Staying calm after the storm: managing a PR crisis

Social media offers a plethora of benefits for schools; it’s a great way of interacting with current and prospective parents and students, as well as letting your brand stand out in a competitive sector. However, it comes with a dark side too; it’s a very public arena where issues can be aired to the detriment of your school’s reputation. Victoria Tomlinson, chief executive at Northern Lights PR, explores how best to handle a PR crisis

PR crises seem to come out of the blue, and can drag teachers, governors and advisors into some of the most stressful times of their working lives, but most crises can be anticipated, in general terms, and plans can be put in place to mitigate their impact. The crises we have handled include poor Ofsted ratings, a child ‘escaping’, sexual abuse, fraud and a concerted effort to damage reputation.  Luckily we have not had to deal with deaths – either staff or pupils – but those have to be the worst crises of all.

These are lonely places for a head. The head is often the only person to read a confidential report before it is published and they can be at odds with governors as to the best way to handle the crisis.

Crisis management

What can you do to prepare, and how do you handle an actual crisis?

  1. Crisis plans to include communications

Ensure your crisis plans include communications and have a few members of your senior team with access to social media passwords and skills to handle online criticism.

  1. Detailed plans

Agree a strategy with your adviser and draw up a communications plan to cover, as examples:

  • Governors/trustees – communicate openly and ask for their support as ambassadors
  • Prepare media statements to cover various options.  Include Q&A which can also be used for staff
  • Handling media questions and rehearsing interviews
  • Communicating with parents – letters, social media, a meeting, personal meetings if their child was involved – keep them closely informed and involved throughout
  • Staff – who should be told just before it goes public to parents, and advise how to handle typical questions
  • You want your local authority and politicians on board so get their support ahead of announcements
  • Personal communications to those who use your facilities, and to partners
  • Social media channels – however much you hope to ‘control’ the message and process of getting it out, accept that as soon as a parent (or even teacher) hears the news, they may post something on Facebook or Twitter
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Plan the order of your communications ruthlessly. Think through who must know first (such as governors, then staff, then parents and so on) and set up a communications’ process for this all to happen within minutes or hours of each other – so, for example, you might have a staff meeting in progress while letters are being emailed (or texted) to parents.

Do think through how you will communicate with parents who cannot get to the school and those who are not on email or your normal school communication system. Be available to handle calls or meetings as requested – don’t stint on this time.

  1. Post on your website

Accept that anything you send out will probably appear as a photo on Facebook and post statements, letters to parents and other communications on your website.

  1. Be transparent and honest

You have had a crisis – don’t make it worse by hiding or lying about any aspect. How many times have cover-ups of scandals become bigger than the original story?

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