Key Crisis Communication Lessons During COVID for Independent Schools

Independent schools have been in constant crisis communication mode for nearly two years. Weekly messaging on learning modes, masking, testing, etc. has created digital overload for your school’s parents, teachers, staff and students. And the complexity of the messages add to the stress of trying to get it right – and fighting to be heard over the digital din. 

Healthcare also has been in crisis communication since early 2020. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine met with the nation’s clinicians and communicators to discuss the communication lessons healthcare has learned during the pandemic.

“Messaging must be tailored, culturally congruent, and delivered by trusted messengers.”

Though written for and by public health officials, there’s are many take-aways for independent schools:

  • “Participants identified several challenges in messaging about COVID-19. Some shared that the messages they saw were often confusing, contradictory, unapproachable, too academic in their framing, dismissive, and/or delivered by messengers who were not always trusted by audiences.”
  • “The public health sector must increasingly shift toward the practice of ‘radical transparency’ by telling people what is known, what is not known, and why”.

The take-away for independent schools: Trust is the name of the game. Share information succinctly, honestly and respectfully.

“Radical transparency” is a good way to view school communications. As you’ve learned during the pandemic, you’re often tasked with sharing information about something that is unknown, such as the Omicron wave that hit in January, just as schools were returning from winter break. Being upfront about what you don’t know is critical.

“Combating misinformation and disinformation is too large a task for any one source.”

The public health officials add that successful crisis communication “… requires a confluence of voices from a group of organizations and media sources that can consistently address misinformation and disinformation in a coordinated manner.”

In other words: Gather your experts and trust their counsel.

Who has been on your crisis communications team for nearly two years? What health officials did you add? Certainly your health services department. Many schools mined their parent resources for doctors, public health researchers, and public health officials to help them understand ever-evolving information.

How do independent schools use these lessons moving forward? We asked an expert.

Michelle “Shelly” Placek, Director of Communications and Marketing at Garrison Forest School, a K-12, girls’ day/boarding school with a coed Preschool near Baltimore, Md. had been in her role only six months before the pandemic. She was no stranger to communications, having held corporate communications roles and served for a decade in communications for Johns Hopkins University.

Q: What has been the biggest change in crisis communications since the pandemic?

Placek: Due to the nature of COVID, people want information very clearly synthesized. It is challenging trying to translate important, complex information into communications that are very easy to understand. I could have been communicating by email on Sunday night and have information changed by school the next morning about whether a grade or division had to go remote because of cases.

We also understand that parents could have kids in other schools and are getting numerous emails. I’m a parent, too, and I don’t want to read a three-page email to see if my child has been exposed. At the beginning of the pandemic, we also needed to communicate to our community about how remote learning would work at a time when people were very stressed and frightened.

We use bullet points and visuals whenever possible, so people understand exactly what they need to know.

Q: What lesson did you learn right away with pandemic crisis communications that will impact your communicating moving forward?

Placek: We learned early on to get right to the point. Parents didn’t want fluffy introductions to emails. At the peak [in spring 2020], we were in constant crisis and triage mode. This strips away every opportunity for engagement, which goes against what we as school communicators are taught. This is not the time to use pretty campus photos or to talk about how beautiful the campus is [during a particular season]. We were careful what greeting or sign off we used so our families knew we were taking this very seriously and being thoughtful about the decisions we were making. 

Moving forward, we are going to continue to format the email and choose language based on the information we are sharing. It feels very strange to start an email with “Here is the information you need to know,” but that is what our families need.

Q: What lessons have you learned?

Placek: Several! 

  1. I learned that it’s challenging to learn complex information and try to understand it to communicate quickly to a broader audience. I’ve had hour-long conversations with our school’s health services to get it right. People don’t want corrections the next day. We created good internal shorthand with our COVID response team. Going through this helped tighten our process for any crisis. Before, maybe others didn’t truly understand the importance of carefully reviewing a draft crisis communication. Now, we’re all on the same page. Our division heads picked up things that I might not have caught. It truly became a collaborative effort that involved input from many different campus stakeholders.
  2. This has shined a light on the importance of communication. We were going through our communications plan every day for a period and had a standing COVID response team meeting. This experience has helped us develop better efficiencies.
  3. This isn’t a new lesson, but it raised my appreciation for asking questions and pushing for answers to get a communication right when you are working under a tight deadline. Sometimes you need to take a little time to fully understand something to share it. As the communications professional, you are controlling the pace of the messaging. When COVID hit, I had been in the job for six months. Being able to serve as the center point helped people understand the importance of a role like this.
  4. Finally, this underscored the importance of all your communication tools working together. We built a COVID response website and produced a reopening brochure [for fall 2020] that mirrored our emails. This took time, but it was worth it. In our emails, we could push them to the website and ensure our families were getting the information they needed through multiple channels.

Thanks, Shelly, for sharing your advice.

For more on creating better crisis communications, check out the sage advice of Amiso George, professor of strategic communication at the Bob Schieffer College of Communication at Texas Christian University. She teaches TCU students and business leaders and organizations how to respond to crises. Her GMER approach – Gauge, Modify, Execute and Review – be used during and after any crisis.

How can Kalix help you with your communications as we come out of the pandemic? Contact us.

President’s Notes
Jonathan Oleisky

Jonathan Oleisky

President
Read the latest post from Kalix President Jonathan Oleisky.
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