During a crisis, rumors and misinformation seem to spread much faster than facts, and it takes only seconds for posts on social media to go viral. Panic among parents is often the result. The news media can descend quickly, and district officials and emergency personnel must scramble to uncover facts and respond to questions from the public in a timely matter.
"I can mess up on curriculum or facilities, but if I make one mistake on school safety it is a career-ender," one Midwest superintendent shared. Communicating effectively with parents and the news media is essential to manage and maintain your reputation in the local and school community.
Be Proactive Online
Social media has become the preferred arena for public announcements and discussion regarding emergency situations. Experienced educators and leaders recognize that many people are quick to take to the internet to report, discuss, dissect and share every crisis, large or small. Parents, students and local residents increasingly turn to social media and messaging apps to read about and share the latest updates on emergencies, security, school closings and all issues affecting school safety.
There are a number of ways school districts can make use of technology in times of emergency or crisis when reaching a large audience with accurate information is critical. They can:
- Maintain a database of contact information, such as mobile, work and home phone numbers and email addresses. Make regular requests for updates and corrections.
- Create or invest in a mass notification system with voice- and text-messaging capabilities to quickly share information directly with parents and other stakeholders.
- Build strong and active social media profiles on Twitter, Facebook and other popular websites. Make regular, timely and interesting posts so that parents and students learn to check your official pages often for accurate information and the latest communications. Then, in the event of an emergency or crisis, families and community members will look to these sites as trusted sources.
- Make a comprehensive checklist of every news and media outlet people will search for information. Keep those outlets well-informed and up-to-date on district emergency plans and real-time events.
It's important to post updates and relay accurate information during crisis situations so that your social media pages and broadcast messages have the most current information. In order to avoid conflicting messages that can cause confusion, district leaders must appoint specific individuals who are responsible for posting to school and district official accounts and making sure that all messages are coordinated districtwide.
Provide Effective Districtwide Emergency Training
All teachers, staff members and students should know what to do and say in a crisis, as well as what not to do or say. For example, teachers and staff members should know that sharing and posting official information on their own social media pages is acceptable and even encouraged, as long as it has already been approved or published by a designated social media manager. On the other hand, making off-the-cuff comments or posting information that has not been confirmed or does not come from official sources can be damaging and may even threaten student and staff safety in an emergency.
Designating individuals who can effectively interact with the media is also important. An offhand comment to a journalist can end up being the day's headline. Training staff and students to think and operate as a team in everyday activities enables them to work together in a crisis.
Tragic events will happen. Mistakes will happen. However, how well you are prepared to manage an incident that could not be anticipated or prevented will strengthen your overall emergency plans as well as your credibility and reputation as an educational leader. The Centers for Disease Control recommend three simple principles for emergency communications, which also apply during a school crisis:
- Be first.
- Be right.
- Be credible.
When you have strong systems for sharing information, as well as regular training for teachers, staff and students, your district will be prepared for success.
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