Crisis Communications Strategies for an Always-On Media Environment

Winter 2019

In January 2013, I was at a doctor’s appointment when my phone buzzed with an incoming call from the newly appointed head of school where I was a board chair at the time. Thinking it would be a routine conversation, I let the call go to voicemail.

When I left the doctor’s office and returned the call, the first words the head said were, “The FBI came to campus at 7 a.m. today.” My mind quickly scanned the possible reasons that federal law enforcement would arrive unannounced at a school and I settled on: someone at our school was involved in child pornography. And I was right. So began my on-the-job training in crisis management and crisis communications.

Luckily, I was a marketing and communications professional by trade, and had spent some time in newsrooms. I was an intern at the Miami Herald when John Walsh (of America’s Most Wanted fame) lost his son, who was murdered. I know what it’s like to start calling anyone connected with a tragic incident to try to catch them off guard so that you can get a quote for a story. So I knew exactly what would happen next.

“Ask your colleagues to recommend a crisis communications firm,” I told our head of school. “Whatever it costs, we’ll do it. And fast—the clock is ticking.”

The Immediate Aftermath

At the time, our school had a new full-time communications director and no published crisis communications plan, so the head and I, together with our lawyers, collaborated on what would happen in the next couple of hours. The U.S. Attorney’s office let us know that they would be making a statement to the press that afternoon, which would include the perpetrator’s name and the name of the school. And of course, the shocking details of the charges would be released online for our families and the world to see.

Then the arrest would be all over the early local news—in our case in the biggest media market in the country. The possibility of press trucks showing up at the school was very real. (They did.) Also looming large was the fact that others, including our board of trustees, needed to know before the statement hit the press. We hired a crisis communications firm within hours and notified all the board members that we would be emailing them about a “serious matter regarding an employee” shortly. With the help of our attorneys, we crafted an email detailing the charges against the employee and the school’s reaction and sent it to the board about 15 minutes before we sent it to the entire school community—and right ahead of the U.S. Attorney’s statement, which, predictably, made the news.

We knew this was not going to be a story that would go away quickly. After that, we hunkered down for the long haul, which involved telling families what we knew about the potential involvement of current or former students (luckily there was none), reassuring families, and working in as transparent a way as possible to minimize the reputational impact to the school.

After months of twists and turns, the teacher, who had worked for the school for many years in many classrooms, pleaded guilty to distribution of child pornography and was sentenced to several years in federal prison. Today, the school’s reputation remains intact and strong, with a larger enrollment than it had when my children were there. With a lot of hard work, meetings with the U.S. Attorney and FBI, and a month-long relationship with a crisis communications firm, we weathered the storm and emerged stronger because our community knew that we were not at fault and had handled the situation transparently.

A New Environment

A lot has changed since 2013. Societal norms, how—and how frequently—we get information, how we interact and engage with others, and how we live all have an impact on crises. From what constitutes a crisis and how we define them, how long they go on, and how we manage them, we’re operating in a different environment.

The window of time in which schools have to react to a crisis has decreased dramatically, in large part because of social media. The ease with which families can connect with one another to spread rumors has greatly increased. And in this #metoo era, schools may find themselves dealing with accusations of criminal and unethical behavior that occurred decades earlier. Schools are also sometimes called upon to comment on former students’ behavior much later in life and how it reflects the school culture at the time.

What hasn’t changed, however, is families’ desire to see the people with whom they entrust their child’s education and well-being swiftly and expertly handling serious matters. And although my example is from five years ago, the takeaways are still very fresh and applicable.

Plan Before the Crisis

As with anything in life, you want to have a plan in place before you need it. If you don’t have a crisis communications plan, start putting one together now. If you do have one, review it yearly and update it as necessary. (For tips, see “Crisis Plan Basics” below.)

In addition to having a plan, one key to being prepared before crisis strikes is ensuring that all staff and faculty in the school are aware of everyone who needs to be contacted in the event of a crisis. In this case, we reached out to camp families and alumni families because the employee had been at the school for 20 years and had worked around those students. A good rule of thumb to help employees determine what rises to the level of a crisis is to tell them: If they think something that happened is a serious issue or that some piece of information they heard could lead to a crisis, they should assume it is a crisis, and alert their immediate supervisor or the head of school right away. A phone call or an in-person visit, depending on the nature of your school, your relationship, and your work (e.g., what breaks you have during the day, etc.) is appropriate. (And if you have a cell number, now is the time for text!) The head of school should know to involve communications directors immediately—not after all the “ducks are in a row” or leadership has already developed and committed to a communications effort.

Another important aspect of crisis planning is mapping out how and when information is released. The same written communication should go to all constituents around the same time so that everyone is working with the same information. In meetings with trustees or other more involved parties, however, you may choose to share more details verbally, but all written communication should remain consistent. It’s also important not to assume that alumni families or families whose children who are no longer in the school won’t be interested in or concerned about the news; if they’re still in your fundraising database, for example, include them in communications about a serious, schoolwide crisis.

In developing a crisis plan, be sure to include a step that specifies working with the crisis firm or legal team to draft a prepared statement that’s ready to go as soon as the crisis starts unfolding.

Leave Emotions at the Door

To say that those of us who work in schools have a soft spot for other humans is an understatement, so when a crisis occurs, our empathy goes into overdrive. Whether it’s a bus crash or the departure of a beloved teacher in less-than-ideal circumstances, it’s easy to become emotionally overwhelmed and involved. It’s critical to be able to react not as a colleague or a parent, but as a communications director. Remember that the level of trust that parents place in our institutions is great, and that it can also be broken in an instant. If anything goes wrong, a parent’s primary thought is “How did, or will, the situation impact my child?”

Checking your emotions does not mean being cold or uncaring, however. It is critical to think about your message through the lens of the parent and consider yourself in the role of that parent as you communicate the news. Ask yourself: Would this satisfy you if you didn’t know how furiously people were working behind the scenes to make this situation right? How does our statement come across? Do you sound more attuned to protecting the school than meeting the families’ or students’ needs?

Ask the hard questions. Even if you’ve never done it before, now is the time to “speak truth to power” and ask school leaders the question you think the press or families would ask first—and get those answers. Then translate and communicate them in a thoughtful way. You can’t change the facts, but you can manage the perception of the facts—at least somewhat.

The Clock Is Ticking

Schools tend to be consensus-driven organizations, and, in normal times, many individuals would provide input on a press statement. A crisis is not a normal time. If the press is calling, and you know why and yet have nothing prepared, that’s your problem, not theirs. If the story is juicy enough, they’ll write it with or without you, and in today’s media world, their deadline is immediate. You’re never going to go wrong believing that a story is going to blow up—and preparing for that. While your reaction may be a single statement, have it ready to go at the outset.

You don’t have the luxury of time even if you’re dealing with an incident that will only be of interest to the school community. If the school dismisses a teacher, for example, or finds out that students have been distributing salacious pictures of one another, you don’t have the weekend to plot a strategy; letting something fester over a weekend is truly one of the worst “strategies” because nothing spreads gossip like free time. If you need to make a statement, plan for it to go out the same day.

Email is generally the best way to communicate with constituents about a crisis for its sheer ability to reach many people in a short period of time. There are areas of nuance, however, in particular around new crises about incidents that may go back decades. You might not have correct emails for alumni, in which case, you should mail a letter to the last known address, especially if you are launching an investigation.

“No Comment” Is No Good

Have you ever heard a government official or corporate titan say “no comment” on camera and thought to yourself, “Well, there’s a person with nothing to hide?” Probably not. “No comment” can make you sound guilty, even if you truly don’t have a comment at the time. Every situation calls for some kind of comment, whether it’s to note that you are cooperating with law enforcement, are aware of the situation and investigating it, or that you have already started taking steps to ensure that it’s never going to happen again. Even saying that you can’t disclose something because it’s an employment matter is a statement.

Sometimes legal counsel will suggest a no-comment approach or will even suggest that you ask families not to communicate with the each other or the press. This is generally not the best idea. The latter strategy in particular doesn’t work because it can easily communicate the wrong message: You alert your families to something they were completely unaware of and then, rather than communicate concern about the incident, you are effectively telling them to protect your school’s reputation by hanging up on reporters. This is a little like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Happy parents are not going to malign the school, but unhappy ones now know that press is nosing around this particular story—and that they can call the reporter to offer the little tidbit that might be valuable (and also might not be completely accurate).

It can be challenging to push back on this cautious and well-intentioned approach; after all, we need the lawyers’ advice to make sure that we are not exposing the school to liability. However, as a wise person once told me, “lawyers are there to keep you out of court, not keep you in business.” Lawyers’ focus is to guard the school against liability, and they may not be able to best guide you in communicating in a way that protects your reputation. While you should never do anything that exposes your school to legal ramifications, you should understand that part of managing a crisis well is being successful in the court of public opinion. You never want to appear as though you are hiding information, and you don’t want to be sued. At the very least you should be able to say that you are investigating the matter or cooperating with law enforcement. Now is the time to sound like a human, not a corporation.

Know When to Seek Professional Help

There are situations that communications directors should not handle on their own. As a general rule, situations where law enforcement is involved, the death of a student or head of school, serious malfeasance that threatens the financial health of the school, a major accident or violence that takes place on school grounds, or any kind of child abuse scandal past or present, are among the issues that definitely warrant a call to a specialist outside of your school’s legal counsel.

Depending on the size and culture of your school, you might already employ a public relations firm. But it may or may not be the right firm to handle a crisis. To find firms that have a good reputation for doing this kind of work, reach out to other school heads and communications directors. Even though we hadn’t researched firms, we were able to engage one less than five hours after the FBI walked through the school’s doors. And we worked with the firm’s consultants remotely.

So how do you navigate working with your internal team, a crisis team, and your law firm? Start with a contract. You might want to consider executing the school’s contract with the crisis consultant through the law firm so that everything can be covered under attorney client privilege. And be sure to consult consistently with both the crisis firm team and the law firm about how best to handle this important issue; you shouldn’t be doing anything that your law firm can’t fully support, but it’s usually a good idea for the three parties—school communicators, lawyers, and crisis communicators—to meet and speak together to come to a solution that will minimize impact on the school’s reputation. 

It’s Never the Crime, It’s the Cover-Up

We talk a lot about the importance of transparency—in our schools and also in the world in which we live. But talking about it and doing it well, in a way that truly resonates, can be a challenge. There always will be someone who will suggest that a certain group shouldn’t be informed at the same time as others, or that it’s not so important that facts—that will likely be revealed later—are shared right away. This is not because they’re bad people; it’s because they feel that this is the best way to control the narrative. But one of the hard-learned lessons for communications directors is that you can’t fully control the narrative. Part of getting your side of the story out is actually getting it out there from the start rather than waiting for the press to discover it. The fight for transparency is a hard one—the instinct for self-protection through less than total candor is a strong one in all institutions—but the fight is worth it when the reputation of your school is on the line. Educators have no idea how hard reporters will work to get at a piece of a story that reveals something interesting about the larger whole, nor are they usually aware of how much people connected with the school are willing to talk to the media.

Knowing how to navigate a crisis in today’s climate requires a combination of skill, savvy, and strategy, something all communications directors must have. Whether a big crisis hits or a small one erupts, the approach should be the same. That can make all the difference between guiding your school successfully through turbulent and uncharted waters, or going down with the ship.