On a Saturday morning in January 2016, my entire world changed. As associate head at a pre-K–12 independent school of nearly 1,000 students, I learned that our head of school had died. Within 24 hours, the board appointed me interim head. The months that followed were full of investigations, press inquiries, parent meetings, faculty forums, and helping our students navigate the tumult.
I was fortunate to have had the support of an extraordinary administrative team. Equally important, the board secured the services of crisis-management firm The Jane Group, which works exclusively with independent schools. Yet despite decades of experience among the groups tasked to steward the school through the most difficult time in its history, there were myriad surprises along the way. I learned some of the most important lessons of my career from that crisis. Hardly a blueprint for managing a crisis, my reflections from an extraordinarily challenging time are intended to offer perspective. Here they are:
In times of crisis, heads of school should expand their administrative circle. The first instinct of many heads is to confide in only their closest confidants, or at least to dramatically shrink the team managing the crisis. Yet in such times, it is important to expand the circle of trusted advisers—beyond existing crisis teams or other response groups—who provide feedback to the head. Doing so leverages the insights of various team members in a time of significant uncertainty. Having a carefully selected group of senior administrators and other school leaders also demonstrates the all-hands-on-deck mentality that will be necessary for months. This approach also decreases the likelihood of miscommunication or lack of communication by ensuring that key leaders are in the room when decisions are made or issues discussed, in turn allowing them to update their reports (as well as teachers and parents, when appropriate) and thus reduce anxiety, frustration, and anger within the school community.
Leaders must embrace and show their opportunity to grow. During the months following our head’s death, the pressures that the entire institution—and, in particular, the senior leadership team—felt were enormous. Equally significant and often not explicitly articulated: The tragedy presented an unprecedented opportunity for the leadership team to grow, which was both emotionally and operationally critical to weathering the crisis. From experience with media relations to legal teams to crisis communications, the learning curve was steep—and incredibly rich. While none of us would have wished the situation on anyone, as head of school, I took every opportunity to articulate how much I was learning and how much I appreciated the opportunity to grow, even in the wake of a dear friend’s death. It was not unusual, for example, for me to share with the faculty what I was learning about writing crisis communiques or dealing with the media, all the while sharing the challenges and stresses of doing so.
Schools should understand the power of social media and foster amicable relations with the media. In the age of social media, school email communications to parents can quickly get posted to Twitter, Reddit, and other platforms. By providing the email to the media, after it is released to the school community, schools can build trust and foster good relations with reporters. We learned this lesson several ways—first through experience and then through a measured approach to working with wire services ahead of time. Formal press releases are a practical way to communicate with the press, but for many reasons they are often not enough or even not possible. They can seem self-promoting or framed by others as “spin,” rather than an honest attempt to share information.
Leadership must also acknowledge the challenges of modern media. Newspapers have radically slashed staffing over the past decades, and they rely much more on wire services for content. As such, high-profile stories can get “churned” for weeks and even months, creating click-throughs that keep the story going for longer than it might have in previous eras. Know that a story can continue to resurface, even when it might seem that it’s dying down.
Schools should expect and prepare for events that appear unrelated to the crisis. Schools are like ecosystems, and similar to the dramatic effects of climate change, crises can create a series of seemingly unrelated effects that further roil the campus. A study from Yale University and the federal government has shown, for example, that schools that undergo crisis have three times the number of student disciplinary problems; two times the faculty turnover; and even more on-campus traffic accidents within a year of the initial incident. At our school, seemingly simple conflicts between students, or even discussions about the novels we were reading in English classes, elicited a disproportionate amount of anger and recrimination. When it rains, it floods. School leaders need to keep this reality front and center as they navigate a crisis.
Schools need an age-specific communications strategy. Multidivisional schools’ communications with students need to be age appropriate. Crisis communications should be similarly segmented. While it is critical that certain information is broadly shared to avoid fragmentation of the message, it is equally important to understand that parents’ anxieties differ according to the age of their children. For example, the crisis at my former school spurred among lower school parents a widespread desire to upgrade the school’s security infrastructure, including surveillance cameras, locked gates, and additional personnel. Among upper school families, however, that issue never surfaced. Instead, they were concerned about how their children were dealing with the emotions of losing a widely loved head of school, thus wanting to discuss the counseling structure at the school. School leaders need to anticipate different concerns at the various levels of the institution and communicate accordingly.
Heads must work proactively with the board. When crises occur, parents and other members of the community often go to board members for information and reassurance. And given the unique challenges of crisis management, directing all such requests for information back to the head of school or the administrative team is neither advisable nor ideal. Instead, schools need to create clear protocols that delineate the role of board members in times of crisis, including when to refer the parent to the head of school. Providing simple, brief talking points for board members, and guidance regarding “what not to say,” will allow them to handle routine questions.
Any list of lessons and principles must include a basic tenet: the importance of telling the truth and being as transparent as possible. During the crucible of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln remarked that, “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any...crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.” Without honesty and integrity, a school and its leadership are lost. With these qualities, even the greatest calamity can be overcome.