It’s a better crisis when your communications are calm, not chaotic

There are few trusted institutions that are more vulnerable to crises than schools. Children’s education, safety and wellbeing are sensitive areas and, with the rise of social media, the risk of damage to organisational and individual reputations is high.

Schools are now also subject to more competition than ever before – not only in the private sector, but also through the ranking of schools via the Naplan process. Reputation matters every day for schools, so it is well worth investing in time, resources and expertise to protect it.

Clarity’s managing director recently discussed with all Perth’s major private schools the type of issues that can now lead to a crisis and how to handle them. These are some of the issues that come across the desk of modern educators:

  • Bullying – real and virtual leading to mental illness and self-harm
  • Death or injury on and off the school premises, excursions and camps
  • Security threats
  • Drugs and alcohol abuse
  • Fraud and other criminal behaviour
  • Sexual assault and predatory behaviour.

You only have to remember the recent media story about Perth Modern’s supposed ‘fight club’ to get the picture. That is our city’s leading selective academic school gaining a different type of reputation overnight.

If these risks aren’t showing in your School Board’s risk matrix, then it needs to be remedied. School executives (the principal, operations manager, bursar, human resources, communications specialist and chaplain etc) need to be well prepared to take on an issue like those listed above. Bigger schools have an advantage over small schools simply by having more administrative positions who can assist.

Preparation might come in the form of a well-documented crisis plan, simulating incidents to check your procedures, and engaging external specialists to understand your systems and assist with a range of training to improve competency.

It’s important to clearly define job roles in your Critical Incident Team. You’ll need these executives to step away from their day jobs and take on these roles until the crisis has been resolved. You may need to allocate additional internal or external resources to take on their day jobs in the meantime and this may impact teaching.

You need to know that your Critical Incident Team can work effectively under pressure. The team needs to know who has final decision making in specific areas. They need to know their individual duties and responsibilities, particularly when it comes to liaising with external parties, especially parents, and understand appropriate record-keeping for future investigations.

So what happens when a crisis hits? Depending on the crisis, the team needs to assemble in a dedicated facility that can be set up quickly. A situation brief should detail the known facts and establish possible impacts on the school, its students and parents, and its stakeholders. Put people first in decision-making about your response, rather than infrastructure and equipment. Delegate tasks efficiently as previous testing of your process should ensure that everyone knows and understands the job they have to do.

In terms of communications, ensure you develop strong key messages that can be applied appropriately. Stakeholder-mapping in advance will ensure that communications are consistent, timely and professional.

You should already have the systems in place to reach parents quickly via systems like SMS, social media or email. Your Spokesman must be kept free to talk to both media and key stakeholders as required.

Don’t forget to have regular team debriefs to ensure that all team members are across all the updates and the strategy can be re-set as necessary.

The best way to deal with a crisis is to be well prepared. Seek advice and use specialists to hone your skills before you need to use them.

Clarity partners with many of Perth’s largest corporates to support them during issues and crisis management. We develop crisis communications plans, review processes, do media training and assist with crisis simulation testing.


Anthony Hasluck

Anthony is the majority owner of Western Australia’s largest independent public relations agency, Clarity Communications. In addition to his managerial and consulting activities connected with Clarity, Anthony is a Director the Racing and Gaming Authority.