When a crisis comes calling

Written by By Jacky James, Managing Director of The Shine Collective

In reference to the Stuff article – School emails show ‘crisis management’ plans as sex allegations come to light by Jennifer Eder published Friday 23 August 2019.

One thing I always say to clients is that anyone can have a crisis – something with the power to derail your organisation. Your organisation can be big or small, corporate or community, of your making or a natural disaster, a crisis can literally hit anyone, at any time.

But it’s not just the event itself you need to think about – your reputation and social licence to operate depends on how you react to it.

When something unexpected and unwelcome happens, as human beings we tend not to default to calm, strategic decision-making.

In times of stress we are also likely to disagree on the best course of action, which robs us of one thing we can control: the timeliness of our response.

The case that ran in this news story is a case in point. Good people with good intentions were involved, but they lacked clarity on what they should do, who they should talk to, what they should say, and when they should say it.

In another example this week, Canterbury schools (and some of their parents) came under the spotlight for their actions during the lockdown on March 15.

That’s where a crisis communications plan comes into its own. Don’t be put off by the name: it doesn’t need to be a cumbersome and costly exercise. A crisis plan can be a brief, user-friendly and simple document- as long as it’s up to date and accessible by key people.

The key is preparation. You can’t predict everything that could happen, but you can make a plan for the type of situation you are more likely to face. For example, a near-miss accident is more likely in a forestry company than in an office environment, and fraud depends on access to funds.

A crisis communications plan outlines your risks and the next steps should a crisis hit. That includes who to notify (and in what order), how to deal with media and how to inform your key stakeholders – before the media do.

What you don’t want is to lose control of your own messaging.

Schools have a unique place in society because we all feel a sense of ownership – even if we don’t have children there. For parents, a school can feel like the extension of the family, and that means good communication with caregivers in times of crisis is critical.

Schools don’t have high levels of disposable income for ‘consultants’, but they are more vulnerable to reputational damage than many other organisations. That puts them in a bind when it comes to good professional advice.

That’s why we have recently developed a crisis communications package for schools. We have deliberately kept the cost really affordable so more boards and principals can consider adding a comms plan to their operational crisis response preparations.

Stories like the one above confirm that preparations are critical for all schools that care about their messaging and their communities.