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Communication through crisis – hints and tips for schools and trusts

Katie Whirledge, founder and director of Papillon is known for her honest and very detailed advice for those within the care and education sector. Here you will find Katie’s top hints and tips when it comes to crisis communication.

Communication is key and content is king, even more so during periods of unrest and uncertainty. But, as most of us are being bombarded with policy, procedure, best practice, bad practice and endless offers of support from well-meaning companies, how can we ensure we’re providing regular and accurate insight and updates to our parents at this time? Well, we do what everyone can do in these unprecedented circumstances. We do our best.

Schools and academy trusts have their own unique relationship with their parents – ie an established school with an experienced head, and an embedded trust with a quality collaboration of teachers, heads, chairs, boards and governors, will have already set its own communication strategy.  I have the privilege of working with some schools and trusts, and I’ve been really heartened by the communication I’ve been seeing at the coalface.

But there are also those who are relatively new in post, or are leading a relatively inexperienced staff team, so I’ve compiled five basic guidelines that may help you to communicate effectively with your parents:

1. Consistency – Set out your intentions from the outset

Start as you mean to go on. The majority of parents want to know what’s going on, some will need to know, and some will be happy just to be kept in the loop. My advice would always be to communicate as early as you can and keep communicating as often as you can.

If you intend to keep in touch with your parents daily, weekly or whenever the need arises, then say. If there is a need to change the regularity, make sure you update them accordingly. If you have given your parents access to a designated telephone number, ensure you have clearly set out designated hours that this line will be monitored and that you are able to service this commitment. By posting regular updates on your website with good Q and As, you may avoid a deluge of lengthy calls after every government announcement. You will also, hopefully, avoid much of the ‘school gate’ whispers that are not very helpful at the best of times – and now the schools are closed Facebook parent groups are inevitably hotting up.

Remember, every parent will have their own preference on how they want to receive school information whether it’s a letter, newletter, web, text or social media. Think about the various channels you currently use or could start to use. Widening your channels will undoubtedly maximise your reach to your parents and ensure your news is getting out to everyone as quickly as possible.

2A strong partnership with parents is built on trust

Again, this will differ from parent to parent, school to school, but building trust in times of uncertainty reaps reward for future relations. Parents want to feel involved. They need to know that they are valued, and that their opinions matter and are taken into consideration. If you can create a platform for parents to be able to raise concerns and share their comments directly, this would certainly help.

3. Use the right tone

Many of you have already mastered the right tone of voice. But during these times, when the news is coming thick and fast and you’re not always in control, it’s difficult to remain confident. But you need to reassure your parents. Beware of sounding too corporate and didactical, but also avoid being overly friendly and colloquial. Remember you are dealing with an array of different people with different education backgrounds, so also refrain from using verbose language. Striking the balance between an authoritative and an approachable tone, with the right mixture of genuine care and warmth should appeal to the majority of your parents.

4. Content – Get the balance right

It’s undoubtedly a disappointing end to the academic year. Year 13s are unable to complete their exams or celebrate the end of their compulsory education, year 11s are unable to sit their GCSE exams and now most schools have indicated that, most probably, the summer term will be conducted online. I can only imagine what a nightmare it is for your teachers to have to deliver this! But as a parent myself, I know it’s not only devastating but it’s also incredibly worrying. Again, think how you are going to communicate this complex situation to your parents. Decide who should communicate this and in what tiers or stages and then ensure this is delivered in as clear and consistent manner as possible.

Don’t just deliver the bad or complex news, there’s plenty of good news too. I’ve been inundated with stories showing the care and compassion of our schools and their communities over the past few weeks. Make sure you find a way to give those shining stars in your schools the spotlight they deserve. It’s important to share best practice and show your parents what’s going on in their schools outside of education. We need to keep morale high and use this opportunity to change the narrative for trusts that have often been overlooked, and at times vilified, by the media.

5. Keep to the facts and be accurate

I know this seems like an impossible feat at the moment. Just as the ink is drying on your last note (metaphorically speaking) there’s an urgent update or directive that makes it redundant. Parents are as baffled as the rest of us, but their feelings are exacerbated by wanting and needing to do the very best for their children. I’m sure you will already know from your daily experiences, you will be dealing with a myriad of personalities from the slightly concerned to the totally perplexed.

As a CEO, sticking to trusted resources in good times and in bad – such as the briefings and intelligence provided by Forum Strategy -, is my best advice for all. There’s so much ‘noise’ out there, you can get lost for days on social media platforms and easily misled by those that are enjoying their five minutes of fame just a little too much. As a parent, I want to block out the noise and just focus on what my school is telling me. I know it has my children’s best interests at heart and I know everyone will be doing their utmost to ensure they have as little disruption to their education and welfare as possible. Hopefully, your parents will feel the same.

Katie has a strong partnership with Forum Strategy.

If you would like to discuss any crisis communication strategies or ask Katie for advice for your school or academy trust please contact kt@papillonpr.co.uk.