Occasionally, you may find that you or your school attract the attention of the media that you’d prefer to avoid.
When this happens, the first steps you take will almost always determine whether things turn out for the best or deteriorate, so it is important to react quickly and calmly and make a plan, just as you would when faced with other challenging circumstances that are common in schools.
Ultimately, you can only do your best, and this document aims to give you confidence when dealing with difficult situations. Remember, even though you may not be an expert at crisis communications, you can still get through it with some common sense and by following a few basic steps.
Ask for help. NAHT has a press team. It is available 24/7 to help you out (call 07970 907730). Alternatively, contact your employer’s press office.
Stop. You are under no obligation to give an instant quote to the media just because they ask you for one.
Instead, the first thing you should do is ask the journalist to email you with their request. This will establish if their request is legitimate, and it will give you a small amount of time to think.
It is worth making this approach part of your school’s communication policy – if you have one. It is certainly worth making sure that all staff understand that any media requests that come their way on the phone, or by other means, should be submitted to the head teacher, or an agreed member of the leadership team, via email.
While you are waiting for the email to come through, you can use the time to think. Once the email arrives, you can decide if it is a legitimate request.
Almost always, the initial call will come to you through your reception team. This may be the first time you become aware of the issue. With that in mind, you should make sure that your reception team understand that they don’t need to say anything immediately.
If you are already in the process of communicating effectively with governors, trustees, your local authority or MAT, parents, pupils and staff, then communicating through the media may not be necessary or constructive.
Think. The first thing to do is to gather a couple of trusted colleagues and think through the situation you are in. But think like a human, not like a robot. You might be speaking on behalf of an institution, but the situation you’re facing is always going to be about people.
A common mistake is to think about how you protect the reputation of your institution or your reputation. However, the best way of maintaining your reputation in the long term is by doing the right thing in the immediate term.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Is anyone in danger because of something you or your team have done or not done?
- Have you or the school done anything wrong?
- Have you got anything to apologise for?
- Would an immediate apology be best?
- Should you take any legal advice?
- Does the situation require or arise from a pupil exclusion or a staff suspension?
- Who should speak on behalf of the school? (It doesn’t have to be the head teacher; it could just as easily be the chair of governors, the CEO of your MAT or someone from the local authority)
- Is it really a matter that the school should be commenting on anyway?
- Do you need to communicate with staff, parents or others first?
- What information can you share and what needs to remain private?
- What’s the worst thing that could happen? Better to prepare for that now, rather than react to it later
- Does what you do now have an impact on anything else in a day, a week or a month’s time?
The answers to these questions will determine what you choose to do next.
Plan. Once you’ve thought about it, plan what you want to do and put this in a document that is easy to refer to and share it with everyone who will need it. Put in as much detail as you feel you need. A timeline is useful. Include any agreed statements that you might make in public.
Stick to the plan. In a crisis, there is little room for improvisation. Mistakes happen when people are uncertain. You’ve taken the time to think it through, so put the plan into action as you have designed it.
It is a good idea to schedule some moments for your trusted colleagues to come back together and review the situation to check that your plan is still sound.
Depending on the nature of the scenario, that might be later in the day, or later in the week.
Be confident. You can resolve most situations if you act quickly. A delay and uncertainty almost always make matters worse. A plan gives you the confidence to move forward. You should act confidently. People may be looking to you for leadership and reassurance. How you behave is almost as important as what you say.
Communicate. Most situations deteriorate when there is uncertainty or inconsistency around.
Make sure you are in touch with all the people who need to know what’s going on. Think about the order you need to talk to people in and whether everyone needs every bit of information you have. That’s not the same as telling different people different things – avoid doing that.
You and your team should agree on what needs to be said and share this information appropriately with the following people:
- NAHT’s press office
- Your governors, local authority or trust
- Your team
- Parents and carers
- The media, but only if that will help you.
Have clear boundaries about who can share information and who cannot. It is best if the agreed group of spokespeople is as small as possible. Give the agreed statement to everyone who can speak on behalf of the school. Instruct everyone else to refer to you before going further.
Don’t blame. Almost certainly, a mistake will have been made somewhere. But it could have been an honest one, and the person involved will probably already be in quite a state about it. You may also need that person to enact part of your crisis plan, so providing support may be necessary while you still need them to function. Aside from any action you may need to take immediately on safeguarding grounds, now is the time to focus on enacting the plan you have made. In all but the most serious cases, any sanctions can wait.
Don’t dodge. If you are in a crisis communications situation, however mild, it is almost certainly because something has not gone to plan. It is never wise to pretend that ‘there is nothing to see here’ or hoping the situation will blow over.
Sometimes even the most awful situations can be prevented from escalating with a quick and sincere statement. Most harm happens when an apology comes too late, or someone forces you to admit a mistake that you could have disclosed earlier. Equally, if the circumstances are beyond your control, you should not feel the need to shoulder all the responsibility.
Parents in particular, when faced with a difficult scenario, mainly just want to know that you have a plan and they can depend on you to be honest, humane and sensible. Think about how you would feel in their place.
Don’t panic. There are some golden rules, but there is no magic formula. Things can still go wrong even with a great plan in place and a calm head on your shoulders. The important thing to remember is that in all but the most exceptional circumstances, your school will still be open tomorrow, and you will still need everyone in your school family to behave sensibly and respectfully towards one another. Keep that in mind when you speak to everyone.
Example action plan
The action plan below has been tried and tested several times for real-life situations:
- You receive a media enquiry
- You ask the journalist to email their request
- You make sure your front of house team knows what to do
- You convene a small group of trusted colleagues
- You establish the facts of the matter and any areas of uncertainty
- You contact NAHT’s press office
- You contact your local authority or trust;
- You plan
- You stick to the plan
- You decide which groups need to be communicated with, how, when and how much to share
- If you have already communicated effectively with everyone, you consider whether it is necessary to issue anything to the press at all
- You agree on your statement(s) and share them
- You respond to the initial enquiry, either by declining to comment or providing the journalist with a comment
- You maintain contact with NAHT’s press office
- You reconvene your trusted group to review the situation
- You think about the follow-up – is it likely that the journalist will contact you again?
- You stay calm – don’t forget that other matters in your school also need attention
- You look for the online or broadcast version of the journalist’s report
- You look for reactions, especially comments online at the bottom of the article and of course, on social media
- You stop worrying – if you have done everything you can and things still go wrong, you will have been extraordinarily unlucky.
If something is going on, or going wrong, people should hear it from you first. You should determine what you say by looking at the golden rules listed above.
Communicating through the media can be a risky business, but you can easily mitigate those risks. Please refer to our ‘making the most of media opportunities’ guidance, which you can read alongside this document.
For context, it is useful to consider how the media works. Sadly, most (but not all) newspapers and websites need a strong headline more than they need an accurate story. Typically, journalists will be looking for the tension or the argument in the story.
In education, this is almost always a case of conflicts between schools and parents and between educators and policymakers.
With that in mind, it’s worth understanding that even the most well-crafted statement cannot protect you from a controversial headline, so it is better not to have that assumption to begin with.
A common mistake is to believe that a quote in the media or an interview will help to ‘set the record straight’. It usually won’t.
And that’s why you should always consider whether making a statement will make a positive difference to your school. If you have already said everything you need to say to your staff, pupils, parents, etc., then there may not be any need for you to communicate via the media at all.
If you are making a statement, keep it simple.
|· Be clear and unambiguous
· Use everyday language and avoid sounding too corporate
· Think like a parent
· Address the issue directly
· Stop talking/writing when you’ve made your point
· Remember a journalist wants a scoop, not your friendship
· Stick to the messages and examples you’ve prepared and rehearsed.
|· Use five sentences when two will do
· Use jargon or hide behind regulations
· Criticise parents (find another way to say what needs to be said)
· Repeat the slur or allegation made against you or the school
· Name the school or institution if the story is negative
· Talk about other people or organisations – leave that to them
· Deviate from what you’ve agreed to say publicly.
Remember, your aim is not to persuade the journalist you’re right; it is to get your message across.
Don’t hit ‘send’ right away. Send the statement to yourself just to see how it appears when you open it in your inbox. That might give you a valuable opportunity to catch an unnoticed typo or a phrase that you need to tweak. If you’re a bit worked up by the situation, don’t send anything – make a cup of tea first.
Contact NAHT’s press office. If you haven’t already done so, this is the moment to get in touch.
Here are some of the scenarios where you are likely to need a crisis-communications plan:
- Poor results
- Staff misconduct
- Academy conversion
- Historical problems
- Parental complaints
- Criminal/legal matters
- Staff sickness/departure
- Controversial policy changes.
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