Coping with crisis.
In a small town in the Northeast, a pair of vocational students are charged with brutally murdering two men, apparently just for the thrill of it.
A backhoe inadvertently bursts a pipeline in Oklahoma, loosing a hazardous vapor cloud that's headed directly toward a nearby vocational school.
At a community college in Colorado, a gun that was supposed to be loaded with blanks discharges a live round during cleaning practice. A police academy student takes a bullet to the head and dies instantly.
On a basketball court in Philadelphia, a vocational student who's just been assessed two technical fouls expresses his displeasure by slugging the referee, who promptly files assault charges.
Four real-life scenarios, one bottom line for the schools involved: Each is a full-fledged crisis - a volatile situation that must be handled skillfully, swiftly, with sensitivity to internal and external publics, and with keen appreciation of the needs, rights and power of the media. Call it what you will - crisis management, crisis communication or damage control - but how a school responds to a crisis can have a profound effect, for good or ill, on how the institution is perceived within the community and even beyond.
"Inappropriately handling a crisis can destroy every bit of credibility you've spent years building," warns Susan Hardy Brooks, director of marketing at Francis Tuttle Vocational-Technical Center in Oklahoma City and president of the National Association of Vocational-Technical Education Communicators. "If you're not prepared, if you don't handle the media well, if you don't communicate effectively in the community and internally, then you've struck out in the court of public opinion."
Get with the plan
Crises come in as many varieties as there are ways for things to go wrong. Homicides, suicides, accidental deaths and injuries, tornados and other natural calamities, fires, hazardous materials spills, allegations of sexual or financial improprieties against school personnel, poison-pen bombshells in the "Letters to the Editor," school-to-careers critics venting on the 6 o'clock news. Crisis happens.
What, then, are the keys to managing these all-but-inevitable events - of minimizing their negative impact at worst and enhancing the school's reputation at best? Techniques questioned several school authorities in the field of crisis management and has culled from their responses these steps to successful damage control:
DEVELOP A CRISIS PLAN. This is a detailed account of who does what, in what order, when crisis hits. Such plans tap a core "crisis team" to coordinate key steps and typically designate a single spokesperson - usually the superintendent or marketing director - so that the school's message, as filtered through the news media, is clear and unfragmented.
At Tulsa Technology Center in Oklahoma, for example, each classroom is supplied with a flip chart that lists crisis procedures for a variety of scenarios; school personnel get copies to take home. "A lot of these [crises] happen after hours," notes Marketing Communications Director Jan Keim, "and you've got to have some kind of communication tree established so your employees know what to do and what's going on."
PRACTICE THE PLAN. It's not enough for schools to draft a crisis plan, gain board approval and sit and wait for a crisis to happen, crisis-management authorities say.
"So often a plan of this sort gets drafted and placed on a shelf, and that's the last it's seen. Then, when the crisis hits, nobody even remembers they got it," let alone what it says, notes Chuck Brodhead, a consultant whose Ithaca, New York-based company, The Communications Support Group, develops marketing plans for schools and nonprofit organizations.
It can be particularly instructive for schools to test emergency procedures with mock crises, the experts agree. Tulsa Tech, for instance, staged an armed-intruder scenario - complete with fake reporters and a school lockdown. "It was a very good learning experience for us because we really identified some holes," Keim recalls. "We have a child-care center at that campus, and we determined that you couldn't really hear the [emergency] announcement back in that area."
KEEP STAFF AND STUDENTS INFORMED. This not only helps defuse anxiety and tension during a crisis, authorities say, but lessens the potential for an outbreak of misinformation.
"One of the first things you need to do, even if the media's at your door, is to be upfront and quick with your students and staff and make sure they have the right information," says Rich Bagin, executive director of the Rockville, Maryland-based National School Public Relations Association. "Because [students and staff] will be asked [questions about the crisis situation] by the time they get home - by lots of other people, including the media, who may be across the street waiting to talk to folks."
KEEP OPINION LEADERS IN THE LOOP.
Schools might even go so far as to keep a list of key community people handy and fax information directly to them when a crisis breaks. "That way you're sure they have the school's side of the story," Bagin notes.
One vocational school in Ponca City, Oklahoma, takes an even more aggressive stance. In an effort to quiet school-to-careers critics who sometimes grab headlines and issue harsh TV sound bites, Pioneer Technology Center's public information officer and school-to-work coordinator have undertaken a variety of efforts to win over the undecided and engage detractors in a nonconfrontational way. In addition to promoting school-to-careers one-on-one, in the media and before civic groups, the pair personally invite critics to attend school-to-careers meetings and share information with them. One parent who was a naysayer is now a member of Pioneer Tech's school-to-careers partnership, Project Partners.
"We've had a lot of success [winning people over]," reports the school's regional school-to-work coordinator, Linda Thompson. "It just takes time."
REMEMBER THE VICTIMS. Schools must never sacrifice compassion and caring in the rush to secure the premises, inform the appropriate emergency agencies and alert the media, crisis-management experts emphasize. Throughout any crisis response, concern for victims must be paramount.
"How do you tell a parent, for instance, that his or her child has been critically injured?" Brodhead asks. "Do you do it on the telephone? Do you go to the house? It should be thought through. How you handle those situations is a key indicator of how 'human' an organization you are. Which can be critical to the image people have of you."
"The Valdez oil spill is always used in our crisis-training sessions," Keim says. In that case, she points out, Exxon's perceived "non-concern for victims, non-concern for the environment, non-concern for anything" created a second disaster - a public-relations nightmare for the oil giant.
KNOW HOW TO DEAL WITH THE MEDIA. "In today's world the media is at your door before you even have a chance to breathe," Bagin observes. But asphyxiation isn't inevitable. Schools that heed the steps outlined in the following section of this article can substitute aspiration for perspiration, and in some cases even earn new respect.
Meeting the press
"I think a lot of times [schools] try to use the media as a recognition arm for our staff, employees and students, when in fact that isn't the media's role," Brooks observes.
Patsy Krechel, director of public information for the Colorado Community College and Occupational Education System, is less diplomatic.
"So many people think the media owes them," she says. "Well, that's not how it works and that's not how [the media] perceive it, so sometimes I just want to tell people to get over it."
How it works, crisis-management authorities stress, is that crisis is news and it's the media's job to report news. If schools want the facts to be accurate and their message to reach the public, it behooves them to cooperate with the media. And if schools follow some basic ground rules, the experts say, they can retain considerable control over the situation and even strengthen their standing with the press.
NEVER SAY "NO COMMENT." "Eighty percent of the general public says that when an official or a corporation or an organization like a school says 'No comment,' that means something's wrong and they're guilty," Bagin says. Always say something to the media, the experts advise, even if it's just that you don't have any information yet but will tell reporters when you do.
SPEAK CLEARLY. Don't bog reporters down in educational jargon. Instead of saying, "Our campus director and ESL instructor are investigating that," say "Our principal and our instructor of English as a second language are investigating that."
NEVER ANSWER HYPOTHETICAL QUESTIONS OR SPECULATE. A school spokesperson might politely respond to such queries by saying, "I really can't speculate. Let's stick to what we know."
GET TO THE POINT. Give a succinct answer and then stop talking. As Tulsa Tech's communication plan states, "Dead air isn't your problem." Knowing when to shut up is good protection against foot-in-mouth disease.
DON'T EVER DENY THAT SOMETHING HAPPENED. The media have police scanners and plenty of other ways to get information. Schools that smugly think "they'll never know" are invariably wrong, and their credibility with the media is shot when they're found out.
BE OPEN AND HONEST. Schools must be truthful with reporters. But "you don't have to offer them everything you know," Krechel adds. Schools can justifiably decline to release facts for legal or privacy reasons, for example.
BE QUICK. Reporters are on deadline and appreciate swift response. Krechel tells the story of a grateful reporter who later took the time to research and write a "wonderful" article on a community college's occupational program.
BE COURTEOUS. The school spokesperson should try to remain calm and pleasant, even if the reporter is hostile.
PRACTICE. Just as schools should conduct institution-wide drills to test their crisis-response procedures, all potential spokespeople for the school should be trained in dealing with the media. At Tulsa Tech, for example, upper management are interviewed on camera by staff posing as reporters.
The four scenarios that opened this article illustrate all the points stressed by crisis-management authorities: the need for planning and the rewards and dangers of various types of response.
Tulsa Tech had no crisis plan when the vapor cloud of anhydrous ammonia threatened the school three years ago. School safety coordinator David Laurence acted quickly and wisely, contacting fire and health officials and keeping staff and students indoors. But it was luck - a simple shift in the wind - that saved ill-prepared school officials from a possible media circus should a full-blown health crisis have ensued.
"That was the impetus for our crisis-response plan," Laurence says. "Now we know who to communicate with - in the administration, the press, all those people." When the school was later confronted with a hazardous-chemical crisis caused by illegally dumped cyanide, the necessary safety and communication procedures were in place, the school was perceived as being in charge and the incident quickly faded from public consciousness.
In Philadelphia - where national media, including the cable sports network ESPN, seized on the punching incident as further evidence of the incivility of today's athletes - the vocational school where the basketball player attended classes deferred media inquiries to the Philadelphia Public Schools' information office.
"Our schools are encouraged to respond individually, but in this case people knew from the get-go that this was a serious incident that was going to get a lot of publicity," recalls Barbara Farley, the school system's director of public information.
In interviews with the media, school officials steered clear of any discussion of the criminal charges, but noted that the student was subject to disciplinary action at his school for striking a de facto school official (in this case the referee). The school system shared little else with reporters initially, citing the student's right to privacy during the disciplinary process. Soon afterward, however, the school system announced that the student had been transferred to a special school for youth with discipline problems and that he would never again be allowed to play basketball in the Philadelphia Public Schools. The vocational school came across as acting quickly and responsibly.
When the police academy student was accidentally shot and killed at Aurora Community College in Colorado, "Our first response [to the media] was to get out immediately the school's sympathy to the family, our extreme shock at what had happened and our willingness to look into what had happened ourselves, apart from the police investigation," says Communications Director Chris Henning. The message broadcast to the community was exactly what the school hoped to convey - "that we were very concerned and that we wanted to get to the bottom of it."
In the case of the murders in the Northeast, however, a school with a positive story to tell chose not to tell it, with detrimental results.
School officials, certain that a biased media would simply turn the tragedy into an indictment of vocational education, shunned reporters. "We weren't about to hold a press conference," the school's defiant principal told Techniques.
But that meant the general public never learned that the school provided counseling to every last student who needed it. The school's cold shoulder also left a bad taste with reporters frantically working against deadline - some of whom told Techniques they'd been warmly received when covering "positive" stories like the school's development of a Web site.
Reporters at two different newspapers said the school's treatment of them might well color their future interest in pursuing such positive stories.
"If they're not going to help us in the bad times, why should we help them during good times?" one scribe asked.
Brodhead fully understands where school officials are coming from in their distaste for crisis communication - particularly in a case as appalling as the senseless murders in the Northeast.
"They're not comfortable situations for any school," he concedes. "But when crisis strikes, it's a reality, it's upon you."
The bottom line in all crisis response, Brodhead sums up, is this: "When you've got bad news, get it out, get it all out, get it out now and get it over with."
A variety of resources are available to help schools manage crises, deal effectively with the media and convey positive messages.
One such aid is The Complete Crisis Communication Management Guide for Schools, which dissects a variety of crisis scenarios and includes a step-by-step outline of what to do in the first 30 minutes of a crisis; do's and don'ts in dealing with the media; checklist for principals, teachers and custodians on handling hazards and emergency supplies; and materials on organizing crisis-planning workshops for school staff. Available in both paper and computer disk forms, this manual by the National School Public Relations Association can be customized to individual schools' use. "It's an excellent resource for somebody who's starting from scratch," says Susan Hardy Brooks, president of the National Association of Vocational-Technical Education Communicators.
The Complete Crisis Communication Management Guide for Schools and the following pertinent titles are available through American Vocational Association product sales: Making the Case for School-to-Careers Education, Mediatalk: Maximize Your Performance with the Media, Practical PR for Principals and Effective Public Relations: Everybody's Job. Call (800) 826-9972 for price and ordering information.
In addition to products, NSPRA offers workshops on crisis-related subjects, a fax news service and other resources. For more information, call (301) 519-0496.
Schools also can tap marketing and communications consultants for help in crisis planning. Many such firms work with educational institutions and have experience designing crisis plans tailored specifically to schools' needs. Beyond following up on word-of-mouth referrals and checking the local phone book, schools can contact the Public Relations Society of America at (212) 995-2230 or <http://www.prsa.org> for guidance.
Crisis-management experts further stress that there's nothing wrong with plagiarizing from plans that work. Other school districts, local fire departments, hospitals, and industry partners "would probably be happy" to share their crisis plans with any school that asked, Brooks notes.
"Key elements of good crisis plans are applicable across the board and can provide good insurance for you," she advises.
RELATED ARTICLE: The Truth Rules, Carville Says
"I happen to believe the old saw [that] three things are acceptable" in crisis response, says political strategist James Carville. "The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."
To Carville, architect of Bill Clinton's successful presidential campaign in 1992, honesty is key to successful crisis communication in any field - be it politics, business or education. Echoing many of the points enumerated by crisis managers in vocational education, he advises schools to view the news media not as an implacable adversary but as a potential ally in communicating facts and the school's message.
Carville's interest in education isn't merely academic. He formerly taught science at a Louisiana middle school, his mother was a teacher and two of his sisters still are. Nor is he a stranger to the American Vocational Association. He and his wife, political consultant Mary Matalin, will keynote AVA's National Policy Seminar next March.
"The first thing I'd say," Carville offers, "is that the first impression is very often the last impression. The initial thing you get out [to the media] is critical. It's hard to downplay the importance of the initial skirmish, if you will." If possible, he says, the school spokesperson should be well-rested when he or she meets the press.
"Suppose you have a teacher who's accused of having sexual relations with children - sort of the hypothet du jour," Carville says - referring to several such incidents in the Washington, DC, area in recent months. "You need to go into [the press conference] with a clear mind. You can have trouble when you're tired. There are very few times when you can't go get four or five hours of sleep in the middle of anything."
He concedes, however, that some crises beg immediate response. When there's no time for school officials to catch a few Zs or even take a deep breath, the best things to do, Carville says, are to engage the media quickly and try to be as accurate and open as possible.
"You've got to say what happened and give people the best information you can," he advises. Meeting inquiries with a terse "No comment" "catches up with you," he warns, and denying that anything happened is not only dishonest but pointless. "The bigger the crisis, the more likely the truth comes out [anyway]," Carville notes.
Preparation can ease anxieties and strengthen schools' ability to handle fast-breaking crises, he says. Mock media interviews are "helpful," crisis plans outline "a protocol for decision making," and schools can learn much by sharing stories and strategies, Carville advises.
Finally, he says, schools must always stress their concern for anyone endangered and/or victimized in the crisis.
"When you're dealing with large public institutions, there's sort of a presumption of detachment - the cold-hearted bureaucrat thing," Carville notes. "You want to [convey] that you're not [that way] - that you're responsible for these children, that there's genuine concern and even sometimes an angst over what happened."
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|Title Annotation:||includes related article on handling crisis communication; school emergency management|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1997|
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