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An inside guide to crisis communications for the education sector

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Dennis Adonis


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Oct 4, 2018
9 min read
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Schools, universities, and other academic institutions face a volatile mix of critical risk exposures, such as severe weather, disease outbreaks, and technological breakdown, and of course, violence. In the United States, for example, there have been more than 200 school shootings since 2013, an average of nearly 1 every week.

No jurisdictions are safe from extreme behaviour – in early 2016 nearly 50 schools throughout Australia were evacuated as a result of bomb threats received via pre-recorded phone messages (subsequently deemed to have been hoaxes) prompting a national rethink of crisis response plans.

Schools throughout Britain, the US, France, Japan, Holland, Norway, and Guam have also received similar threats, although no definitive links have been confirmed.

Crisis scenarios are an inevitable occurrence, which can never be completely prevented, and so education administrators must focus on preparing for and executing an appropriate harm minimisation response.

Schools face a greater duty of care than traditional workplaces, having the added responsibility for the welfare of young and potentially more vulnerable students, and a broader community stakeholder ecosystem, including staff, parents, neighbouring schools, and education departments. Each of these groups will have unique, and equally urgent needs for accurate and timely information in the event of any emergency situation, which can manifest in a wide variety of potential scenarios, such as:

  • Rapid dissemination of critical OH&S updates

  • Physical harm, including shootings, assaults, theft, or bomb threats

  • Severe weather – storms, hurricanes, fires, floods, etc

  • Health scares, such as the outbreak or transmission of communicable diseases

  • Asset damage - a large university campus may contain potentially billions of dollars of physical assets

  • Anti-social behaviour, both physical and or digital, such as cyberbullying, drugs, or harassment

  • Personnel commercial conflicts of interest

That means organisations need a range of diverse, and complex crisis management plans, which can be difficult to execute with traditional, manual methods. Additionally, the growth of social media, and ‘citizen journalism’ means negative news can spread fast, potentially inflaming and exacerbating already volatile situations, unless crisis response teams are able to stay ahead of the unfolding event.

Fortunately, modern communications technology can also equip educators with highly sophisticated tools for monitoring and managing emergency situations, and keeping all stakeholders updated with real-time, 2-way information flows. This guide provides an introductory framework for communicating in a crisis and illustrates the best practice use of communications technologies in supporting a proactive and effective response.

Crisis Response

Crisis Management is the response required in the event of unforeseen emergencies or disasters to minimise the harm to the organisation, its stakeholders, or the general public. These include natural disasters, industrial incidents, technological crises, and other manmade disasters.

For educational bodies, this includes student, staff and community, asset, and institutional reputation exposures.

The common outcome of all of these situations is financial loss, brand damage, and potential risk to human life. Unfortunately, incidents are inevitable for businesses of all sizes, and without effective internal and external communications when they do arise, consequences are compounded, including:

  • Break down of operational response

  • Uninformed and unhappy stakeholders

  • Negatively impacted organisational and personal reputation

  • Extended time frame to full resolution of the issue.

An effective and well-executed communications strategy is required to help minimise these impacts.

Crisis Communication Framework

  1. Have a plan: A written plan should be in place, which includes specific actions that will be taken in the event of a crisis. The key objectives during any crisis are to protect any individual (employee or public) who may be at risk, ensure that all stakeholders are kept informed, and that ultimately the organisation survives. Proactive planning is the cornerstone of crisis response, so seek advice from external specialists, as needed, to ensure that threat scenarios are adequately mapped, and the right tools and resources are in place for an effective response. The process of planning for crisis communications is highly useful for the purpose of building strategic relationships between staff and stakeholders (e.g between Comms, HR, and Legal). A large university, for example, can have thousands of staff, with entrenched and often conflicting relationships, agendas, and spheres of interest. Collaborative planning exercises help to build trust and break down barriers to an effective response.

  2. Identify and train a spokesperson: A key spokesperson needs to be identified, prepared, and kept as up-to-date as possible to ensure that the media, staff, customers, and the public are kept informed with a clear, consistent message. Ensure the spokesperson has the appropriate skills for communicating via the required channel – for larger organisations this is typically a hierarchy of communication leaders, appropriate to the situation or communications medium. Staff will have different capabilities for communicating in certain circumstances, such as speaking to large groups, addressing a camera, or responding to social media queries. Specialist media training should also be provided to help minimise the risks of important messages being misinterpreted during critical events.

  3. Be honest and open: In our connected age it’s no longer possible to hope that information can be kept from the media or general public, so a policy of openness and transparency is essential to maintaining trust. This transparency must be projected through all communications channels: news interviews, social media, internal announcements, etc.

  4. Keep employees informed: Employees are the main conduit to keeping communications flowing between all relevant stakeholders, so it’s essential to keep the workforce informed with all relevant up-to-date information to prevent the circulation of incorrect rumours and potentially negative statements.

  5. Customer and supplier communications: Information on any crisis should reach your customers and suppliers directly from you, and not from the media. Part of the crisis communications plan needs to include these vital stakeholders, and how to keep them updated throughout the event.

  6. Update early and often: Be proactive and early with sharing news, even when the whole picture isn’t clear. It is better to over-communicate than to allow rumours to fill the void. Start with summary statements on whatever is initially known, and provide updated action plans and new developments as early and as often as possible to stay ahead of the 24/7 news cycle. Make use of “holding messages”– to inform stakeholders very quickly that the incident is under management, and quickly provide assurance that the organisation is in control of unfolding events.

  7. Social media: Ensure that all the channels that your stakeholders may be using are covered, not just the traditional areas in which critical statements were released, such as press releases or the company website. Nothing’s more damaging than incorrect information being live tweeted without your ability to see and respond with facts and the appropriate damage control.

  8. Establish Notification and Monitoring Systems: Staying informed and knowing what is being said about the company beforehand is essential to staying ahead of unfolding incidents. Monitoring systems allow companies to gather intelligence from a range of sources to keep informed and stay ahead of unfolding negative situations or sentiments. Before a crisis emerges, this can include using free options such as Google Alerts, or paid professional monitoring services, to track traditional media and trending social clues from staff, supplier, and customer conversations. Internal processes should also be established that allow front-line staff, sales, customer service, support, etc to report potential negative observations directly to the Crisis Communications Team.

Multi-modal notifications have become critical to communicating quickly and effectively. Traditional, manual contact processes, such as phone trees, with teams of people making calls, or even email are typically too slow to execute, and might not reach affected stakeholders in time. Messages should be sent on the channels that are most likely to reach affected parties – which can be SMS, chat apps, social media, as well as traditional contact channels. There also needs to be a mechanism to track message receipt and allow the appropriate response.

Modern communication systems give crisis responders the ability to reduce manual handling, and consolidate these contact channels into a single, centralised hub.

To Recap

Planned, open, and effective communication is key to coping with a crisis. Leverage technology to deliver planned, multichannel, 2-way communication streams that keep stakeholders informed, and minimise the risk of financial and reputation harm, and the risk to human life.

State of the Art Crisis Communications Technology

Proactive Communications Scenario Planning

Having a clearly defined plan in place for communicating in a wide range of plausible scenarios cuts down response time, improves the accuracy of contact, and ensures the right people are able to be reached in a timely manner. Modern crisis communications tools should have the capability of adapting to all possible scenarios and plans.

Situation Awareness Collaboration

When an emergency occurs, a range of stakeholders need to be alerted and updated, including staff, parents, neighbouring schools, emergency responders, and related government bodies. Best practice crisis communications tools include a centralised portal which is accessible by all required parties, feeding real-time information on unfolding events to facilitate a coordinated response.

Mobile Emergency Response Apps

Emergency response apps can be tailored to the needs of the user. Students, for instance, can use a one-touch activation to call for security assistance, if threatened, and GPS locators can help responders reach them fast.

Multi-channel Messaging

Send messages to your staff and customers in the way that suits them, whether that’s voice, SMS, Social Media, Rich Messages, or email, to improve the rates of delivery. Knowing they will almost always have their mobiles close allows organisations to provide messages on all these channels.

Geolocation can segment communications even further, such as providing multilingual messages appropriate to the recipient’s location or pre-defined contact preferences.

Message Templates

Message templates should be prepared with specifics that can be rapidly used or altered during incidents, thereby ensuring approved language, structure & consistency, while saving time by providing pre-defined communication and response options.

Rapid Communication

When urgent communication is required, choose the correct channel to meet requirements. SMS accelerates the speed of notification - whereas half of all emails aren’t opened for at least six hours, the average text message is accessed within a few minutes and responded to within 30 minutes. Voice calls to mobile and fixed lines generate an even faster response, and can be created to trigger automatically from the communications platform.

Message Automation

Where possible, communications platforms should be integrated with management and monitoring systems, allowing details to be auto-populated into message templates. Incidents can be raised automatically and sent directly to the coordination and resolution teams.

2-way Conversation Flow

It’s not enough to just send messages, there needs to be a system in place to track receipt, allow the receiver to respond as needed, and escalate when required.

Make use of an integrated communications platform

Best practice Crisis Communications programs are built around cross-channel communications platforms, which provide interactive, responsive communications, comprehensive reporting, and message delivery status transparency for key staff and senior stakeholders.

Communications automation and work ow acceleration, combined with integrated monitoring systems, provide BCM leaders with a unique and powerful opportunity plan to execute and streamline critical communications.

Crisis and Incident - Co-ordinated, standardized, local, or statewide approach to crisis resolution

A Holistic View of Collaborative Crisis Communication and Response

Whispir’s Unified Communications platform allows Departments, schools, and emergency services to all be kept continuously up-to-date on developments, whether the incident affects just one school, or a larger area.

Staff, students, parents, the community, emergency services, other schools, and the media can be reached simultaneously with actionable SMS, email, rich message voice, and social media to ensure the safety of students and staff. 

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The Best Defence is a Good Offence

Crisis scenarios affecting business operations are an inevitable occurrence, and without adequate preparation and management have the ability to escalate into critical events that can risk an organisation’s reputation, financial position, or ultimately the ability to survive.

Effective planning and communication are the keys to ensuring not only the management of risk, but can also turn changing circumstances into opportunities for building new processes that become a source of sustainable, technology-driven competitive advantage.

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