Dorian Provides Test Case…How Did You Do?

Hurricane Dorian was a disaster for the Bahamas, but it was just dress rehearsal for most Florida schools and now is a great time for an evaluation. How did you do with your Crisis Communications Plan?

Did all systems work? Did everyone know their jobs? Did you get information out in a timely manner directly to your target audiences? Did you manage social media, unsubstantiated rumors and false information? Did parents know what to do? Did you control the media and speak with great clarity and a memorable message?

If you were to give your Crisis Communications Plan a grade, what would it be? How could it be improved? You might want to ask some members of your audience. They may have a different perspective. Because next time, the storm might be a direct hit. Or it could be something other than a storm.

At Voss & Associates, we have experienced everything from tragic shootings to a cruel joke. We learned valuable lessons when Hurricane Charlie destroyed or severely damaged eight of the 14 schools in Charlotte County in 2004, or when a frantic 6th grader was interviewed by the media to announce a tragic shooting in Palm Beach County in 2000. Since that time, we have trained hundreds of educators and created dozens of Crisis Communications Plans. A solid plan simplifies the process, spells out exactly who’s in charge, where they should go, and provides tips, training and technology for communicating critical messages before, during and after the crisis.

The first rule of thumb is that there is only one spokesperson. During a crisis, no one should speak to the media except the official spokesperson, usually the superintendent, the principal, or a public information officer. This avoids conflicting stories, the release of premature information, and potential liability lawsuits down the road. It also relieves staff of any responsibility for talking to the press.

Spokespersons must be trained in the art of clear and coherent messages delivered in a calm and compassionate voice, regardless of the question. This takes practice. Role-playing in front of cameras is the only way to prepare for such an event. They must know the public record laws, how to control the message, provide emotional comfort, and disseminate only accurate information as it becomes available. This means avoiding speculation, exaggeration, blame or hypothetical questions.

The Crisis Communications Plan designates restricted areas for media access. Access to students, dangerous areas and confidential records are off limits. Law enforcement should be aware so they can assist with crowd control, if necessary. The spokesperson should promise frequent updates to avoid a media frenzy, providing updates on a timely basis. Someone should monitor social media, websites and blogs to update information, check for accuracy and correct misinformation.

Most importantly, today’s technology allows school districts to communicate directly to parents and stakeholders during a crisis. Instant notification systems, Twitter and Facebook accounts, eBlasts, blogs and websites should be fully leveraged during a crisis situation. Fact sheets with background information should be prepared before a crisis to answer basic questions on the web. Updates are added as information becomes known. Someone has to be in charge of that.

Every district should a trained videographer, ready to produce and disseminate a video message from the superintendent. This kind of communication humanizes the message and removes the filters of the media.

All district administrators should be asking whether they feel confident that they are ready to manage communication during a crisis situation. Do you have a plan? Do you have sufficient training? If not, take an online or onsite seminar. Contact an expert in crisis communications to help evaluate your plan and help you prepare.


David R. Voss is president of Voss & Associates, a full service communications company with its heart in education. His online communication courses cover crisis readiness, social media, media relations and public speaking. He writes localized Crisis Communications Plans and provides onsite training for school districts across the country to help them prepare. Web: Online Courses: Contact: Phone: 941-650-4614.

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