COMMUNICATIONS CONSIDERATIONS FOR SCHOOL DISTRICTS IN A TIME OF HEIGHTENED CONCERN AND AWARENESS
This is a tough time to be an educator or a school administrator. Tensions about violence in schools across the country are at an all-time high. Threats against districts come in every day. Student and staff emotions are fluctuating wildly, and mental health is fragile. Our 24/7 world of digital communication means information – and misinformation – travels at super speeds. Everyone wants answers fast, as well as an assurance of safety. Parents and families want to feel informed. Students want to be heard and respected. Faculty and staff want to feel secure while doing their jobs.
School leaders face a myriad of difficult questions each day, and the communications challenges are immense. In many ways, this is new ground being broken, and the practices, policies and communications that take place today will shape the future of the education world.
While there is enough advice to fill a small book right now, as school districts engage with stakeholders and assure they can effectively reach their most important constituencies, here are 10 communications principles worthy of consideration.
- Over-communicate, but within reason – This is a time to assure a steady stream of communications with families, staff and students. Keep all audiences looking at the district for accurate information. Remind them that the district is the most reliable, and most trustworthy, source.
- Manage expectations of families, students and other stakeholders – If policies are being set that affect students or staff, when security permits, share those. Let them know what steps are being taken, and what they can expect from the district at times of heightened school safety awareness. A good way to manage expectations is to set clear boundaries of what will be communicated as well as the anticipated timing and process for communicating.
- Communicate ahead whenever possible – As part of managing expectations, do your best to communicate in front of the actions taking place. For example, if a walkout or protest date looms, let families and students know how the district will respond. Recognize that on occasion, the need to keep security plans confidential for the safety of students may take priority over communications, but if that is the case, say so.
- Demonstrate transparency – Because social media and technology allows communications to move at lightening speed, the obligation on schools is to move equally swiftly, particularly on safety concerns. Otherwise, the message from others, which is often inaccurate, may get ahead, leaving the district playing catchup. And never assume something won’t “get out” – it almost always does – so it is best to establish communications from a position of transparency and proactiveness.
- Keep partners like elected leaders, law enforcement and your school board engaged – Consistency in message, both what is said and when it is said, is essential. Assure that everyone fully understands each other’s protocols and that there is alignment, particularly on student safety information-sharing. Identify and correct any areas of potential conflict – before they occur.
- Evaluate every concern brought to your attention – In this day and age, unfortunately, all concerns raised must be evaluated, no matter how absurd they may seem. Stakeholders expect districts to take every concern seriously, to have law enforcement and other experts at the ready, and to communicate the outcome of any investigation.
- Don’t assume that information sent to parents makes its way to students – One mistake districts may make is to effectively communicate with parents and families, and then assume that this communication is shared with students. That’s often not the case. Students, especially those in middle- and high school, are active communicators themselves, and if they are sharing misinformation, this can create extraordinary challenges for districts. Consider what messages and communications tools need to be deployed to assure accurate – and appropriate – information is shared with the district’s students.
- Remember emotional arguments cannot be responded to with logic – These are deeply emotional and troubling issues for schools and families. While it is instinct to want to share the logic – all the policies, plans, security measures – we must lead with emotional understanding. Logic and data have a place, but only after districts have established a base of shared values. Put a simpler way, they won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
- Listen for the issue and not for the rhetoric – When responding to concerns, it is easy to get caught up in the accusation and the inflammatory words being shared. A better strategy is for districts to respond to the issue – and that requires steady, focused listening. For example, a student posts, “I saw several people enter our building today from a door that is supposed to remain locked.” The accusation is that “security is lax,” but the issue is “I’m concerned about my safety.” Respond to the concern first: “I understand you are concerned about your safety, as we are, too. I can assure you that safety is our priority, and we have taken steps to _____.”
- Remember to say you care – Again, in the haste of communicating, districts sometimes may not pause to remind stakeholders that they truly care about the safety, health and well-being of students and staff. We assume they know that, and so we forget to include it in communications. This creates a vacuum in which critics can suggest the district is just covering itself and is uncaring. Caring should be a constant, and setting the tone a base of common ground – or shared values – with stakeholders and leads to more effective communication overall.
Hinda Mitchell is the president of Inspire PR Group, an integrated communications firm headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. She is a recognized advisor to national corporations and organizations in crisis preparedness and management.
She can be reached at 614.537.8926 or via email firstname.lastname@example.org.