Articles & Resources About Crisis Communications

Crisis CommunicationsCrises are inevitable in any organization. But, they’re also an opportunity to inspire confidence and trust in your organization.

Below you'll find articles and valuable Crisis Communication information, including tips and ideas on how you can prepare your organization to communicate effectively and timely, as well as retain its role as the go-to information authority during a crisis.

Peace. Unity. Understanding.

We must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools. MLK Jr.About 20 years ago, I worked as the Chief of Staff for San Jose City Councilmember Forrest Williams. I learned so much from him during the time I worked for him, but one thing he taught me wasn’t from his work as an elected official, from his PhD and Masters Degree in Engineering, or his 30-plus years of work as an engineer for IBM.  It was living life as a black man in America, and the lessons he had to teach his son.

As always, his most impactful lessons to me started as a casual conversation (as they always did in his office). It wasn’t a lecture and it didn’t stem from a certain instance, but when I asked him about his newest grandchild, a son, born to his son, whose pictures adorned his office.

After sharing the latest adorable updates, Forrest shared with me the conversations he hoped that his son wouldn’t have to have with his son, but probably would, about being a black male in the United States.  About being careful of his actions and his perceived actions, and being more careful about the company that he kept. Having been raised in the same part of San Jose where Forrest raised his family, I was struck by the fact that my parents never had to have this conversation with my brother, and I would never have to have this conversation with my future sons.

It is then that I understood, as a blonde haired, blued eyed white woman, how deep my privilege truly was. I realized that even though I had friends of every color and who spoke many languages, and even though I am a truly empathetic person by nature, I would never know what it is like to live in the skin of someone who is not white.  And with this acknowledgment came great responsibility.  A responsibility to stand together with my brothers and sisters of all colors.  To understand them. And to work toward peace and justice.

It also meant that I had–and continue to have–a responsibility not to just be not racist in my words and actions, but to work against racism.  Being a blonde haired, blue eyed white woman, I have been on the receiving end of “wink, wink” sotto voce racist remarks made by other white people who think I align with their thinking.  I have been on the receiving end of conversations that talk about white supremacy. And I have used my voice to speak out against this, even in the midst of responses like, “Oh, it’s just a joke” and “You can’t think I’m being serious.”

Racism is serious.  Jokes are serious. Huge fires come from small sparks, and if we don’t extinguish the small sparks of racism in our own homes, friendship groups and communities, then they will become big fires.  Similarly, we can use our privilege to start positive sparks of understanding, peace and unity in our own communities, so that we stoke bigger and more positive flames in the future.

I constantly use Forrest’s lessons and the lessons I’ve learned from every one of my clients serving students of all colors to inform my work: that communication isn’t about just writing up messaging and sending it out, but that it’s a purposeful and vital bridge to build equity and bridge parents (many of whom felt marginalized while in school) to the positive benefits of schools–and the people who work in them–for their children, and to build mutual understanding and support.

I had the opportunity to attend Sacramento’s MLK Celebration in January, where Ruby Bridges spoke about her experiences as the first black child attending into a newly desegregated school in New Orleans, and then as a mother of a son who was brutally murdered.  Her outlook in life has been full of grace and forgiveness, and here are a couple of my biggest takeaways from her (in her words):

-We have to unite if we are doing good

-We each have to do something good so we can unite and do something good together

So, use today, this week, and your lifetime to unite together to do something good with others. While recent events have heightened our awareness of the problems our country faces with racism, the fact remains that this has been a historical and current problem that will continue if we are not each individually proactive.   I started a Facebook group, Peace. Unity. Understanding. to provide a forum where we can increase awareness and understanding through the sharing of information and resources that will help educate and challenge our own personal beliefs and others’, as well as doing good through unity by sharing ways we can support causes that improve social justice and resources for marginalized populations. Lastly, we can also use this forum to share opportunities to peacefully engage online or on the ground to support unity.  Join the group, contribute to the conversation, and fan the flames of peace, unity and understanding.

Running Your Communication Offense & Defense

Picture showing offense and defenseThe best PR tip I can offer in the midst of COVID-19 (or any crisis, for that matter) is that you should be running an offense and defense at the same time.

This can be a challenge to do, if you’re a one person PR team (or administrator wearing multiple hats, including PR). So, if you haven’t already put together a communication and PR team, start now.

However, it is incredibly important to not only manage the current reality, but also to paint a picture of the future.

I read a great recent article on PR Daily that I’m going to summarize here, and put into context for education organizations, particularly during COVID-19 school closures and re-openings.

Your Defense Team

Your “defense team” includes those managing the current crisis. This team should be comprised of the most resilient—those who are quick to take action, are the voice of calm and reason, and who survey the current landscape and adhere to the facts as they manage the crisis.

In a school district your defense team should include someone from HR (familiar or involved with current negotiations), an instructional administrator (like an Assistant Superintendent for Instruction/Curriculum), and a student welfare/social emotional health administrator.

Your Offensive Team

Your offensive team looks to the future and is not involved in the current crisis. Those best suited for this team are curious and self-starters—they veer away from comfort zones, are competitive and strategic, and can see at least six months down the road.  This could be your CBO, facilities director, health officer/administrator, and a principal rep for each level in your district (elementary, middle, high school).

You, as the communication leader, will work with both teams and manage the strategic direction and progress, and your superintendent will also be involved with working with both teams, as they set the direction for the district as a whole.

Both teams should be providing talking points to your Board of Education and coaching your board members on resisting the urge to post articles or opinions that may cause confusion about the district’s messaging or plans.

Keeping an Eye on Your Future

While your stakeholders are living in the present, they are also shaping their opinions about the future.  While yes, parents are focused on what grading options are available and how Class of 2020 graduates will be honored during  shelter in place, they are also creating some very strong opinions about distance education–not just the delivery, but also the quality.  Parents and staff members are also concerned about schedules and safety when schools re-open.

  • Communicate about your district’s commitment to providing a high quality educational experience and your district’s values: Parents have choices, and there are many online education programs that may be delivering distance education in a higher quality format and approach than what is being offered by their school district. With the prospect of distance education being some part of a hybrid educational approach in the 2020-21 school year, it is imperative that you are reinforcing parents’ confidence in your schools by letting them know how you are planning on ensuring that students are receiving a high quality education and what that will look like in 2020-21.
  • Communicate about what discussions are in progress about the upcoming school year: Silence is not golden in the world of communications.  Silence opens up too many opportunities for other people to fill in the blanks.  Provide your stakeholders some information about the conversations you’re currently having about next year’s re-opening plans, what assumptions will be made, and your district’s priority on the health and safety of students and staff.
  • Show empathy: Acknowledge that you understand that parents and staff desire to have concrete answers so that they can plan ahead, and show gratitude for their patience. Let them know that the upcoming school year will be different for everyone, and that the district is planning for providing more emotional/social supports for students and staff in navigating the changes ahead.

Every great team has a strong offense and defense running parallel, and in school districts, you can develop two strong communication teams that can effectively manage the current needs while also keeping an eye on the ball, so that you can have a winning approach to keeping your district’s reputation and relationships strong and intact.

Need help developing your winning team?

As an integrated partner and strategic advisor, Sounding Board Marketing & Communications can come alongside you in developing your communication team and providing strategic advising to implement successful communication approaches. Give us a call at 916.673.8868 or hvmcgowan@sounding-board.net

 

Before you Send That Email, Tweet, Record That Message…

Person plugging their earsCrises are incredible opportunities to use communication to strengthen relationships with stakeholders.  In the midst of COVID-19 and the drastic changes to the educational landscape, I’ve been watching my fellow California School Public Relations Association and National School Public Relations colleagues rise to the challenge to inform parents, staff and the public about school closures, free meals, distance learning, mental health tips and resources, community resources, and ways that their staff are going above and beyond the call of duty.  And, in some cases, superintendents and support staff are being thrown into implementing crisis and ongoing communications tactics in ways they never have before.

They’re also competing with an onslaught of communications from businesses and other organizations that are also communicating what they are doing to keep customers safe, business and product delivery options, and well-meaning free approaches to keep children, teens and adults entertained, in good health and more.

It’s enough to saturate any audience member.  This also creates the real and huge risk of audience members tuning and checking out, scanning information quickly, and missing the important details.

Now, more than ever, it’s imperative for communicators to lead their organizations in strategic communication planning and implementation.  This process is a cycle of the four step PR process: Research, Planning, Implementation, Evaluation.

More communication is not better.  More tactics won’t help you reach your audience members. Targeted, strategic, well-messaged communications and tactics are what will allow you to be effective in reaching your audiences, and continue to increase and retain audience trust, and ensure your audience members are doing what you want them to do.

Because I will assume that you have already implemented your communications tactics, we’re going to begin with Evaluation, which is the fourth step in the 4-Step PR process.  Typically, you’ll start with Research.

Step 1: Evaluation

I know it seems odd to start with the final step of the 4-Step PR process, but as I previously mentioned, this is a cycle. Most likely, you’ve already implemented the first three steps, but you probably haven’t had an opportunity to come up for air and evaluate. Evaluation is answering the questions “How have we been successful?” “How can we do better?” and “What do we need to adjust moving forward?”

Here are a couple of examples of what to evaluate: 

  • Environmental Scan: Evaluate where your organization is in this crisis.  Most likely, your schools have been closed for at least one week, and distance learning plans are in place, and possibly implemented. Ask yourself whether daily (or twice daily) communications are still necessary, or if you can reduce communications to 2-3 days per week.
  • Engagement, Click Throughs/Opens, Phone Message Logs: Review your social media engagement, email click throughs and open rates, and phone message logs.  What patterns do you see? Are you seeing a dip in email open rates and click throughs later in the week?  What questions are being asked on social media?  Are your videos being viewed? What kinds of comments are being made?  Take note of what seems to be engaging people the most, what questions need to be answered in FAQs, and other data that will help inform your future communications.  Also, anecdotal feedback from audience members can be incredibly valuable.

Step 2: Research

Research essentially defines the problem. From the evaluation process, what problems have you uncovered?

  • Who do you want to REACH? Are you reaching your audiences effectively, or are there holes?
  • What do you want them to DO? Are your audiences acting/reacting in the intended ways from your previous communications, or do you need to provide clarification and/or other communication avenues (i.e. Setting up separate Facebook or Twitter profiles for answering IT questions from parents, staff)
  • What messages do you want to communicate to each public that will encourage desired behavior, increase knowledge and change attitudes? Review your previous messages—are they working, do they need to be tweaked?

Step 3: Planning

The Universal Accreditation Board outlines a 10-step PR plan (which I also use with my clients) that will work for any situation.

  1. Goals: This is a state of being that you want to accomplish through your communications. Example: “For every audience ABC School District audience member to clearly understand what they should be doing during COVID-19 school closures and how the District will support and serve as a resource for families and employees.”
  2. Target Audiences or Publics:
    • Who needs to know or understand?
    • Whose advice or support do we need?
    • Who will be affected?
  3. Objectives for Those Audiences:
    • Objectives are shorter term.
    • Define what behavior, attitude or opinion you want to achieve from specific audiences, how much to achieve and when.
    • Think in terms of the awareness, attitude or action you desire – the end result.
  4. Strategies
    • The road map or approach to reach objectives.
    • Do not indicate specific actions.
    • Use verbs such as demonstrate, collaborate, etc.
  5. Tactics: These are the specific activities conducted to implement strategies of a program.
    • How you will use your resources to carry out your strategy and work toward your objectives.
    • Examples: Meetings, publications, news releases, websites, billboards.
  6. Activities: Specific activities required under your tactics to carry out strategies.
    • Informal plans often jump from objectives to activities.
    • Vehicles or channels you will use to communicate are listed here.
  7. Evaluation
    • How will you know if you are reaching your objectives?
    • Measurement? Observation? Opinion? Feedback?
  8. Materials: What do you need to implement/execute your tactics?
  9. Budget:ƒ Out-of-pocket costs, staff time, volunteer energy, transportation, images, materials, fabrication, etc.
  10. Timetable and Task List
    • What does what and when?
    • Work backward from deadline or forward from start date

STEP 4: Implementation

Implementation involves actual messages sent through the communication channels and tools you will be using, and includes monitoring tools for execution. And then, once you have implemented your plan, then you will come back to evaluation.

Remember, this is a process and a cycle. But it is effective, and it works.

If you haven’t implemented this approach previously, it will likely feel cumbersome to go through these steps, particularly if you are already feeling overwhelmed.  However, this will become like second nature once you’ve gone through the process.  You will likely uncover ways to be more efficient and effective in your work, as well.

Have questions? Need clarification?

I’m always happy to hop onto a call to help answer questions and guide you through the steps.  Feel free to contact me at 916.673.8868 or hvmcgowan@sounding-board.net. We’re in this together and we’ll get through this together.

 

 

 

A Special Note About Being Open for Business

Open for business signWhen I opened Sounding Board Marketing & Communications 10 years ago, I always intended for my business to provide mostly virtual services to my clients.  During this time of school closures, I’m still providing the same, strategic and creative services for my clients so that they can stay connected with their district’s families–employees and parents–through all of their communication platforms. As a parent of three and wife of a his teacher, I am on the receiving end of the messaging being sent by my children’s school district and I’m on the observing end watching my husband find ways to connect with his students.

Whether you need content development for messaging, a roadmap for communications for the next few weeks, or ideas for keeping schools and teachers connected with families, I’m here to help.  As always, my mission has always been to help educators strengthen their relationships with their stakeholders, and never before has this been more important.

Feel free to send me an email at hvmcgowan@sounding-board.net or give me a call at 916.673.8868 if you want to talk through your communications, or if you need a sounding board for ideas you’re already considering.  I’m here when you need me.

All the best,

Heather

5 articles to help you boost, fix, or improve online engagement

I love learning new things (or getting an affirmation that old things continue to work) to help fix and improve the ways I do my work.  These are some recent PR Daily articles that I found particularly useful for boosting, fixing or improving online engagement:

Keys to Inspiring Confidence During “The Critical Hour” Category: Crisis Communication

Little did I know, the second entry in this blog series, “Inspiring Confidence Through Communication” would come just three days after one of the nation’s worst school crises — the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut.

As we slowly learn more about this tragedy, much is focused on the gunman, school safety and the like. However, early in the crisis, the news coverage featured — in addition to the press conferences with the police department — interviews with parents. One thing I noticed about the interviews with the parents was their initial confusion about where they could find more information during the first hour following the crisis, including where to locate their children. As more information and misinformation came out during the early hours following this crisis — including the fact that a key communicator, the school principal, died in the incident — there are several explanations for this confusion.

In the aftermath of this crisis, decision-makers, community members and parents are asking whether more can be done to prevent this from ever happening again. In addition, parents are also inquiring how they will be contacted should a crisis of any magnitude occur at their school. Because they are entrusting the school with their child’s (or children’s) safety, they want to receive the information from the school, first — NOT the media, and not the police.

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