Managing Media and Parent School Safety and Crisis Communications

Posted by on July 21, 2010

You’ll take a hit if you effectively manage an overall school crisis response, but drop the ball in communicating with parents and the media.

That was one of my main messages to school communications and public relations directors when I spoke last week at the annual conference of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA)

As always, school PR attendees were lively, engaged, bright, and enthusiastic about their work.  But there were a lot of serious discussions, in-depth workshops, and hallway exchanges, as well.

A few key take-away points from my two workshops on managing media and parent communications on school safety, and from other discussions,  include:

  1. Media newsrooms are changing.  Educators are not the only professionals forced to do more with less.  Newsrooms are undergoing major downsizing and reporters are packaging the same story in multiple formats (print, video, on the web, etc.).  Reporters, like school administrators, are facing major deadlines and pressures each day.  The evidence of downsized newsrooms was clear at the NSPRA conference as half of the school PR professionals in my workshops were former reporters now working in school communications departments!
  2. School web sites should be news and information sources.  School web sites should include a page and information on school safety, emergency preparedness, and related issues.
  3. “Embrace social media on the front-end or it will embrace you on the tail-end.”  This is one of my favorite sayings to educators today.  Kids and parents are on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and other social media outlets.  Is your school superintendent, principal, and district there?  Do you have plans for using social media for school safety and crisis response messaging?
  4. Schools need emergency response guidelines (aka: “crisis plans”), but they also need a distinct crisis communications plan.  Rumors, especially about school safety threats and incidents, travel in seconds and minutes, not hours and days.  School leaders must be prepared to hit the ground running to get their messages out following school crisis incidents or growing rumors of a safety threat.  Schools will most always be behind the curve on crisis communications, but they can close the gap by having a crisis communications plan and staff trained ahead of time. School leaders should be able to communicate with key constituents quickly and in mass when they are in need of doing so.
  5. School safety and crisis messages from educators need to communicate compassion and caring, not “lawyering up” in a defensive posture or saying “no comment,” after a security/crisis incident.  Parents want to know educators care.  They want to know what occurred, what school and safety officials did in response, and what steps will be taken to prevent or reduce the risks of a reoccurrence in the future. 

Too often, school districts have preferred to downplay, deflect, and in some cases deny school safety issues in their school districts.  Those days are long gone.  Today, the word “transparency” is key in the eyes of parents and the media, and hoping that parents and the media never find out about incidents is foolish thinking.

School safety incidents must be addressed openly and in a timely manner.  If a student is caught with a loaded gun in a school and no one is hurt, that must be framed as good news.  See my prior blog on Finding a Gun In a School Is Good News.

For more practical tips to help educators manage school safety and crisis communications, see my American School Board Journal article entitled “Communicating Safety.”

School PR leaders at NSPRA “got it.”  Our workshops on school safety and crisis communications had great role playing exercises, dynamic discussions, and genuinely concerned school PR staff who are active with school crisis planning in their districts.

Do your school leaders “get it” when it comes to communicating with parents and the media about school safety and crisis incidents?

Ken Trump

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