Public relations preparedness: Strategic communications are crucial

Improving your response in times of crisis by not focusing on what you say, but how you say it
By: | July 24, 2017

Positive public relations experiences are critical to our survival as public entities and, unfortunately for many school leaders, we face an uphill climb. According to a June 2016 Gallup poll, only 30 percent of Americans feel “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in public schools, down from an equally disheartening 36 percent when the survey was administered a decade earlier.

In addition to the fact that leaders must proactively and intentionally improve day-to-day communications and community outreach, it is imperative to develop a clear public relations plan that will work during a controversy, such as when a budget cut looms or a bullying incident makes the news.

Given the unfavorable statistics regarding public confidence even in the good times, education leaders know we’ll have to work extra hard when responding to a crisis.

Grace under fire

If you have the financial resources to consult with a crisis communications firm, it is beneficial to work with people who have been down this path. Regardless of resources, steps can be taken to demonstrate grace under fire.

1) Take responsibility for what happened. Acknowledge and own what is yours to own. The community thinks of you as part of an organization, so you represent the district no matter your role.

“That wasn’t my decision. It was the school across town. It was another department’s fault.” These statements won’t work, and they fail to address the challenges you’re facing. Throwing colleagues, “under the bus” is bad form.

2) Speak clearly and directly. Explain the reasons for decisions as succinctly as possible. If a decision was made in-house and isn’t appropriate for public discussion, say so. Or, if there’s confidential information you cannot share, acknowledge it and explain the rationale (an internal personnel matter, for example, or underage students who cannot be named publicly).

It is helpful to remind the community when protections are in place. This will prove you are committed to transparency.

3) Be aware of body language. In-person communications—from a PTA meeting up to a crisis response interview on the local news—bring another element into play. A significant part of your ability to communicate isn’t how you use words but how you use your body (posture, gestures and facial expressions) and your voice (pitch, speed, volume and tone).

Have an expert or someone trusted evaluate your approachability and perceived credibility. Don’t be a pushover, but you must appear credible and assured without being aggressive.

4) Apologize well. We often fear an apology will make the recipient lose regard for us, or perhaps even become smug, hold a grudge, or end the relationship. These concerns are about our comfort, not the impact of our behavior. Becoming “other-focused” is critical preparation for moments like this. Aaron Lazare, in his book, On Apology (Oxford University Press, 2005), offers a scaffold:

Correctly identify to whom the apology is owed.

Acknowledge the offending behavior in adequate detail.

Recognize the impact the behaviors had on the victim.

Confirm that the grievance was a violation of a social/moral contract by showing shame, remorse, humility and sincerity—and a wish to reclaim trust.

Make reparations. Offer to do something, buy something or even change something.

Don’t minimize the impact on those affected or acknowledge an issue passively (“Your complaint is noted.”). Address the misstep head on, take ownership and make a genuine apology to those who were hurt.

This is one of the most difficult parts of any leader’s job. When information is scarce, the public creates their own, so the leader must fearlessly take control of the narrative. The students and their families are watching us, and our survival as valued public entities is on the line.

Jennifer Abrams is a communications consultant and author of Having Hard Conversations, The Multigenerational Workplace: Communicate, Collaborate and Create Community. She can be found at and on Twitter @jenniferabrams.