Communicating in a Crisis

How schools can respond to COVID-19 and other long-term emergencies.

By SchoolCEO Last Updated: May 31, 2020

This article is even better when paired with the companion discussion guide.

Over the past few months, COVID-19 has tested the strength of schools’ emergency communications. School leaders have been called upon to act quickly, making strong decisions to protect students and families. But even in this tough situation, there are successes worth celebrating. In most areas, schools have led the charge in keeping staff and students safe, serving as an example for other organizations. As districts organize food services, adjust to remote learning, and provide emergency child care, they prove again and again the integral role public schools play in their

Now there’s time to reflect on the initial response. At this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, we aren’t sure how the next few months or even years will look—but we can look back on what we’ve done so far and learn how to better cope with further disruptions. Using resources from the CDC, WHO, and communications and emergency management experts, we built the following guide to help shape your emergency communications strategy. While core lessons may apply to broad challenges—a bus crash or a security threat—we’re focused here on long-term disruptions.

“Most people don’t think about this,” says K.C. Rondello, M.D., M.P.H., CEM., a disaster epidemiologist and Certified Emergency Manager at New York’s Adelphi University. “But in a disaster, information is as critically important as food or water. Communicating to the public is absolutely vital.”

First Signs of a Threat: Build Credibility

In the first moments of a crisis situation, most leaders go into overdrive: sifting through crisis management plans, organizing key leaders, and working to make one right decision after another. At this point, you might be tempted to hold off on communication until you have a little more information or a working plan.

These first days or even hours, however, are an opportunity to build the foundation for a strong communications response. “In any kind of crisis, people are going to want a lot of information,” says Dr. James Kendra, Director of the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center. Over the past two decades, Kendra has studied the responses to international disasters like the waterborne evacuation of Manhattan on 9/11 and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. “They are going to need information that’s as specific as possible, that actually provides them with clear guidance as to what they can do,” he tells us.

Be transparent.

As you begin to communicate the details of an emergency, your goal isn’t necessarily to reduce unease or discomfort; your goal is to build your credibility. “You tend to see organizations minimizing the information or situation because they don’t want to cause panic,” says Kendra. “That inevitably causes lack of trust. If people don’t get information from leadership, then they’re going to seek it from other sources. Then they will fall prey to rumors and inaccurate information.” In
most cases, information will get out, and when it does, it will hurt your organization.

So what should you say? While the length and complexity of your communications might change as you switch from Facebook to email, there are four basic elements to include in every message.

Show empathy for your stakeholders.
Acknowledging your community’s pain, frustration, or uncertainty in just a sentence or two can help your message land. “If your audience is in a heightened state of emotion, they can’t hear your message,” says Dr. Barbara Reynolds, the CDC’s former Crisis and Risk Communications Senior Advisor. “They’re busy wondering: What if? Or, Do you understand what I’m going through? If you acknowledge in words that you understand how they’re feeling, they can calm down a little bit.” She provides a few examples: “It’s frustrating to not have all the answers in this uncertain time,” or “It’s heartbreaking to see the devastation that has occurred.”

If you feel uncomfortable assuming your audience’s emotions, drop the pronouns. “Instead of saying, I know you are afraid, I would say, I know some are afraid, or It’s understandable that people might be fearful,” she says. That way, you can comfort members of your audience who relate to these feelings without alienating those who don’t.

Be transparent about your process for decision-making.
During a crisis situation, information is often incomplete. But instead of minimizing the situation or withholding information, it’s important to instead describe the process behind your actions. “It’s key for leaders to explain a rationale for their decisions: where the uncertainties are and why they’re making the decision,” says Kendra. Great communications explains what you know, what you don’t know, how you’ll find out more information, and how that information will feed into your decision-making process.

You don’t have to know all the information, but it is important to stay honest. “It gets back to that idea of transparency,” Kendra says. “People expect leaders to be informed, but people also expect that leaders will be able to point out where the information is still unfolding—where it’s still ambiguous.”

Give your audience action steps.
From a mental health standpoint, research shows that providing concrete action steps for victims to take helps speed up recovery. “People want to be able to take steps forward. They want to feel empowered,” explains Kendra. “So as part of your messaging, it’s key to tell people what they are able to do to protect themselves.”

What’s more, in a crisis, people are often willing to contribute. “People can manage their anxiety and detrimental emotions better if they are contributing in some way,” says Reynolds. “So give people things to do—hopefully things that are help-
ful to the response.”

For example, messaging during COVID-19 has often included action steps: wash your hands, avoid contact with others, stay six feet apart. Actionable messaging gives citizens a measure of control, even in a frightening and stressful situation.

If needed, address stigma.
COVID-19 certainly isn’t the first situation where stigma has surfaced—it also emerged with SARS, which originated out of China, then with Ebola in West Africa. “Stigma is a societal issue,” Reynolds explains. “Individual people can be bigoted, but when a society starts to turn its back on or exclude a population group or profession solely because it identifies them with the risk, that’s stigma.”

During the SARS outbreak, local health officials in Oregon reached out to Reynolds. A group of nail salons run primarily by Asian women had asked for help; people weren’t coming to their salons anymore. So Reynolds advised the department to directly explain that these businesses were no more dangerous than anywhere else. Part of their messaging then aimed to decrease stigma. “All officials in a crisis response have a responsibility to address and try to push down stigmatization,” she explains.

Work toward consistency.

During the Ebola crisis, Kendra had trouble with the term “an abundance of caution.” While leadership told community members to continue their day-to-day routines, they were also removing the seats of planes to deep clean them “out of an abundance of caution.” Because of this mixed messaging, the community wasn’t sure how risky the situation really was. “If people start hearing conflicting information from different sources, that undermines trust in the overall process,” Kendra explains.

When different community leaders contradict each other, it hurts the credibility of the response. Part of building credibility, then, means working with other community organizations to unify messaging. Beyond that, districts also have a responsibility to unite communications internally, monitoring rumors within the organization.

Part of the challenge stems from our psychology. During a crisis, people tend to seek multiple opinions about the situation at hand, reports the CDC. Before we take steps to protect ourselves, we’ll try to confirm whether or not the situation is as risky as it seems. Only after seeking multiple perspectives do we make a decision.

Internal Consistency
When you’re sending out information to hundreds of stakeholders, it’s easy for messages to get lost or jumbled along the way. An important strategy in effective communication is to make sure that all leaders in the district—those to whom
students, parents, community members, and employees turn with questions—know their role in communication.

Terilyn Finders, Director of Communications and Legislative Affairs for Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost LLP, is a public relations expert with over 30 years of experience providing crisis communications guidance for schools. She compares effective communications to tossing a stone into a pond. When the stone lands, it sends ripples across the water. Like the “stone,” your message should start at a central point, then expand to different stakeholder groups in your community. The idea isn’t to withhold information internally (which can quickly cause mistrust) but instead to reach stakeholders systematically.

As information works its way down from local officials through the school system, Finders recommends forming “huddles”—small, regular meetings with key administrators, like the district’s executive cabinet or other relevant leaders. In cases like COVID-19, these members might include the district nurse and the director of maintenance.

These huddles meet once or twice a day at a consistent time to work through new information, forming a path forward.“Huddles can be by phone or in person, but districts need to make sure that the leaders of key functions are touch-
ing base to keep information current and consistent,” she explains.

In every huddle, there should also be an established point person for information. “Here is what I see working best: make sure that the district is clear on who their communications point person is,” says Finders. “That person should be a hub for all communication.”

The point person acts as a filter for all communications going out of the district throughout the emergency. So before the district posts on Twitter or sends out an update from the superintendent, the point person will make sure that messaging stays unified.

Once you’re ready to make an announcement, you may need to create several tiers, or “ripples,” to send out information. The members of each ripple are up to you, but Finders provides a basic structure: key administrators, staff and internal groups, then the greater community.

For example, if you are sending a message to all families about how schools will be serving food during school closures, consider first contacting the Board of Education, district and site administration, and your food service division to let them know when you will be issuing the message to families and to whom people may send questions. This helps to clarify each team member’s role in communication and to avoid taking key internal leaders by surprise.

And when you think about staff, don’t forget part-time employees or volunteers. “All of these people should be getting updates from you—not just some of them,” Finders says. “I recommend you begin the school year with a review of communications protocols with internal audiences, clarifying roles and responsibilities,” she says. This is particularly important for site administrators, since they will likely bear the brunt of employee and parent questions.

Finally, as you prepare to send a notification out to the greater community, provide a space for engagement: a phone number to call with questions, links to more information, or the contact information of a communications team member. Dr. Tim Frazier, Faculty Director of the Emergency and Disaster Management program at Georgetown University, studies the importance of engagement during crises. “Engagement means you’re not just providing your community with information, but you’re providing the opportunity for feedback,” he explains. “And feedback can be very simple, like providing a hotline or weblink where stakeholders can go and post questions and leave comments.”

Allowing stakeholders avenues to ask questions helps alleviate anxiety. “It helps people have a sense of control,” says Reynolds. Again, even when questions don’t have a clear answer, creating this space for two-way communication welcomes the community into the process. “When things are uncertain, when you don’t have a lot of answers, the one thing you can do is tell people the process that you are using to get those answers,” she explains.

During the Ebola crisis, Reynolds helped comb through hundreds of constituents’ questions on live Facebook and Twitter chats. Not only did it help eliminate rumors, but the two-way communication also taught the CDC just what misinformation was out there. “You need to analyze what you’re hearing back,” she says, “and then adjust your message accordingly.”

But how do you know which questions are legitimate, and which are outliers? According to Reynolds, it’s more of an art than a science. However, she cautions against ignoring questions, even if they seem outlandish. “Sometimes you’ll think somebody is a real outlier,” she explains, “but then you find out that people really do have that misunderstanding.”

External Consistency
When the crisis is affecting the entire community, not just your district, you need to build consistency with other organizations across your area. “We know that not every source is universally trusted by every group,” says Kendra, “so it’s key to have as wide a spectrum of people as possible delivering more or less the same information.” The more organizations that are communicating the same level of risk—the severity of a hurricane, for example—the more likely it is that your community will accept your district’s message.

Linking up with community groups also helps reach minority populations during a crisis. “If you look at vulnerable populations—the deaf, non-English speaking, or even low socioeconomic populations, there is almost always at least one advocacy group in every community that deals with those populations,” explains Dr. Curtis Harris, Director of the University of Georgia’s Institute for Disaster Management.

These connections are best formed before a disaster hits, but if you’re faced with a crisis, it’s still worth reaching out. “If that hasn’t been done, it’s a good time to start,” Kendra says. “It’s really never too late to make those connections, because those organizations can be key in building trust.”

Building consistency across the community also means linking up with the media. “It is critical that we broadcast utilizing multiple media platforms, so you reach as broad a range of the population as humanly possible,” says Harris. There are many resources available with best practices for working with the media during a crisis, but the same basic ideas hold true: Work to build trust with local news sources, and provide them with information in a timely manner. “In really dire events, the media can help carry critical information,” says Reynolds. “We see the media step up.”

Communicate regularly.

Setting a pattern for updates helps alleviate anxiety—even if you’re not providing new information. Rondello gives us an example: two planes stuck on the tarmac for an hour. In the first plane, the pilot gives a single announcement explaining that there will be a delay, but doesn’t check back in with passengers. After 45 minutes, travelers are growing angrier and angrier: they don’t know what is happening or where they are in line.

But in the next plane over, the pilot gives updates every 15 minutes, even if not much has changed. With each new update, she promises to let her passengers know when she gets more information. While both planes wait an hour for takeoff, the second plane’s passengers are much less anxious and upset than the first’s.

“It’s the sense that you haven’t been forgotten, that someone is looking out for you, and that when new information does become available, they’re going to share it with you,” explains Rondello. “That does an extraordinary amount to alleviate anxiety and fear and anger. Even if there’s not a lot to say that’s new, having a regular, established source that debriefs and provides information on some kind of scripted schedule goes a long way in dealing with the information vacuum.”

Depending on the urgency of the situation, your updates may be daily, weekly, or even hourly. Regardless of your frequency, tell the community when to look for an update, then stick to the schedule.

Stay visible.

Crisis communications literature recommends that each organization have a trained spokesperson ready to address the community. The point is simple: to put a face to the crisis response. When people see a trusted leader moving the situation forward, it can do wonders to build unity.

In a school, the nitty-gritty communications work may be completed by the communications team or district volunteers, while the superintendent is often the face of the response. This is where districts have a leg up over other organizations: schools specialize in building relationships. When parents see their teacher, their principal, or even their superintendent, it provides security—a reminder of the community of faces working through the emergency.

“Being visible gives us reassurance,” says Dr. Larry Barton, Distinguished Professor of Crisis Management and Public Safety at the University of Central Florida. With over 30 years of pioneering crisis management experience, Barton currently serves as a trainer for the FBI Academy. “As a school leader, you have that amazing opportunity to give us reassurance,” he says. Psychology shows us the power of familiar faces—it goes back to the mere exposure effect, the idea that we prefer things that we recognize.

Barton advises school leaders to take the time to figure out creative ways to stay in touch. He suggests asking students, staff, and volunteers to film questions on their phones to then send in for the superintendent to answer on video. “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 do our best to make it informative,” he tells SchoolCEO.

Leaders do best, Barton says, when they gear communications toward stakeholders’ specific needs during a crisis. “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,” he says. Finally, he recommends archiving updates in a central location, like a page on the district’s website. “That way teachers, maintenance staff, volunteers, school crossing guards, and suppliers can access it within a day or so.”

Remainder of the Emergency: Maintain and Adjust

After the first few weeks of crisis communications, life begins to settle back into a predictable rhythm. Even though your community’s day-to-day may be far from normal, the upheaval and transition felt in the first few days or weeks of the emergency often subside. In light of COVID-19, many districts will stay in this communications phase through the end of the school year.

By this point in the emergency, you’ve already built a strong foundation for crisis communications. Your stakeholders know where to look for updates, how often they’ll be hearing from you, and how to reach out with questions. While you’ll maintain the basics, it may be helpful to make a few adjustments to better suit your audience’s needs.

We connected with Highline again at the beginning of April, just after Washington’s governor announced that schools would remain closed through the academic year. “Now, we’re at a place where we’re trying to introduce some kind of routine in our next steps,” Carbone Rogers tells us. Like many districts across the country, Highline is finding ways to innovate while maintaining the communications strategies that made their original plan strong.

Split your audience into groups.

As your audience forms new routines, it may be necessary to adjust your strategy to fit their needs. CDC guidance recommends splitting your audience into smaller groups during the “maintenance” phase of emergency risk communications. Schools do this naturally. As the situation develops, principals begin to reach out to teachers, who then reach out to individual families. Soon, principals and teachers become families’ primary points of contact, and communications at the district level may fade.

At the district level, you can help pass the baton by giving families a heads up on any changes in your communication stream. Before teachers reach out to parents and guardians, for example, advise caregivers to look for an email or phone call. Generally, let your audience know before making changes in your communication plan, avoiding any periods of time with an information vacuum.

Once your audience is split into groups, continue with the same tenets of emergency communications used in the initial stages: provide updates, stay visible, and allow opportunities for two-way communication.

Monitor your community’s communications needs.

At Highline, the team wasn’t sure what type of information families preferred to receive—so they asked. Setting up an online survey allowed them to learn how the community was feeling about their communications. “You need to evaluate what you’re doing to make sure you’re hitting your targets,” says Carbone Rogers.

The vast majority of respondents requested communications as needed, which helped the team plan. “We no longer need to have something on a regularly designated day,” she explains. “We can just put out an update when we have something to communicate. We don’t want to be too frequent and have people start tuning us out.”

As stakeholders started to fall into a regular routine, the Highline team disbanded some communications structures, like their emergency call center. “After about the first week or so, the calls really fell off,” she says. “By then we were communicating every day, so I think we were meeting that need.”

Though they disbanded the call center, the team continues to monitor social media. Usually, they try to answer questions with a direct response or a link to more information. But if the message is confrontational, they’ll pull the conversation offline. “We’ll send a direct message or ask them to call the communications office so that we can address their concerns,” says Carbone Rogers. By monitoring social media, the team is also able to keep tabs on the community’s needs and concerns.

Keep up employee morale.

During an emergency, staff face many of the same fears and uncertainties as students. In order to continue to support families, employees need a network to fall back on.

Recognizing this need, Highline recently launched a wellness campaign for staff. Once a week, a district leader films a video about a new social and emotional wellness strategy to send to employees. Strategies from those videos are converted into social media posts, and then summarized in a staff update at the end of each week. “We’re trying to communicate to our staff that we really are concerned about their well-being right now. It’s hard to learn a whole new way of teaching, of working, of relating to the people who you work with,” says Carbone Rogers.

Highline’s superintendent, Dr. Susan Enfield, is leading the charge, bookending the program with wellness tips of her own. “It’s more important than ever for our superintendent to have a visible presence,” says Carbone Rogers. The team is finding new ways to connect with employees, providing a supportive environment through the crisis.

The district also makes sure to highlight staff’s work in the response. “It’s really important for morale,” Carbone Rogers tells us. Across the district, employees have stepped up to the plate to support families, and Highline’s communications team makes sure to tell those stories. “We want to also encourage others to follow their example, because it’s going to take all of us,” says Carbone Rogers. “One way to do that is to make people feel valued and appreciated for going out of their comfort zones.” When the community can see staff hard at work, it helps build trust in the organization.

Before the Next Threat: Leverage Growth

After an emergency, one of the best ways to move forward is to take a little time looking back. “That’s an aspect of empowerment. Even if an organization is caught by surprise today, they don’t have to be caught by surprise next time,” says Kendra.

Reflection is a time not to point fingers, but to look for ways to grow. “Be very candid in looking back at how an organization performed, in a non-disciplinary, non-punitive way,” he says. “Use this as an opportunity to do some advanced preparation for the next event.”

Celebrate the response.

In order to develop resiliency after the initial stages of a disaster, Reynolds suggests building pride around the community’s ability to fight back. She gave the example of the Boston Marathon bombing. After the attack, the community rallied around the tagline, “Boston Strong.”

“One of the roles that leaders have in a crisis situation is to strengthen resilience and ask more of people—ask them to be their best selves,” says Reynolds. “Sometimes rallying around a mascot or a motto, something that makes us feel like a community, can do that for us. It’s important.”

Crisis management literature makes one thing clear: in emergency situations, people will rise to the occasion. “It’s a question of allowing people to find their place in the response. How can they help? And that goes back to that idea of giving people something to do. If you point them in the right direction, people will take off and do good things,” says Reynolds.

Unite with the greater community.

Use the community you’ve built in the current crisis to prepare for the next emergency. “One of the issues that we’ve had in emergency management historically,” explains Harris,“is that everybody does siloed planning.” Districts plan for their schools. Hospitals plan for their patients.

What you’re looking for, Harris explains, is a whole community concept: everybody operating toward the same goals and outcomes. “A disaster doesn’t affect a single entity,” he says. “It affects an entire community.”

In some ways, preparedness doesn’t even have to look like a printed plan. “One community I was familiar with would invite 40 or 50 representatives from the community every couple of months,” says Kendra. Instead of focusing on a complex plan, the group would listen to a guest speaker or complete a tabletop exercise. “More important than any of the written planning was the long-term sense of commitment to one another as a community, of being able to manage an emergency when it happened,” says Kendra. The idea is to reflect on your weaknesses, keep your community ties strong, and build bridges when necessary.

Teach your community to expect more emergencies.

Dr. Carol Cwiak, Associate Professor at North Dakota State University’s Department of Emergency Management, researches the student piece in the puzzle of emergency preparedness. According to Cwiak, one of the first steps in emergency preparedness is simply understanding that disasters will happen in your lifetime.

Take Japan, a world leader in disaster preparedness. On September 1, 1923, a joint earthquake and typhoon razed buildings across Japan’s Kantō Plain, resulting in over 100,000 deaths. Committed to change, the country declared September 1 Disaster Prevention Day. Cities were rebuilt more structurally sound, preventing the level of destruction seen in 1923. Today, emergency preparedness is woven into
Japanese culture. The city of Tokyo, for example, published a preparedness manual widely circulated through the city. “It is predicted that there is a 70% possibility of an earthquake directly hitting Tokyo within the next 30 years,” it reads. The guide has tips for everything from CPR to making diapers out of plastic bags. In short, Japan constantly reminds citizens that natural disasters are a matter not of if, but of when.

As a result of this diligence, Japan’s fatalities from natural disasters have decreased dramatically; their tactics are working. This type of preparedness is called risk ownership—taking personal ownership of the need to prepare for a disaster, or a risk—and is something Cwiak follows closely.

“We know that people who own their own risk are invested in preparing for any number of events and understand that these events will happen in their lives,” says Cwiak. “That, in and of itself, creates more resilient citizens.”

The Good News in COVID-19

There’s a hope, Cwiak explains, that COVID-19 has helped us practice the skill of owning our risk. “Here’s what I think is going to happen with COVID-19,” she says.“The sense of risk ownership is going to increase, and it might be one of those rare instances where it increases at the adult level.” Simply put, we’re learning to accept our role in preventing crises—and we’re learning that collectively, we can make a change.

At Highline, Catherine Carbone Rogers stays positive. “Teamwork has been so important at the leadership level—having that trust and the ability to work with each other and hold it together as a team. Every team has probably seen where their strengths and weaknesses are, and that gives them an opportunity to know how they can improve and also how they work well together.”

This period has been tough. But more often than not, we see communities stepping up to the plate with administrators leading the charge—parents gaining more trust in their schools, communities rallying around kids, and teachers supporting students.

We’ve seen individuals taking responsibility for the needs of their communities. And that, in and of itself, is a muscle we’re learning to flex as a society.


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