sufficient training? If not, contact an expert in crisis communications to help you prepare.