A coherent communication management plan is foundational to a district’s ability to respond to a crisis. The most carefully developed protocols and procedures will not be effective if stakeholders—school administrators, personnel, students, parents and guardians, the public, first responders, and government officials—are not informed and updated throughout each phase of the emergency response cycle.
Communications are often overlooked during the planning and preparation phases, processes that tend to take a top-down approach, yet everyone who is expected to follow procedures must understand the procedures and be allowed to contribute their own views on the efficacy of proposed plans. When a crisis is imminent or unfolding, failed connections and miscommunications cause confusion and distrust, putting the school community’s safety at risk. Recovery communications—outreach and public relations—are critical for repairing any damage that the crisis may have caused, and they must provide the transparency needed to gain community confidence and trust. Recognizing this, school leaders should perform an annual review of the district’s communication management plan, keeping these points in mind.
Take advantage of mobile technology
The age of hyperconnectivity has changed how people communicate. More than 80% of Americans now use smartphones, and 40% exclusively use a mobile device to access the internet. Half the homes in the country no longer have a landline. These technology-driven behavior changes render older communication management plans obsolete. Each household member may have a unique phone number, and in an emergency, local governments may prefer that schools directly contact the appropriate official through their phone. Parents may prefer SMS messaging or social media posts that they can access with a mobile device. These new communication methods add a level of complexity to contact information databases, and system upgrades may be necessary to coordinate emergency communications.
Utilize social media
According to a 2019 Pew research survey, 70% of Americans now use social media. This is a significant increase from the 5% figure reported in 2005. YouTube and Facebook lead as the most-used platforms. The combination of mobile internet access and the interactive capabilities of social media (users can search for, comment on, share, and discuss information) has made social media the go-to place for news and information for many people. Districts that fail to develop a social media presence are not only missing an opportunity to expand communication capabilities, but they may also be completely failing to reach a large segment of the school community.
A solid communication management plan should include social media. These platforms are tools that can build relationships with students, parents, and the public. Districts that cultivate trust and openly share appropriate information across social media platforms will be better situated to counter misinformation, rumor, and panic. The NEA’s School Crisis Guide has useful guidelines for developing social media protocols.
Integrate information technology (IT)
District IT systems are often built in a piecemeal fashion as technology advances and funding becomes available. Legacy student information systems, attendance programs, administration, health office, and communication software often do not share information. Visitor management systems and attendance taken outside of school buildings (field trips, fire drills, etc.) may be simple pen-and-paper records. This mishmash of systems hinders communications.
Consider this scenario: A school bus returning students home at the end of the day is involved in an accident. What communications does this situation demand? Obviously, the top priority is communication from the bus to emergency dispatch. The district superintendent and building administrators, who may or may not be in their offices, need to be informed, and the district’s central offices must coordinate subsequent communications.
The communication coordinator must determine which students and volunteers are on the bus and contact their families. This requires pulling class lists, visitor logs, attendance records, and student contact information. Valuable time may be lost, and some vital messages may not get through. New technology offers a solution. Automated attendance and visitor management systems may be integrated with SIS and administration programs. These systems compile data in one place for quick access, ensuring seamless communication during a crisis.
Coordinate communications at the district level
In most cases, crises originate within an individual building, but the district plays a coordinating role in the communication management plan. The central office must coordinate communications in each school through the planning, preparation, response, and recovery phases of an emergency. This includes all internal communications and external ones with local officials, first responders, students’ families, and the public. To do this successfully, administrators need IT systems that allow access to all relevant data from a central administration hub.
Prepare backup systems
A power outage will bring down basic telephone systems, including in-building wireless phones, public address systems, and communications usually made via desktop computers. Mobile devices—cell phones, laptops, tablets, etc.—can fill the gap, but they depend on charged batteries. A strong communication management plan builds in redundancies by identifying multiple modes of communication and backup power sources.
Most people carry cell phones and take for granted the ability to make a call at any time. However, during an emergency, networks can be disrupted or overloaded. Plans must identify alternative ways to contact parents and guardians, local officials, and emergency services. These may include SMS messaging, email, social media posts, and alerts to local news media.
A communication plan audit should also include a review of school infrastructure. During a crisis, school servers may be damaged and critical data may be lost. Moving data to off-site storage will protect information and make it accessible from remote locations, strengthening communication capabilities.
School leaders must acknowledge that the ways that people communicate and the devices that they depend on for information have changed. Obsolete IT systems may cause communication failures. Upgraded technology that automates and integrates systems will streamline communications for solid communication management. Contact Scholarchip to learn how these systems can work for your district.
Here at ScholarChip, we’re dedicated to helping school leaders maximize the safety and well-being of students and the entire school community.
Want to develop an effective school crisis communication plan but not sure where to start? Feel free to chat with one of our school crisis communication specialists today!