Deal with bad news
Carolyn Reed and Katie Cardona reveal how to combat the potential fallout from an unforeseen crisis
We live in a world that is fast-paced, ever-changing and interconnected, where an unexpected communications challenge can affect any school at any moment. We have seen this in recent months with the tragic accident at The Study Prep School in Wimbledon and the parental outrage expressed at the plans to close Falcons Pre-Preparatory School in Chiswick. When events like these happen, schools are vulnerable to public scrutiny and reputational damage which is why successful crisis communication has become yet another essential skill for heads, the senior leadership team and governors.
What constitutes a crisis? Any situation can become a crisis if it isn’t handled properly, but typically real crises share two common characteristics:
- Negativity – adverse consequences are usually the potential outcome of a school crisis, whether reputational damage or financial loss.
- High levels of interest – inevitably a crisis will capture the attention of the sector and sometimes the attention of the wider public. In a world of immediate news via chattering parents, staff, pupils and alumni, and digital platforms, this means a swift response will be needed.
So, what are the essentials for successful crisis communication?
Preparation is the foundation of effective crisis communication. In some instances schools will have time to prepare, such as during a merger, but there will be occasions when an incident happens without warning. This could be the death of a member of the school community or an accident on site. Therefore, schools should develop a comprehensive crisis communication plan to identify potential crisis scenarios and create a response strategy for each one that outlines responsibilities, protocols and actions.
It’s crucial to be open and honest at all times. Avoiding or minimising the nature of the crisis can escalate the problem. Always take responsibility for mistakes made and provide clear information, being careful to avoid rumours and speculation.
In the world of crisis communications, delivering disappointing or bad news is also an opportunity to demonstrate empathy, understanding and kindness. It is essential to approach the task with genuine compassion and respect.
Discrepancies in messaging can erode trust, so make sure your crisis communications are consistent across all channels.
In the relief that you feel once the crisis has passed, don’t forget to carry out a thorough review of your school’s response to identify what went well and what could have been done better.
There’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution to crisis communication as the circumstance and situations in schools will vary. Here are some examples of best and worst practice in crisis communications in schools from highly experienced colleagues and we hope they will be useful should your school find itself in a similar situation:
- “Don’t let the press catch a member of staff off-guard. A story of national interest broke and the head’s well-meaning PA took the call. Instead of passing it to me, she dealt with it herself and was encouraged into saying something she later regretted. Make sure your receptionists know exactly who the designated spokesperson for the school is and don’t let anyone be tempted to answer a journalist’s question themselves, no matter how helpful they want to be. It’s just not worth it.”
- “When communicating bad news to parents, pupils and staff, it’s really not OK to simply send out an email. Hiding behind an email inflames the situation and allows unfounded rumours to gain credence. Hold a meeting, explain any decisions and answer questions. After all, what’s the worst that can happen? Yes, things might get a bit heated, but if there are sound reasons behind any bad news, it’s best to be honest and open. The school community will thank you for it in the long run.”
- “My personal plea to governors and heads wishing to make a major announcement is to involve your comms professionals at an early stage. Why? Because it’s so important to ensure that the news is communicated to the whole school community at the same time. Imagine how distressing it is when one section hears the news first and the rest have to find out second-hand. Do ensure you have a statement prepared that your comms professional can release on your school’s website and social media channels at exactly the same moment as you are making the announcement. This way you can control the narrative, you can control the facts, and you can control any reputational damage.”
These examples demonstrate that although you cannot change the news that’s being communicated, you can influence the way in which it is being delivered, which makes a big difference.
Carolyn Reed and Katie Cardona are schools communication specialists from Reed Brand Communication.