Preparing for the worst. How organisations in the education and skills sector manage crises

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By Anne Nicholls

The education and skills sector is no stranger to crises. From criticisms about vice-chancellors’ salaries, financial mismanagement within colleges and fraudulent issuing of qualifications, to the alleged Islamic takeover of schools (remember the Trojan horse scandal?), dubious connections with corrupt foreign regimes, or simply a well-intentioned gesture that backfires, they provide meaty media fodder. Any of these can do irreparable damage to an organisation (or individual) unless handled carefully. In the words of the American business magnate Warren Buffett: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”

It may seem a no brainer to be well prepared for such crises, but many organisations simply don’t have adequate plans in place, so when the proverbial s*** hits the fan they are caught on the hop. And there are some situations that no amount of forward planning can prepare people for, like violence on a campus or the death of a teacher.

Dealing with a crisis is a task that’s likely to land in the lap of the communications team, or individual, whether they are a member of staff or a PR agency. But how well prepared are they?

This was one of the questions discussed at a recent event on crisis communications organised by the CIPR’s Education and Skills Group. The comments were illuminating.

Nick Linford, editor of FE Week, expressed his frustration when dealing with further education colleges. “There is often no obvious person to contact, or of there is the name      is buried somewhere on the website. Many people are afraid of journalists, so try to avoid engaging with them. But what we want is a human conversation, so it’s important to build relationships with the media.”  Ben Verinder, MD of Chalkstream – a communications, research and PR agency – agrees. “There are not enough qualified public relations professionals in colleges. Many people simply hide behind a desk or an answerphone, whereas if they acted quickly they could stop an issue reaching crisis point.” Schools are

in  a similar situation with limited resources and expertise, although some academy trusts have crisis plans in place or are using PR agencies for support.

Although universities are better prepared for crises with better resources, the size of the organisation can present problems. Vicky Pearson, Director of Communications at Reading University says:  “Journalists invariably want a quick response, but internal processes can make it hard to react quickly. Sometimes the communications team are the last to be told of an issue.”

But some scenarios are impossible to anticipate. When Leeds school teacher Ann Maguire was killed in the classroom by a pupil in 2014 the media descended on the city. Dee Reid, who was then Head of Communications and Marketing at Leeds City Council explains how they dealt with the situation. “There were systems in place and good relationships with teachers and local media, which meant we were able to handle the crisis in a professional way,” she says. There also was a real commitment to a duty of care towards pupils, parents, teachers and others by the City Council. Part of this was protecting people against unwanted media intrusion, so the team put together a list of names of people who did not want to talk to journalists who were told not to approach them.

Dee says: “It was a combination of trust in relationships, effective partnerships and resilience that got us through.”

The event included a simulation led by Justin Shaw from Communications Management, featuring a crisis at a university involving publication of some contentious research. Summing up Justin said: “As communications professionals we have a duty to act as the voice of reason and rationality whenever there are crisis. We are the people who need to set the incident in a wider context and stand back from the details – and we need to ensure sensible response is given and the right action is taken. We shouldn’t shy away from this professional sound-board role. We also need to recognise that reputation threats can become longer term opportunities for reputation re-establishment. I’ve talked many times about institutions that faced the direst of circumstances and have gone on to re-event themselves as a much-needed consequence.”

There were some clear messages from the event.

  • If there is a crisis (or even a suspicion of one) don’t try to cover up a mistake. Come clean. If what’s happened is indefensible then say “sorry” and explain how you are going to put things right. The danger is that you end up with a damaging story about the attempted cover up as well as the crisis itself..
  • Respond quickly with a clear message, even if it’s just a holding statement saying you are investigating. Journalists hate a news vacuum and they will fill it by talking to other people, which may do you more damage.
  • Make sure you have a named contact to deal with any enquiries with that person’s phone number clearly visible on the website.
  • Establish good relationships with journalists before any crisis breaks. That makes it a lot easier to gain their cooperation and ensure damage limitation, although you may not be able to kill the story. If you don’t want your conversation to be reported verbatim say that you are speaking off the record. Any responsible journalist will respect that.
  • Keep staff well informed but impress on them the importance of not talking to the media unless given permission. Journalists will to get whistle blowers to give their side of the story (which may not be complimentary).
  • Ensure that there is a named spokesperson. You should have their out of hours phone numbers.
  • Monitor all social media channels. If there offensive or damaging comments think carefully before you respond. It may be better to say nothing rather than get involved in a ping pong twitter dialogue. You may need to put a statement on your website and a twitter message that links to it.
  • Check the legal situation with regard to slander, libel and data protection. You also need to be aware of need to keep names of young people under the age of xxxx? out of the public domain.
  • Bear in mind that dealing with the media is not the only thing you should be doing. There are likely to be multiple stakeholders that need to be kept informed such as pupils, parents, governors, funders and the local community. Also remember your duty of care to staff.
  • Long term the head of an organisation needs to make sure their house is in order. Establishing a culture of transparency, decency and compliance is essential. You cannot use PR people to paper over the cracks.

The workshop on crisis communications was held on 14 November in London. Justin Shaw, Chief Higher Education Consultant at Communications Management and Dr Edina Harbinja, Senior Lecturer in Media and Privacy Law at Aston University ran a scenario showing how a potential crisis could escalate. Panellists were Dee Reid, Director of Communications at Leeds Becket University (formerly with Leeds City Council), Vicky Pearson, Director of Communications at Reading University, Ben Verinder, Managing Director of Chalkstream (and former Director of Communications at the Association of Colleges) and Nick Linford, editor of FE Week.

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