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First Response

The Internet and social media may have changed the ways and speed at which we communicate in a crisis, but the core principles remain the same.

By Jennifer Lewington

An image of a student in a goalie mask superimposed over an illustrated background. Behind the student is a teacher waving, and other students in line formation.

After a recent violent assault involving students off school property, with a risk of in-school repercussions, officials with the Lambton Kent District School Board sent out a computerized phone message to inform parents of actions taken to ensure student safety.

The phone message home is one of several tools by Lambton Kent, which relies on a board-level strategic response plan and school-based emergency procedures to communicate in a crisis. The board is also one of the first in Ontario to provide an app for hand-held devices for parents and staff to receive press releases, school closure notices and other must-have information.

“Our first obligation is to student safety,” says the board’s director Jim Costello, OCT, a school and board administrator for the past 18 years. Having dealt with suicides, violent incidents, bomb threats and a variety of false alarms, he identifies a speedy response time, common sense, honesty and “utmost regard” for student safety as the core principles of managing a crisis.

Instant Communication

The emergence of social media such as Facebook, Twitter and text messaging has had a profound impact on crisis management.

“The speed with which you move and how you communicate is different,” Costello says.

That view is shared by school board communication veterans and crisis management experts alike.

Last September, following established procedure, a Peel District School Board high school was in lockdown over a report that two young men showed up in a school parking lot with a gun. As is his practice, Peel communications director Brian Woodland went into high gear to support those dealing directly with the emergency (senior board officials, the school principal and Peel Regional Police) and respond to worried parents, the media and false reports on Facebook and Twitter.

In the short time it took the police to conclude there was no gun, rather an L-shaped camera, “we had tweets out there saying the police had found a gun,” recalls Woodland.

Even with a false alarm, silence from school officials is not an option.

“Whether you tell your story or not, your story gets told,” says Woodland. “The question is do you want it told with facts or do you want it told by a couple of [students hanging out on the school grounds]?”

Ross Parry, former head of communications and public affairs for the Toronto District School Board, now spends half his time as a principal at Enterprise Canada on crisis communications management for clients in education, the public sector and industry.

“There has been a massive paradigm change in terms of crisis communications because of the Internet and social media,” he says. “Everyone is a journalist, everyone is a photojournalist, and journalism takes Twitter and Facebook and uses those things as part of its story — creating a new sense of urgency.”

What has not changed are the basic rules of crisis management: nurture strong relations with stakeholders before an emergency, develop a response plan and stick to it.

An illustrated image of various communication icons floating: a cellular connectivity icon, a phone icon and a laptop with a white cross in red circle.

Don’t expect to develop rapport with stakeholders — including parents, the media and community organizations — in the middle of a crisis, says Woodland, a 20-year veteran at Peel. Part of that rapport is built through honest communication.

During labour stoppages last year, Lambton Kent held weekly teleconferences with principals and system leaders “to keep our folks in the loop,” says Costello. The board also posted regular bulletins on its website. “The feedback from parents was that they found it helpful to hear from the board,” he says.

If a student brings a knife to school, says Woodland, “there will be a natural tendency in the organization to say ‘let’s not talk about the knife.’ [However,] we will say they brought a knife.”

Dealing with Media

When a crisis hits a school, the media will be among the first to contact the school principal for the full story.

Despite protest from some members of the media, Peel’s Woodland uses his communications department as a buffer between reporters and the school principal. In addition, board communication officials write the letter home to parents from the school and speak on behalf the principal. “Do we media train 250 principals about complicated legal issues?” asks Woodland. “[No, we don’t …] this is where the needs of the school and the media clash. We have decided that [being a buffer] is a central function.”

But Parry cautions that rising media expectations put pressure on boards to make a principal available for an interview, as happened in September when a Toronto District School Board principal spoke to reporters after the fatal stabbing of a 19-year-old student in the high school lobby. “[The media] want to talk to the real McCoy,” says Parry. “They want to know what the principal thinks and what his reaction is.”

Defusing a Crisis

Even with a playbook in hand, successful school leaders look to stay ahead of the curve in an unfolding crisis.

“There is communication and there is management, and they are invariably linked,” says Parry. “A shallow response to a crisis will never be solved by a great communication plan, and a poor communication plan will seriously affect a very bold response to the problem. They have to work in tandem.”

In the late 1990s, an on-court fight broke out among rival basketball teams from two North York, Ont. schools, exposing racial and other tensions. The then-North York Board of Education, where Parry was manager of communications, immediately shut down the season for the schools, added training for coaches and convened a meeting on high school sports violence to identify the underlying causes of the conflict. The combination of short- and long-term actions defused the crisis.

Above all, Parry says, boards should practise their crisis response plans, just like a fire drill, to ensure contact numbers are up-to-date and procedures are understood by staff.

“You shouldn’t fear a crisis,” he says. “If you have never [prepared for] it, then you will fear it and you won’t do that well when you face it.”