Recent examples underline it’s important to have a robust crisis communications strategy in place. The Bodywork Company performing arts school in Cambridge was thrust into the news for the wrong reasons amid a story about the BBC’s .new flagship regional current affairs programme We Are England.
The Mail Online’s media editor Paul Revoir reported how the BBC provided positive coverage of student ‘wellbeing’ work at Caroline Flack’s former dance school. It overlooked a damning Ofsted report which included claims students had been ‘fat shamed’.
The change in narrative meant the school was plunged into an unexpected crisis. Theresa Kerr, principal of the Bodywork Company, addressed the Ofsted report directly with media outlets. She apologised and provided the solution – removal of two teachers – to ensure that the issue would be publicly resolved.
The crisis was managed through an excellent PR strategy. Too often PR crisis management can be viewed as a process that gets under way in when something goes wrong – which inevitably happens from time to time. Crises by their very nature unexpectedly escalate into an issue that needs to be managed by effective communications.
A crisis could be negative student feedback, the actions of an employee, an on-site incident, a cyber-attack, academic delivery issues. You never really know what shape a crisis can take and how it will present a risk to the reputation of your establishment.
Robust crisis management planning allows you to prepare for events that could threaten your school or college, its reputation, your stakeholders, or the public. It involves putting a plan in place and having a shared understanding about how to manage a PR crisis and lessen an emergency.
In this post, we explore the role of PR in crisis management and look at how to manage a PR crisis.
What does a crisis look like?
In a nutshell, a crisis is any emergency that can have a negative effect on your school or college, and it could centre upon the following:
- Academic performance
- Poor Ofsted reports
- Reputational damage
- Operational issues
- Safeguarding concerns
- Personal tragedies
What might begin as a minor issue, like a student going viral on social media after using creative powers to criticise staff on Twitter to a full-on shocker like a court case, it’s important to be ready for anything.
And that means having a clear plan which involves select individuals and a course of action that us clear to all to get things back on course.
How do you manage a PR crisis?
The PR crisis management process should start long before a problem rears its head and ends after the issue has been resolved. The full life cycle of crisis communications should move from pre-crisis management – where you raise awareness of potential problems and keep alert to the risks and threats – to post-crisis analysis so there is a process of continuous learning.
Create a crisis communications strategy
You should establish a process for dealing with any given problem when it arises. A crisis strategy should include a clear flow diagram that walks colleagues through each step.
There should be access to names and contact details of the key people to alert if a situation needs to be escalated with clear directions about what to do out of office hours. Next is an outline of how to respond. You may need to practice different scenarios and how you respond to each one.
This could include social media posts, press releases, emails and even public ads, depending on the situation. Include names and details of those who would need to sign off responses before they go public.
Monitor and listen
You should assemble a small team that is responsible for daily monitoring and listening. Google Alerts are worth setting up because they are a useful way to monitor mentions of your education provider in the wider media. Social listening keeps you up-to-date with what people are saying on platforms about your school or college. You will, for instance, be looking out for disparaging comments about individuals teachers or students.
There are free tools like Hootsuite which alert you to online mentions and then there are ones which measures sentiment such as Meltwater. You should make sure that the team is privy to the strategy, so they know who to contact and what to do in different scenarios. It’s also worth sharing your plans to colleagues so everyone knows who does the talking.
If you’ve put in the hard work, then you’ll be ready to swing into action in a confident manner when you are confronted by what to you identify as a crisis. Make sure you contact the right people as quickly as possible and then, as a team, identify the most appropriate response mechanism.
After halting any other planned communications which might aggravate the situation (don’t take any chances), maintain momentum to take the heat out of the situation by acting quickly but do take a step back to fully understand what’s being said publicly about your business. Carefully draft your response and get it agreed with key members of your team.
If your school or college is to blame for the ‘crisis’ situation, it is important to take responsibility. If you are doing to say ‘sorry’ then that apology must be sincere. It should recognise and address the people who have been affected. And remember, it’s good to talk – you should avoid saying ‘no comment’ at all costs.
It’s true that actions do speak louder than words. There’s no point apologising and then carrying on as if nothing has happened. It is vital that you demonstrate how you will address the issue. You may need to review processes or policies or practices. Whatever the course of action, communicate this with your audience so they know what you’re doing.
Tone of voice matters a lot. No matter what happens, people still want you to be human and being is about making mistakes but being a good human is about being open and honest.
An important part of PR in crisis management is to continue monitoring and keep learning.
Analyse what went well in your response to the crisis and what could have been done differently. Share the learnings with your team to make sure your system is better equipped next time something potentially damaging happens.
It’s also important to demonstrate what you’ve learned so don’t forget to communicate your findings through, for example, a blog post or open letter to students and staff and wider stakeholders. And if you’ve done something positive as a result of the crisis, tell people about it – including your fellow schools and colleges.
Could the same situation emerge again in future? What monitoring or listening do you need to put in place to prepare? Be aware that your social listening and other alerts may need to be tweaked and update them accordingly.
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail….That adage is certainly true when it comes to PR crisis management. You never know when you’re going to be in the cross hairs of the media when things go wrong. And there’ll be little you can do to control many external factors. But what you can do is take some of the strain out of a crisis by getting your communications in place and then you’ll be on your way to getting your reputation back on track.