March 26, 2020

Education Leaders and COVID-19 Crisis Communications

By Bellwether

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“Crisis communications” may evoke images of Olivia Pope in a power suit, but they are an essential skill for any school, nonprofit, or education agency. A natural disaster, a flub at a public hearing, or an altercation in your school cafeteria can all be a “crisis” situation even during ordinary times. And, of course, there can be a pandemic.
Education leaders nationwide are being asked to adapt to a fast-evolving public health crisis while serving students and families. Add deep economic uncertainty and, as a leader, you’ve got a complicated communications challenge. 
graphic of a broken heart on a smart phone screen
On Tuesday my colleagues discussed the importance of being strategic even in times of crisis. Today we’ll dig into three best practices for communicating those priorities:
Know your audience
You probably, in fact, have several audiences you have to reach. If you’re a school leader, you may have teachers, families of students, the district or your authorizer, and potentially the general public, all of whom need up-to-date information. A nonprofit leader has employees, the communities served, donors, and perhaps clients or other stakeholders.
Start by listing what information each of your audiences needs to know. Think through what barriers they may be facing — these may be technical (such as intermittent access to the internet), functional (you may not share a language), or relational (you may have to deliver some bad news). 
With those in mind, craft a message, select a medium, and choose a messenger. For instance, as a school leader, you may decide to have teachers make phone calls when sharing updates on closures

If you can’t be proactive, be responsive — not reactive
Ideally, you are in a position where you can be proactive, get ahead of people’s worries and questions, and frame your message concisely and cogently. Today, however, many leaders are communicating in the face of uncertainty and may not know when schools will reopen or how families will be impacted by coronavirus.
“Responsive” communications is attuned to an evolving situation, while “reactive” communication takes more of a “wait and see” approach. The former helps you get out ahead of misinformation, and, delivered well, can quell anxiety. Update your key stakeholders directly and clearly, and be transparent and consistent in your outreach. Key audiences should hear vital updates from you, officially, instead of through other outlets, such as the media, friends, or coworkers. 
Particularly as circumstances change, it is better to communicate cautiously than to wait for the “perfect” answer. This can be as simple as saying: “We are monitoring the situation and plan to have an updated plan in two weeks.” This is preferable to being silent or waiting.
Be honest and empathetic
In ongoing situations, make sure you clarify if any of your messages contradict previous statements, such as if you have to extend closure dates or deadlines. You want to avoid confusion or added stress.
Be empathetic and attuned to the needs of your audiences, many of whom are disproportionately impacted by the situation. Think about what they may be facing and how your words may be received. 
For more blog resources on COVID-19, click here, or see a list of external resources on our website.

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