Three lessons learned responding to an unprecedented crisis
Kentucky School Advocate
By Josh Shoulta
KSBA Director of Communications
In times of crisis – in this case the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic – school districts learn things about themselves, good and bad. They quickly gain perspective of what they had previously taken for granted. They test the limits of their stated missions and values. They are challenged with new definitions of “other duties as assigned.” They are painted a clearer picture of how their leaders respond under pressure.
They also learn just how critical effective district communications can be when things go south. Here are three lessons learned:
Many voices. One message.
In recent weeks, communities have been over inundated with information on the coronavirus and mitigation efforts: Round-the-clock news coverage, social media content and chatter amidst families and friends. Unfortunately, some of that information has been – at worst – dangerously inaccurate and – at best – somewhat outdated. One of the major tenets of crisis communications is consistency of message. When district leaders, from board members to administrators, hold fast to a consistent message (or quite literally a script), they can more effectively cut through the noise of misinformation. That requires districts to prioritize the crafting and dissemination of that messaging to key stakeholders as an inseparable part of crisis response.
Put the record on repeat
In marketing strategy, “the rule of seven” refers to the number of times someone must hear/see/experience something before they are prepared to buy into it. While this philosophy is traditionally applied to the sales of goods and services, the lesson is not lost in crisis communications. If you want constituents to buy in and adhere to what you are saying – like the importance of social distancing, for instance – you must repeat your message. Again. And again. And again.
This can require coordination across your communications channels, whether that is your district social media accounts or the marquees in front of your schools. This can also be accomplished by relying heavily on your community’s influencers (highly visible and trusted people/organizations) to help spread the word. This could be a beloved teacher or coach, an active parent representative or elected student leaders. You will have expanded your potential reach by getting others involved as the situation permits.
Keep in mind that the goal isn’t for everyone in your district to receive the message, but for everyone in your district to receive the message often and in different ways.
Champion your champions
Fred Rogers, known to millions as “Mr. Rogers,” once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
Rogers creates a positive association between these “helpers” and the prospect of things getting better. By bringing attention to the service of those people we know and trust, we can begin to reestablish a sense of normalcy while celebrating the goodwill that often arises following a crisis or tragedy.
Your bus drivers and food service staff preparing and delivering meals. Your teachers thrusted into NTI programming. Your administrators managing personnel from afar. Your superintendent shouldering the weight of enormous decisions. While school operations have been turned upside down in recent weeks, there is no shortage of helpers worth recognizing.
KSBA has witnessed many districts wisely promoting those individuals who have been instrumental in maintaining a level of learning and safety in the wake of school closures, food and financial insecurity and disruption of everyday life. Acknowledging these heroes in action – on the district’s social media and website, in email communications and on school board meeting agendas – helps to calm fears of parents and children alike. Public relations may not always seem like a priority during a catastrophe, but it personalizes what the district is doing to support students.