Do You Have a Crisis Communication Plan? Do You Have a Crisis Communication Plan?

Do You Have a Crisis Communication Plan?

by Casey Thompson
Casey Thompson Casey Thompson Digital Media Manager
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If an emergency occurs today, how prepared is your district to communicate with the community? 

Disasters and tragedies are part of life in a school. These unfortunate situations are not limited to active shooters, although those scenarios often take center-stage in crisis planning. Weather extremes, air quality problems, and local disasters, even something as unexpected as a broken water main, can require a quick, concise response to parents.

Resist the urge to plan in panic mode, and instead break crisis communication into a manageable set of questions for the team to tackle rationally. Ideally, communication plans will be set long before any actual crisis emerges. Set the stage with the planning team and identify the basics:


Who needs to be notified?

Administrators notify the communication leader. They craft the message using pre-made templates and distribute it to everyone else. Do not forget about front office administrative assistants and anyone else who will be on the front lines of communication with the public—they will field the calls and diffuse parental panic.

Crisis communication is an incredibly delicate task. Say, or even imply, the wrong thing and the ripple effect can be devastating. The chain of command in messaging is crucial, but never rely on trickle-down information. Be thoughtful, concise, and complete, and emphasize the importance of everyone sharing the exact same message. 


What are the relevant details?

The communication team would be wise to write the shell or template of the message long before it becomes necessary. The template must include:
  • Confirmation of the event 
  • Names of the school(s) involved
  • The date and time
  • Where students are meeting for pickup
  • Your crisis page URL 

Keep these templates handy but secured, accessible only by those who will use them in an emergency. For each update, list the new time and date so people aren’t backtracking to earlier, possibly more urgent, messages.


When to release the message?

Quickly, but once relevant details have been sorted out and the situation is mostly contained—never stop emergency response or place people in danger for the sake of hasty communication.  Santa Fe Independent School District shared the following update in the midst of a tragedy in May of 2018. The situation was not clear of danger, but it was contained, when their first notification went out to parents. 

Where should it be shared?

Communication management requires resources, time, and effort from a team. Practice is crucial to a quick response. A crisis is no time to test a communication plan—the first emergency shouldn’t be a dry run for anyone. Plan and execute tests carefully, with plenty of advance notice.

Website: Add a dedicated crisis communication URL to the school website, and ask parents to bookmark it for easy access in the event of an emergency. Someone will need access to update the website quickly during the crisis event.

Social media: Tread carefully on social media during an emergency. After posting your carefully worded message, monitor comments to ensure the conversation isn’t getting out of hand. Always update the original post or thread as new information is made available to the public. This strategy eliminates the possibility of confusion from outdated information.

Signage: For low-level crises (think broken water mains) or for meeting locations after danger has passed, signage can be helpful to direct parents, staff, media, or emergency responders.

Parent portals: These systems offer a direct way to communicate with parents quickly. Parents can still be directed to the crisis URL for updates. Test the system before you use it so parents know what to expect, and break down the general plans for sheltering in place or evacuation and meeting at a secondary location. This preparation can prevent flooding phone lines if an actual emergency does occur.

Media inquiries: This topic could be an entire article (or book) of its own. The key piece of advice to everyone on your staff and team is to direct media to the communication professionals. Any other route can open the staff and the district up to unfair scrutiny. 


How will updates be handled?

For a “slow-moving” crisis which doesn’t put people in immediate danger, updates at the beginning and end of the event may be sufficient. For fast-moving crises, updates may be required as often as hourly. The trick to providing updates is to keep the communication moving forward and eliminate the possibility of backtracking to an earlier, more urgent time. Use time stamps and whenever possible, update the original thread of conversation on social media. 

If in doubt, update people more frequently if possible. In the absence of communication, there’s a tendency for the general public to fill in the blank with their own hypotheses, which, depending on the person and the severity of the incident, can run wild quickly. 

In your planning, build in documentation steps. All messages and drafts should be saved with relevant notes. This can help refine the planning process after the event is over.


Special considerations

It never hurts to overprepare.

Power/tech outage:
Include possible power outage in your crisis planning. Although we rely so much on cell phones, ensure a working, corded landline is available. Other items to prepare include walkie talkies and fresh batteries, flashlights, and printed versions of the crisis template—along with a standard disaster preparedness kit unrelated to communication.

Leave it to the pros:
The value of adding a communication pro to your team is hard to overstate, not only for their training and experience in crisis communication, but also for everyday outreach. Their expertise and time will be well spent preparing families and keeping those relationships close. 

Plans hold the key to calm, concise, and effective crisis communication. Practice means leaders, staff, and students have a chance to respond in an orderly fashion to unexpected threats, saving time and potentially saving lives. That's why it's important for all of us to make communication part of the drills and training we practice for situations we hope to never encounter.


Casey Thompson Casey Thompson Digital Media Manager
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