Friday, February 26, 2010

You Crisis Communication Plan Might Need a Spring Cleaning

A sad fact of life for public school communicators is that March Madness isn’t just about basketball anymore. It seems that pent up frustrations accumulating over a school year force some troubled students, employees and parents to act in strange and bizarre ways as we move into Spring. If you track the rash of campus shootings that plagued public schools across the country over the last ten years they all fell within the four-month storm window of February to May. The question remains, is your crisis communications plan up-to-date? If you haven’t given it a thorough review since last year maybe it’s time for a Spring Cleaning.

Here are few suggestions on things to look for when reviewing your written emergency response plans:

Do you have a written Emergency Response Plan?
I can’t tell you the number of districts I work with that still don’t have a detailed written emergency response plan for the school district. Site usually have site emergency plans, but districts don't. Even if you’re a small district you still need one, especially in case your lead crisis manager or superintendent is out of the district or incapacitated. Plans should be what I like to call “self executing.” That means people automatically know what they are supposed to do during the first thirty minutes of a crisis without direction from the district office or being told in a meeting. The writing process helps clarifying responsibilities, reactions, and obstacles that you might need to overcome.

Are your communication tools current and up-to-date?
Technology changes frequently in school districts. Equipment is replaced or transferred. Phone systems and numbers are amended. Your database of contacts is out-of-date almost from the day you enter it. When was the last time you did an inventory of Emergency Kits, or checked the phone batteries and chargers for example? Don’t assume things are where you left them! Will your staff still have the ready access to phone numbers, pagers and radio links that worked during your crisis drill last year?

Have personnel changed and do they all know their responsibilities in the case of an emergency?
Sadly, with school district layoffs, reassignments and retirements occuring over the past few years, your crisis team's "bench strength" may have been greatly diminished. Is the old chain of command in a crisis still intact? Are all of the boxes on your table of organization still occupied and valid? Maybe it’s time to run another crisis communication/response workshop. Crisis manuals and binders have probably been misplaced or are missing some contents.

Is your network of community responders current?
If you haven’t had to use your crisis plan lately, then there may have been changes of personnel and key contacts in law enforcement, health care, community services, and local government agencies. The last thing you need in a crisis is to be fumbling through the phone book trying to identify the right person you need to solve a problem.

Is it time to freshen up your news media contact list?
Just to be safe, maybe you need to connect with assignment editors and reporters to let them know again about your protocols for handling public communication and access during a crisis.

Are you able to quickly use new media and technology to get your message out within the first thirty minutes after a crisis hits?
Many districts are integrating Twitter, Facebook, web sites, auto-dialing phone systems, blast emails, YouTube, webcasts and blogs as regular communication tools. Have you thought through how you can use these to the maximum effect during a crisis or emergency situation? For example, have your IT folks created an Emergency Response web page that is dark for the time being but can be activated with the flip of a switch when you need it? This web site can have templates, key contact links, and other resources already embedded so they can be quickly edited and adjusted for your specific emergency situation.

The school communications professional has become a key player in school crisis response. At a time when school districts are weighing the relative value of laying off teachers or PIOs, we need to make sure we can demonstrate our value. A crisis is your opportunity to fail or succeed in a highly visible venue. The students, parents, employees and community will be looking to you for answers and abilities to cope with a tragedy, disaster or critical situation. Are you prepared? Can you exceed their expectations? Doing a little Spring Cleaning now can give you the edge you may need when the unthinkable occurs.

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