Every school head or bursar is acutely aware that a crisis may hit them at any time. However well-run and well-respected their school is, they cannot fully control the actions of staff or students (or more importantly past staff), and these actions can have a profound impact on the school’s reputation and, in some cases, its ability to operate.
Despite this recognition that it could happen to anyone, at any time, most schools are unprepared to handle a communications crisis. One of the most common situations at Quantum Press Relations is a bursar phoning to say: “We’ve got a bit of a crisis and The Sun has just rung up asking for a quote.” By this late stage, however, the story has already gone beyond a PR company’s control: the amount of notice given makes the difference between being able to manage a story and simply reacting to it.
Unless the story is a fatality or a suicide, it’s very rare that there is not some warning to what is about to happen, whether it be an allegation made or a report due to be published. Investing time in horizon-gazing, looking out to see whether there are any potential issues coming up that could impact on the school’s reputation, is recommended. Once these issues are identified it makes it much easier to plan around them.
While it may seem counterintuitive to plan for the unknown and unexpected, much as Churchill allegedly spent hours planning his impromptu speeches, the best advice is to prepare in advance for a crisis that may never happen. Most schools will have a crisis management plan in place, but it doesn’t always have the information needed to deal with the communications side. It is important to have:
* An up-to-date list of useful media contacts
* A database of all the audiences that you may need to communicate with (parents, governors, prospective parents, alumni, staff, local authority, Ofsted etc)
* A press release template ready to go, including some background information about the school
* A general Q&A document that can be used as the basis for issue-specific questions
* An identified spokesperson who has had relevant media training
* A contact for media enquiries to be directed to
* A system in place to manage all enquiries
* A media cuttings agency in place to alert you to any coverage
* A policy regarding the media coming onto your grounds and a person who will enforce it
* Clear guidance as to whether staff are at liberty to talk to journalists.
All of these things can be prepared in advance as part of your crisis plan, and will develop confidence in your ability to cope with a media storm, when senior staff may also be in a state of shock. It is simply a question of having some agreed policies and procedures in place.
Of course, pre-planning will only help so far if the balloon goes up. It is then a case of judging if you need to communicate, when you do it, what you can say and how to do it. Think about the different audiences you need to communicate with, and the different messages they will need – what you say to governors will be very different to what you say to pupils. It is also very important not to say anything that may prejudice a court case or that might come back to haunt the school – professional PR consultants and lawyers can help with this.
Crises come in many different guises but the one thing they have in common is that they happen quickly and need a lot of time to manage. Anything that can be done in advance to prepare the school’s responses will seem a very worthwhile investment when the media comes banging on the door.
Charlie Vavasour is managing director of crisis communications specialist Quantum Public Relations W: www.quantumpr.co.uk