Crisis Communication Struggles & School Shootings – Lone Star College Case Study

By Gerard Braud 985-624-9976

Do the communications surrounding school shootings drive you nuts? The repetitive crisis communication failures are enough to drive a communications specialist insane. While the debate over guns rages, no one debates the merits of good or bad crisis communications. Here are my thoughts on what you should recognize and work to improve…

Einstein is credited with saying that the definition of insanity is when you keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. I’m watching television right now – January 22, 2013 – and there is another shooting at another school, with the same crisis communications failures.

Here is what I’m seeing – and it is the same as what I see 99% of the time when there is a school shooting:

1) The media show aerial video and speculate because no official spokesperson comes forward in a timely manner.

2) Social media becomes both helpful and harmful. On the one hand it can be a place for updated information, but in this case Facebook is a place for ugly discussions while Twitter is a repetition of both current and out of date tweets.

3) Without an official spokesperson, the media are interviewing as many students as possible. Some are more knowledgeable and forthcoming that school officials and some are fueling rumors in the absence of an official spokesperson.

4) The school’s website fails to give accurate, timely information. The message is poorly worded.

This is what I expect from our school leaders and public relations teams:

1) Stop living in denial and thinking it won’t happen to you. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best. That means that on a clear sunny day, you must write a crisis communications plan to guide you through your communications challenges on your darkest day.

2) Stop saying you don’t have the time or the budget to write a crisis communications plan. You are responsible for the lives of thousands of people. The lawsuits you face after their injuries and deaths far exceed the cost or time you spend upfront. A communication plan should be considered a vital part of your operations, just like turning on the lights or putting chairs in a classroom. And let’s be more honest… these are the lives of people who trust you – not just an economic decision.

3) A crisis communications plan is not a 6 page free document you download from the Internet. It must be a precisely crafted document that anticipates every twist in the crisis and the precise communications steps you must take. The heart of a good plan will be about 50 pages long.

4) You should never be at a loss for what to say. Your crisis communications plan should be filled with 100 or more pre-written statements that you can read to the media, post to your website and e-mail to your students, faculty and staff. Every plan must have a document called a “First Critical Statement” which quickly shares the basics while you gather more information for a more detailed release. On a clear sunny day you can write 75%-95% of what you will need to say on the day of your crisis.

5) Go beyond texting. Texting only tells your students to take cover. The downside of texting is the panic and media attention that follows, as well as the firestorm that you ignite on social media.

6) Manage the expectations surrounding an emergency text message. People who get their texts late get mad.  It may take 20 minutes before everyone gets a text. People who get their text late will often take you to task, especially complaining on social media.

7) A text may cause an instant traffic jam on roadways, which limits the ability of emergency responders to reach your campus.

8) You still need to hold a traditional news conference for the media as quickly as possible. This should not come as a surprise. Whether in person or over the phone, someone must be able to do this in the first 30 to 60 minutes of the crisis. Your first critical statement template is exactly what you will read to the media. There is no need for anyone to attempt to ad lib his or her way through this. A public relations spokesperson is my first choice for this first statement, not the top dog, who should be managing the crisis.

9) A bad or confused spokesperson undermines the credibility of your institution. You expect your students to go to class to learn. Likewise, all potential spokespeople should take an annual media training class so that you are well educated and prepared for your media interviews. It is part of your job. Failure is not an option, but too often is a reality. Media Training must be like a sport – you must practice to be good at it.

10) You won’t perform well on your darkest day if you don’t practice on a clear, sunny day. Hold at least one crisis communications drill each year. This will test your plan, your spokespeople, and your ability to communicate quickly and effectively.

11) Be wary of Twitter. Hours after you give the all clear, well meaning people will re-Tweet messages about the shooting and further fuel the confusion and panic.

My files are full of case studies like this. Beyond adding text messaging, I really haven’t seen any significant improvements at schools since the first major shooting in 1997 at Pearl High School. Instead, it appears that many in education have yet to learn the craft of effective communications. I find that sadly ironic.

About the author: Gerard Braud helps organizations achieve effective communications during a crisis and effective communications with the media. He has successfully helped organizations on 5 continents.

www.braudcommunications.com

gerard@braudcommunications.com

One Month After Sandy Hook: Effective Crisis Communications In Critical Times

[A personal note from Gerard Braud: I remember vividly when there was a shooting on my daughter’s campus. She had just learned the gunman killed a graduate assistant that taught one of her best friends. The trauma in her voice was piercing. Her confusion was overwhelming. The university failed miserably with regards to their communications. I don’t want other parents or students to ever have to go through that, so I’m sharing this with you in the hopes that real change might take place. Let us all work toward effective communications. To help school leaders, I’ve worked with other organizations to offer you this free recording with information about how to effectively communicate when there is a school shooting. You may also wish to read this blog post about effective crisis communication when there is a school shooting.]

Parents are asking, “What are you doing to protect the safety of my child at school?” “What can be done to prevent a school shooting at my child’s school?” Many are asking for comfort; and in some cases, they want to hear an answer that satisfies their emotional needs. But weigh carefully whether your emotional answer is a lie or whether you should share what may be a more harsh, yet realistic explanation of today’s realities and the real roll parents can play in preventing the next school shooting. Any of you have my permission to use parts or all of the text below as a free resource to communicate with parents about school safety. If you’d like to discuss it, please call me.

A Letter to Our Parents

The tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary raises many questions and concerns for parents, including questions about safety and procedures. Please be aware that we love your children and our goal is to educate and nourish them in a safe environment every day.

Schools routinely turn to experts in psychology, emergency response and risk management to learn the best practices for addressing concerns about safety. We’ll address each of these, including the role emotions play in coping with such a crisis as well as fears about such a crisis at our own school.

Emotions: Each of us has a unique DNA and emotional response to such tragedies. Some of us will hug our children a little longer, some will shed tears, some will accept the reality of today’s society and many will ask if everything humanly possible is being done to keep their child safe. We ask that you carefully weigh your emotional fears with the reality of what can and cannot be controlled in today’s society.

Risk Management: Safety begins in the less emotional world of risk management. In terms of risk management, recognize that Sandy Hook Elementary was a well fortified school with significant security measures, including locked doors, security cameras, buzzers that let visitors enter the building and much more. By all practical standards, the school had done all that it could. Yet in this case, the gunman, intent on committing a violent act, shot his way through windows in order to bypass all of the security measures. The lesson here is that someone intent upon doing harm was able to blast his way into the building and the classrooms. Adding more layers of security, whether it is metal detectors, security guards, limited entries, high fences, and the like cannot eliminate the risk. In many cases, they create an atmosphere and impression of safety. Experts will remind us that we have locks on our doors at home to make us feel safe, yet thieves often penetrate them. The sad reality is that a criminal or mentally ill person intent on harming either teachers or children also has access to them by shooting through windows or shooting onto a crowded playground through a fence. In recent weeks we’ve seen mass shootings at movie theatres and shopping malls.

In reality, these events have less to do with safety procedures and more to do with the mental state of the violent individual.

Much like airline crashes, school shootings get a lot of attention because they are so tragic. But the reality is, based on the number of schools in America, the actual number of incidents and the risk of such an incident happening at your school is low. Furthermore, it is quite likely impossible to have enough security to prevent a violent act at a school, mall or theater.

From the perspective of safety, the automobile you and your child ride to school in creates a far greater risk of danger. The danger is increased for those who wake-up late and don’t get out of the door on time, causing the driving parent to exceed the speed limit, speed through traffic lights or ignore stop signs. Amazingly, we each have more of a direct impact on the safety of our children each school day than the many safeguards in place at many schools.

Emergency Response: From an emergency response perspective, most schools have already worked with their police departments to quickly respond to an active shooter. We pray we never have to deal with such an event, but we have already coordinated these procedures with our city, parish and state police.

Our own safety measures currently involve a high fence around the entire property and only one entry door to the elementary building and one entry door to the pre-school. We will consider whether other measures should be taken, what suggestions you may have, and the practical aspect of what additional measures will cost and whether additional measures truly create a safer environment.

(Optional Examples)

We work closely with the (name) Police and Fire Departments to ensure both prevention and response strategies to assure a safe campus.  We also have in place electronic mapping of our school through (name vendor/system).  Fire protection and law enforcement have this information and are intimately familiar with the layouts of all of our buildings including all exits, doorways and entrances.

Our school has its own emergency plan that acts as a guide before, during and after an emergency situation.  Our school conducts safety drills for a variety of situations like weather and fire.  Our faculty has been informed of the procedures we would take in the event of an “intruder on campus”.  Those procedures will be refreshed and practiced in the weeks and months ahead.  All emergency scenarios include audible alarm systems or intercom coded warnings.

Using our text notification system, we can alert parents, teachers and first responders within seconds with details of any situation occurring within our school and on our campus.  This would include information pertaining to emergency evacuations or other emergency situations.  The system can be enabled through cell phone as well as land line.

Psychology:  We cannot address the violence without addressing psychology, and things that each of us has the ability to address in multiple ways. Even if no one in your home is clinically diagnosed with a mental illness, here are some things to consider:

Behavior: If you notice strange behavior in your child, another child, in an adult friend or in your spouse, please inform the right people. A private conversation with a school counselor or principal is the right place to start. Seeking professional treatment is important.

Medications: If your child suffers is on any regular medication for any reason or if your child suffers from various ailments that might affect his or her behavior, speak with your doctor and keep you children on their proper medications.

Home environment: In today’s society, family struggles and marital conflicts are common. Please work to create and environment of harmony in your home. Please be conscious of things you say in front of your children and the tone of voice you use. Verbal anger in front of children is not acceptable, yet unconsciously it happens in many homes. For those of you struggling with divorce or separation, we encourage you to remain civil in the presence of your children and seek professional counseling for difficult discussions. Do not belittle your spouse in the presence of your children. We also encourage you to recognize that your children should never be used pawns, treated like property, or used as a bargaining chip in the divorce proceedings. You’ve been blessed with precious little lives. Please do not let your anger and trauma be transferred to these impressionable young lives.

Video games and television violence: There are many discussions about whether shooting rampages at schools, theaters and malls are affected by violent television or violent video games. We would, however, encourage you to not expose your children to video games and television programs that are filled with gun violence. Learn to tell your children no when they ask for these games or when you catch them watching inappropriate television. Exposure to violence through games and television is believed to make such behaviors more acceptable in the minds of children, even to the extent that some children are unable to distinguish between games and actual violence.

Secure your guns: The gun debate will be renewed because of this shooting, but the reality is guns are already prolific in our society. If you have guns in your home, please secure them in such a way that your children are unable to access them. They should be locked in a solid metal gun safe with a combination or key lock that cannot be accessed by your children. A glass display case is an unsecure case. A gun in a dresser or nightstand drawer is a potential tragedy waiting to happen.

Regardless of your position on gun control or gun freedom, we know that violence exist where anger and emotional instability rage. Just recently a school experienced the death of two faculty members who were killed with a bow and arrow at the hands of a son who was upset with his father. The son then killed himself in the school with a hunting knife.

Please be aware that we love your children and our goal is to educate and nourish them in a safe environment every day. We pledge to do our part in the process, but we also ask you to be our partners in keeping our schools and our children safe.