School Tragedies Provide New Lessons For Crisis Communications

A speed limit sign near a school in Moore, OK, after a tornado struck the town on May 20, 2013. Photo by Mercy Health.

Jim Dunn and Tom DeLapp wrote an interesting and thought-provoking article on the National School Public Relations Association website in June. “Confronting the New Normal in Crisis Response,” analyzed challenges confronted by school districts handling the tornado in Moore, Okla., and the shootings in Newtown, Conn.

Leaders responsible for planning and executing crisis plans, especially those in organizations serving children, should be challenged by this article. Education might be the most challenging environment for communications and public relations professionals. No longer are test scores and tax increases the most troublesome topics. Safety, security and privacy issues are creating tremendous challenges for administrators and communicators. Smart phones can record and transmit video and images during a disaster or crisis. Content rapidly spreads through social media and often finds its way to national and international media outlets.

“Perhaps the most important new development is what school officials learned about the use of digital recordings from cell phones during the storm,” wrote Dunn and DeLapp.  “Teachers and staff now can use smart phones to video tape the approaching tornado, their classes huddled against the storm, and the physical damage after the tornado. They can become the real-time historians, TV crews and witnesses to catastrophe. Any large school event (good or bad) is now digitally recorded by multiple sources. In Moore, the images of children in the schools during the tornado, and afterward on school grounds, quickly became available to the media. The consequences and opportunities of ‘immediate available images’ will play out in schools for years to come.”

Dunn and DeLapp also comment on an area that most small businesses and nonprofits probably haven’t considered: When is the crisis so big that the organization must ask for help? An organization might have an outstanding crisis plan and well-crafted communications policies and protocols. However, the city of Boston and the state of Massachusetts—with almost infinite communication resources and expertise—appeared overwhelmed after the bombing at the Boston Marathon. Leaders must be courageous and attempt to gain clarity in challenging situations. Assisting victims and helping the organization must weigh more heavily in making decisions than leaders and organizations dealing with their appearance of weakness or vulnerability in the midst of a tragedy.

“Knowing when ‘you can no longer go it alone’ and how best to reach out for and manage outside help becomes a crucial component of the ‘new reality’ crisis plan,” according to Dunn and DeLapp.

Your organization’s leadership can better serve its stakeholders by taking time for reflection on how new technology and the speed of communication will affect the response to a crisis or determine a strategy. A thorough annual review of crisis plans and communications policies is helpful. The exercise may also help leaders and others throughout the organization solve or manage smaller challenges that arise on a daily or weekly basis.

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