Communicating COVID-19: Be Visible.

With over 30 years of pioneering experience in crisis management, Dr. Larry Barton shares communications insights for school leaders

Dr. Larry Barton is a pioneer in crisis management. He started his career as a Vice President for Motorola, then went on to lead courses at the FBI Academy and author four bestselling books on crisis response. Now with over 30 years of experience in the industry, Barton serves as the Distinguished University Professor of Crisis Management and Public Safety at the University of Central Florida (UCF).

We got on the phone with Barton on March 16 to learn more about school leaders’ communication and response to COVID-19.

Can you talk about the aspects of great leadership in a crisis situation?

The first is communication; a really fine communicator is going to be remembered, especially during times of crisis. And we have many outstanding educators who are leaders, but who are not always optimal communicators. So part of it is doing some self-appraisal—if you know in your heart that you are not necessarily a good communicator, then this is a time for you to leverage the people on your team and to say to them, As I focus on budgets, parents, technology, etc., I need you to step up to the plate.

And then remember the basics of crisis communication: Don't speculate. Tell the truth. And acknowledge your vulnerability: Hey, there are a lot of things that we don't know. We're still working through this with you.

So the first bucket is communication. The second bucket would be the issue of innovation. And I'll give you an example: I just spoke with a school administrator in a remote community in Arizona, and I asked, “How often have you used video conferences in the past?” She hadn’t. So I told her, “Those twice a week staff meetings? You still need to have them.”

Now is the time to innovate. Your people need to see you. They need to hear from you. And although not everyone can be on every call—everyone's life is kind of up-ended—what matters is that you have regularity and predictability.

And tell them what they don't know: We're going to be flexible on grading. We need to be patient with one another. Bring up the topics that they’re not going to see coming from the governor or the White House. Talk to them about their needs. That's where a great school administrator is going to shine. And then archive the discussion. That way teachers, maintenance staff, volunteers, school crossing guards, and suppliers can access it in the next day or so.

How often should school leaders be reaching out?

This is just my suggestion, but providing updates twice a week—and then as needed—works well. So if you think about a Tuesday/Thursday model, I can tell you from practice that it tends to work really well.

And then—this also falls into that bucket of imagination and will sound kind of corny—but ask students and teachers to go on their phones and film a video. Tell them: You have 30 seconds, and you can say anything or ask any question, and then send them to us. Then cherry pick five student remarks or questions, five faculty members’—and this is really powerful—five volunteers’. (Almost every school relies upon that great woman or guy who comes in and helps. And if we forget them right now, shame on us.) So piece together those questions and post an answer.

And you can say, as a school leader, I don't know how to do this. Guess what? You have an IT person, and they're being paid! Call them up, wake them up, and say, Maria, I need your help. How do I put this program together?

This is the time that we can do some wonderful, imaginative things. So we've got to shake the trees. We've got to show that we care about all of our constituents, and just do our best to make it informative.

You talked earlier about how important it is for leaders to be visible. Why is that?

Well, there is a general sense right now of anxiety and fear, which is legitimate; I think it's fair to say that everyone feels anxious. But the reason for being visible is because it gives us reassurance. And you as a school leader have that amazing opportunity to give us reassurance.

School is not ending forever. It may end for 2 weeks, 2 months, 6 months—we don't know. But what we do know is that you were my principal two weeks ago, and you will be when we return.

And there is something about your face and it’s familiarity. Why is it that even a nursing home patient who may have serious cognitive issues—when they put a stranger versus somebody who was a neighbor in front of them—why do they smile at the neighbor? It's because of familiarity. All of us need that.

What advice would you give school leaders who are struggling to maintain a sense of calm?

So one suggestion—which sounds very fundamental, but I'm astounded at how many people go, Oh my god, I haven't done that—is we all need to get out. “Don't go to a restaurant is very different from,Don't go outside.”

Whether you are in Michigan and it's freezing cold or whether you're in Texas and there may be searing heat, there is something about walking. There is something about getting outside. It doesn't mean you have to go to the gym, but we have a free 24/7 benefit that’s available to everybody— they’re giving it away! And you know what it is? The outside!

And also—if you're a Montessori school, call the public school, if you're a public school, call the parochial school. In other words, do the things that aren’t just within your own zone. Call your contemporaries in the public and private schools, because a lot of them are doing some pretty cool things.

What kind of pitfalls should schools be mindful of?

First, avoid any specific dates. That's first and foremost, because chances are, you're wrong. You just have to assume, I am wrong, you are wrong, everybody is wrong. So don't make any promises you cannot keep.

Secondly, this is going to sound really awkward, but it's from my heart: This is not about you. Bring it back to your constituents: students, faculty and staff, and volunteers.

Sometimes schools will be closed, but parents will still arrange playdates. Do schools have a role in correcting that?

A school leader should talk with legal counsel, and then indicate that we do not sanction or encourage any events where students interact with one another.

Let's use cheerleading practice as an example. Mary and Claudia and their friends all kind of live near one another—so let's go to Steph’s house, and have our own mini cheerleading practice. That completely defeats the entire purpose of everything that's going on. So that's where the school should be saying, “We do not condone, sponsor, or in any way encourage any hybrid of activity that runs counter to public policy.”

Parents whose hearts are in the right place can end up making it worse—and I can't emphasize it enough—a parent or guardian can make it worse by trying to literally create their own social circle when society is telling you just the opposite.

Schools are also having to do unprecedented planning to get extra services to students. Is there anything school leaders can be keeping in mind?

If a school district has a number of students that truly need meals, this is an enormously important time for you to reach out to local employers.

I'm going to make up an example: Hughes Aircraft right outside of Los Angeles. Big company. Big cafeterias ready every day to serve 3,000-5000 meals. Lots of their employees are now home.

So turn to Hughes aircraft and say, Hey, you may have food in storage. Could you possibly provide 200 meals a day, 500 meals a day that we will in turn distribute to local students? Because, guess what? They still have the hams in the freezer.

So you want to have creativity and be imaginative. Contact local employers, and ask to speak with the public relations or what is more commonly called the Community Affairs Office. Explain that you’re not looking for a major handout. You’re not looking for this to be permanent.

Get in line and be creative, but get on the phone now before somebody else does.