Five Key Thoughts on the #SchoolPR Professional’s Role During a Public Health Situation

Five Key Thoughts on the #SchoolPR Professional’s Role During a Public Health Situation

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This blog is one in a series from K-12 public relations experts about how they are using crisis communications strategies to prepare and inform their local communities amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

Julie Thannum, APR, is Assistant Superintendent for Board and Community Relations for Carrol Independent School District in South Lake, Texas, and is a National School Public Relations (NPSRA) past president.

We cannot sit back, wait and see.  

I’ve seen the tweets and comments on social media.  I know that there are those who sit back and scoff and believe Novel (new) Coronavirus and the disease it causes (COVID-19) is all media hype. There is a fine line between preparation and panic. I personally believe those who are quick to mock will likely be the most furious and unforgiving if schools don’t have effective plans in place to prepare for a pandemic situation. Truth is, schools don’t have the luxury of sitting back and waiting for things to unfold.  We must always have the health and safety of children as our top priority.  We have no choice whether or not to plan and prepare for the worst in a public health situation.

As school communicators, we have the awesome responsibility and the often-difficult task of finding a balance between those in our communities who think everyone is overreacting and those who think everyone is underreacting.  The key is balance, and to be as proactive as possible while bringing a calm and reassuring message of fact to the families in our districts. Hopefully, you have built a daily, two-way communications program that has already established you as the credible voice in your community. Once a public health outbreak starts, your stakeholders will already be looking to you to serve as the voice of reason. You will have an eager audience, don’t remain silent, instead lead from where you are.  You don’t want to miss the opportunity to speak calm into the chaos. Urge your school decision-makers to respond with timely updates and factual communications. This is not the time to let everyone else speak for you.  Meet, make decisions and then communicate…often until the public health situation or pandemic passes.  

We are often the conscience of our districts.  

As if what to say isn’t a big enough hurdle during a public health outbreak or pandemic, be prepared that not all members of your upper management team will agree on how much to say and when to say it. As school communications professionals, we are often in the difficult position of having to prod or poke the bear, so to speak.  We must urge our upper management team – whether that be the Superintendent’s Cabinet or the School Board – to provide facts and ensure a steady stream of information for the public. Many times, they are reluctant to be the first to speak or they freeze out of fear that they will say the wrong thing and the public will react badly. After all, we manage our taxpayers’ two most important assets: their children and their money. School leaders are typically good people, but they often have to be reminded in times of uncertainty that it’s still their responsibility to lead in a crisis. It’s a fact that when students feel unsafe or fearful, they cannot learn. 

The health and safety of our children is foundational to accomplishing the mission of educating them. Parents won’t care initially about math, science, and reading. They will want to know what steps you are taking and what protocols you have in place for managing and preventing the spread of disease. Continue to ask questions and encourage responsive communicating of your upper management. Lead from where you are and don’t get discouraged when it seems no one is listening. If you have to, write the letter for them, give them talking points, prepare a webpage or fact sheet. We have to be willing to do the work and hand it off to the people of trust in our districts.  The greater good outweighs our desire to be right or get credit. Do not waver from your responsibility to ensure effective communications in a crisis.  

Protect the Unprotected.

A public health situation like COVID-19 does not discriminate. We need to make sure we are taking care of providing facts to everyone equitably. But we also need to take extra measures to protect the unprotected.  We plan for continuity of services like online learning, but what of the children who have no internet access or device to use?  We talk about shutting schools down for cleaning, but where do our homeless students go and what do our free and reduced lunch kids do for food?  School is often the most friendly, inviting and safe place for our students to be. Sending them home for unknown periods of quarantine or isolation can sometimes cause greater anxieties. As school communicators, our voice at the table has to include questions and provisions for those in our district who need us most. Are your fact sheets translated for non-English learners?  Do you know who the students and staff at your campuses are who are at-risk or have reported underlying health conditions to the school? Are your auxiliary staff members being cared for and communicated with as much as the faculty on your team?  What resources can counselors and school psychologists provide parents and adults so they can talk to children in an age-appropriate way? With all of the many hats we wear, protector of the unprotected might be the most important of them all.  

Don’t Forget Effective Practices.

The importance of sound public relations practices does not disappear in a crisis. In fact, it becomes all the more important.  You know your community best. You are familiar with your stakeholders and their threshold for decision-making. Don’t be too eager to react or respond just like your neighbors are responding, looking for safety in numbers. Sure, share best practices and realize you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but a very basic premise of good public relations recognizes that every community is different. Research the facts and find credible sources your community can rely upon. Arm yourself with websites and fact sheets that can clear up misconceptions or misinformation. Do your homework and know everything there is to know about the health situation in your community and beyond. Plan clear, concise communications that concentrate on facts and target your messages to each key stakeholder group. Decide what needs to be communicated to each audience and prepare key message points for leaders. Implement numerous strategies and tools to deliver the message directly where your audiences already are.

Be sure to communicate internally and keep your employees informed first. Provide information in a visible and easily accessible location with time-stamped updates. During a public health scare or pandemic situation, schools bear the brunt of the responsibility in deciding whether to cancel trips, incorporate social distancing or even cancel school. These are often emotional decisions, but don’t forget to involve key stakeholders in working through scenarios. Be able to explain your reasoning and provide facts for the decisions you make. Evaluate your communication efforts for effectiveness and audience response. See what is working and not working, adapting as needed quickly. Be responsive to your audiences by ensuring two-way communications that show them you hear and value their input.  

Share and Collaborate With Colleagues, But Take Care of Yourself!  

Whether you are a one-person office or lead a team of school PR professionals, leading crisis management and pandemic efforts in your district can often feel overwhelming.  Not practicing good health and self-care habits can lead to feelings of isolation, loneliness and even poor health yourself.  We often work tirelessly to inform and keep others healthy, while ignoring the signs of poor health or sleep habits in ourselves.  Remember to eat, get some sleep and to step away from the news occasionally. Allow yourself time to unplug and breathe so that you can give this crisis at hand your best.  And don’t go it alone. There is a team of school PR professionals and associations out there willing to help. Share and collaborate with colleagues and don’t forget to rely on the help and resources of our associations and corporate partners.  There are no egos in a crisis situation. We owe it to ourselves to maximize our resources and take advantage of opportunities to share information, facts sheets and good advice. Take care of each other and yourself. Breathe; relax; rest. And then get back to doing what you were born to do. 

*For additional tips check out the #k12prchat and join the conversation about best practices for coronavirus communication and more.