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Nowhere to Hide: Best Practices in Crisis Management

By Net Assets posted 08-15-2016 12:00 PM

  
Microphones for a press conference

Risk Management |

Amid mounting high-profile media scrutiny, independent schools embrace best practices in crisis management and communications. “When a school does the right thing, its community feels proud.”

Article by Leah Thayer

From the July/August 2016 Net Assets

In the instant it takes for a tweet to be posted or a reporter to get a lead, the trust an independent school has worked hard to earn can be compromised or breached. Winning that trust back can take infinitely longer, a painful reality playing out in real time at dozens of New England independent schools involved in a blistering Boston Globe report published in May. The story refers to more than 200 former students “emerging from decades of silence” to allege that school staffers sexually abused them — and that the schools, in many cases, ignored them or attempted to sweep their stories under the rug.

If there’s an immediate lesson in the Globe story, or anywhere in the increasingly loud drumbeat of media stories directly or indirectly incriminating independent schools, it’s a simple one: Any school could be next. Not necessarily only for incidents that happen on campus either — nor, for that matter, for criminal matters. In an ideal world, schools can manage times of crisis internally, without media attention. In today’s always-updating media reality, business officers and other school leaders must look beyond crisis prevention to crisis communications.

“Every school is going to grapple with this kind of issue,” says Melanie Sloan of Summer Strategies LLC, which helps schools and other organizations communicate with key stakeholders and the media about sensitive issues. “No crisis will remain internal, especially if it involves something like race or sex.” One impetus was the Penn State sex abuse scandal that broke in late 2011, implicitly giving victims permission to come forward where they previously may have felt shamed into silence. Coupled with the immediacy of social media, that momentum means word will get out one way or another — and likely sooner rather than later.

“Where a lot of schools make mistakes is when they don’t want to talk about something, they just want to hush it up,” Sloan says. “That leads to a lot of gossip and people getting the facts wrong.”

Jane Hulbert agrees about the consequences of inaction. “The biggest blunder is to think that an issue is going to just go away. That’s where schools get into trouble,” she says. She and her husband Jim lead The Jane Group, which provides crisis communications services to independent schools all over the world. “We’re in the age of transparency, and there is no place to hide,” says Jim Hulbert, who is also an attorney. When a crisis hits, “A couple of missteps at the outset, and it can take so much time and money to get that trust back. Once you lose control of the narrative, it’s really hard to get it back.”

Schools can also suffer financially. “Boards are realizing that there are financial as well as reputational risks that come with exposures,” notes Ron Wanglin, chairman of Bolton & Company, an insurance brokerage that helps independent schools with risk management. “Unfortunately, given the fact that social media is so quick to engage in situations, schools usually have less time to determine the facts and develop an effective response.”

Conversely, a well-handled crisis can help to shore up a school’s finances. “We have seen schools get through crises and actually see an increase in enrollment and donations because of how they handled it,” says Jane Hulbert.

The New Rules of Crisis Management

To Jim Hulbert’s point about controlling the narrative — easier said than done for most independent schools. For one thing, they must balance concerns involving privacy (particularly that of minors), employment law and more, according to attorney Heather Broadwater of Potomac Law Group. “In an ideal world, we receive a complaint and turn it over to law enforcement and it’s all cut and dried,” she says. “But if a school terminates an employee based only on allegations, you risk getting a breach-of-contract claim and then the student’s identity and details the student wishes to keep private may become public,” she notes, citing one potential unintended consequence of moving decisively. “While schools emphasize that there should be no shame for a student who was abused, we can’t ignore the likelihood of stigma and backlash, especially when allegations involve a popular, well-regarded teacher.”

Moreover, crisis messaging just isn’t where independent schools have excelled traditionally, nor where they have focused their resources. “Most schools are really good at communicating how great their programs are, how they’re different from other schools, why your kids should come here,” Sloan says. “But they’re not as comfortable responding appropriately and quickly if something bad happens.”

An analogous quick-action response involves weather-related emergencies, for which “our schools have prepared brilliantly for many years,” notes Jane Hulbert. They've made similar strides in protecting against violent attacks and intruders. “Now we’re adding child protection to the list.” Confronting allegations quickly and transparently may not always be easy, “but when a school does the right thing, its community feels proud. That’s one of the pleasures of working with independent schools,” she adds. “I have yet to meet a school that doesn’t want to get it right.”

Having a well-documented and rehearsed plan is certainly one means to that end, and help is available in the form of workshops, training, policy reviews and ongoing support from crisis communications firms, risk management companies and insurance brokerages. In addition, these rules of thumb may be useful.

  • Every external communication is a potential media communication. A forwarded email, a tagged tweet, a click on a “have a tip?” button — it’s never been easier for a school constituent to connect with a member of the media. Keep that in mind with all communications, including emails sent to parents or students.
  • Different constituents may need different communications. Messages should be consistent, timely and empathetic, but they will likely need tweaking for different audiences. For instance, the school may wish to specifically reach out to alumni to identify more victims. And students (depending on whether the issue is relevant or age-appropriate) should be reminded that not all facts are known and not to gossip or seek retaliation. In any case, be sure communications and legal professionals work together in developing messaging.
  • The first day is critical. The actions a school takes (or doesn’t take) can leave a lasting impression. When time is of the essence, a flowchart can help to manage what is shared with whom, when (trustees at 11 a.m. conference call, the immediate leadership team at 12, faculty and staff at 1, email to parents at 2, then students, as needed). Action should be swift — but also deliberate. Whatever the situation, better for constituents to learn of it from the school than the press.
  • Transparent does not mean tell-all. “There’s only so much you need to tell the press,” says Sloan. After a sexual assault allegation, one of her school clients issued a quick statement saying they would not be talking to the media, as it was a law enforcement matter. Jane Hulbert advises schools to “strategically limit their exposure to the media. It’s critical to understand when to issue a media statement, how much information to offer and what pitfalls to avoid.”
  • Practice makes for better responses. What kind of incident might trigger a crisis? Who will speak for the school to the press, to parents, to donors? What will and won’t they say? “Sometimes the best decisions are not made in a panic situation,” says Cheryl McDowell, vice president of risk management in the Education Practice Group at Bolton & Company. The firm advises as much preplanning as possible, including mock interviews and “tabletop” simulations that encourage role-playing and help schools identify and learn from mistakes.

Lessons Learned

Now, the story of a school that could not have anticipated its first real crisis — but was ready the second time.

On a Friday in December 2008, four-year-old Madelyn Ekhilevsky sang and danced in a penguin costume at a holiday assembly. The following Monday, the previously healthy girl never woke up, a tragic fact announced by the sudden presence of media trucks on the Los Gatos, California, campus of Stratford School, where Madelyn was in the preschool.

“I got a panicked call from an office administrator saying the media were interviewing parents and staff in the parking lot,” remembers Sherry Adams, founder and principal of the independent school, which then had eight campuses (it now has 21). Neither she nor other Stratford administrators had heard about Madelyn’s death, but the media had, apparently by live-tracking police and public safety scanners.

“They thought it was meningitis, based on how quickly things happened,” Adams recalls. (A non-infectious bacterium was later identified as the likely cause.) “Suddenly my office was full of parents pulling their kids out left and right. We were getting calls from the media and different messages from the health department. It was a day of mayhem.”

The night was no better. As the Stratford community mourned Madelyn’s loss, Adams realized she was all over the news. “Channels 2, 3, 4…they had taken clips of what I had said, and some of it made me sound like I didn’t care,” she says.

Prior to that day, Adams had been too busy running the school to ponder crisis communications. But that evening, “I gathered her team my team, and we had a good cry together,” she says. “Then we said, ‘Okay, we’re not going to let this happen again.’”

Working with outside experts including The Jane Group and Bolton & Company, Adams and other school leaders invested in a far-reaching and extensive crisis management plan. This included tightened policies, media training, emergency-notification systems and regular staff training on topics such as social media, child abuse prevention, safety and more.

If parents and others “feel the school has gotten in front of an issue and is addressing it well, they’re going to give the school the benefit of the doubt,” says Melanie Sloan of Summer Strategies.

Less than three years after the tragic events of 2008, Stratford leaders put those procedures to the test when the parents of a middle school student called Adams at home to report that their child had received unwelcome attention from a popular teacher. Armed with the “smoking gun” of messages the teacher had delivered via social media, and benefitting from a strong relationship with the family, the school was able to take quick action and prevent the case from going to the media.

Besides intense internal training and preparation, Adams cites the school’s supportive relationship with the family as a factor in the relatively positive outcome. “The parents were longtime members of the community, and they cared for the school,” she notes. “Relationship building, that’s crucial.”

Crisis communications experts agree with the relationship theory as well. “These people are invested in the school,” notes Melanie Sloan. “If they feel the school has gotten in front of an issue and is addressing it well, they’re going to give the school the benefit of the doubt.”

Leah Thayer is NBOA’s vice president, communications and the editor of Net Assets.


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