A view commonly held among the cognoscenti in crisis management circles is that most organizational crisis are self-inflicted. Usually due to a lack of leadership, inexperienced or poor leadership, or a pressurized environment that is highly-charged, like the one brought about by the pandemic. Every leader doesn't respond well to pressure. But it's a litmus test that will reveal tendencies and flaws.
A poor crisis response is like double jeopardy. The crisis is the crisis. How an organization responds to it, could lead to another crisis: a brand crisis. In the court of public opinion an organization will be tried twice, and probably many times over.
When the crisis is not self-inflicted, such as the current conditions in education brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, a set of communication principles should be followed to ensure your district's efforts to manage the crisis is effectively communicated. Earning and maintaining the confidence of all stakeholders is primary for districts focused on attaining the highest standard of organizational and educational excellence possible despite the crisis.
While it's important that a school district's brand does not suffer long term damage as a result of its response to a crisis - particularly in the midst of the consumer-driven choice movement - what's more important is addressing the needs of students, which will always suffer if a school district is mismanaged, particularly when the stakes are highest.
Follow a series of communication principles to guide your school district's ongoing strategy throughout the crisis. First, and foremost, don't hide behind a spokesperson. Be the spokesperson. People want to hear what's happening from their leader.
Second, don't be less than totally honest. Truthfulness is not only ethical, it's practical too. And by the way, partial truths are not truths. I consider them cover ups. One more thing, not saying anything is even worse. Leaders who lose the trust of their stakeholders can never regain it, not totally. Whether the author was Ben Franklin or Sir Edwin Sandys a hundred and fifty years earlier, the proverb,"Honesty is the best policy" is a staple of crisis communication. Shakespeare put it another way, "If I lose my honor, I lose myself: better I were not yours than yours so branchless." A leader who is destitute of branches has no reach.
Click on the image below for an example of honestly communicating the reality of reopening schools during a surge of infections brought on by the holiday season. It's from one of my weekly newsletters that's sent to our entire school community of about 50,000 people, including students, parents, staff, and members of the community, every Sunday evening.
Third, don't be inaccessible. Being out front means being available and willing to respond to demands for information. Setting up a call center and subsequently addressing questions and concerns using a question and answer format serves leaders well. The Q & A is also a great way to address the ‘what if’ questions that arise. Get ahead on the 'what if' questions. If there is no answer, acknowledge uncertainty. Provide the information you have on hand. Frame the discussion in a way that not only acknowledges uncertainty but also your audience's frustrations and fears. Find a couple examples of my weekly message using the Q & A strategy here and addressing 'What if' here.
Fourth, while less is always more in crisis communications, sharing a few heartfelt words expressing compassion, empathy, and consideration of the impact the situation is having on the people it is effecting most is kind and reassuring. Don't be glib. It's also OK to say “sorry” that you are delivering this news or that you realize there is great suffering being experienced. Find an example of my weekly message exemplifying this sentiment here.
Last, don't be defensive. Acknowledge the challenges but continue to remind your audience how much you appreciate their support and willingness to participate in improving the situation. Find an example of my weekly message exemplifying this strategy here.
Use whatever means necessary to boost amplification of your messages. Your audience deserves regular updates. Pace and cadence matters. I believe weekly is best. But know thy audience and understand what they are accustomed to. And communicate in a cultural context using terms that make sense and that everyone can understand.
Below are a series of practical essays on strategic communications.