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Crisis Communication does not have to be a Crisis

I often think back to things that happened when I went to school and how they could be handled then versus how things would go today in same situation. School safety was certainly much simpler before the age of social media and cell phones.

In 1985 I was in 8th grade at XYZ Jr High, we had a student bring a handgun to school and he had it in his locker. It was just before lunch when the school secretary came on the PA system and asked us to all stay in our rooms when the bell rings and stay there until released. We had no idea what was going on and neither did the teachers (this was before email existed). We waited it out and stayed an extra 10 minutes or so and then were released – still not having a clue as to what happened.

I head to lunch and it’s here that we start to learn what has happened. The police came in to remove the gun from the locker and the student was removed from his class. By the end of lunch, everyone knew what happened and who was involved. Even without social media, news traveled quickly.

The student was given 2 days in-school suspension. In those days at my Jr High, any in-school suspension was rare and involved the student sitting at a portable study carrel in the hallway outside the office. If you didn’t get word on who the student was the first day, this pretty much confirmed it.

The school hastily printed up a letter at the end of the day explaining with little detail what happened. I still remember the papers were still damp and had that sweet smell from the ditto machine. My parents never even knew of the incident because this letter, like most given to me by the school, never made its way home.

The student went back to classes after his 2 days of punishment and no one said much. He stuck it out and graduated with us 5 years later and that was probably his only major brush with the school discipline system. The last I heard he was customizing luxury buses for music stars and politicians.

What would happen today?

Now, let’s re-tell that story in today’s environment.

I was sitting in English Class at XYZ Middle School (they renamed it since then) when the Lockdown was announced over the PA system, through our lock down button alarm, and also through the NaviGate Respond App. We quickly turn out the lights, lock the door, and move to the corner to hide. I pull out my phone and begin live streaming the lockdown to Facebook so I do not miss any action. I send a text my parents to tell them what is happening. Since I do not really know, I embellish just a bit to make it more dramatic. I put a post on Twitter about the event with the #weareallgoingtodie hashtag for maximum dramatic effect.

The local news picks up on the social media activity and immediately sends their remote vans to the site to cover the story. All the major news networks send out news alerts through their app so now the entire country is clued in. My parents, and the parents of every student in the district, leave work and rush to the school. A few minutes later, the district sends a message out to all parents through their messaging system with limited details telling everyone to not come to the schools. Too late.

After hours of lockdown, the police finally clear my room and I am placed on a bus and transported to a local church where I am placed in a classroom where I wait for many more hours to be reunited with my parents – whom I am texting with the whole time, and we are both getting angrier that I cannot just go home. The whole time we are all reading and re-posting the other posts from students in our school. The posts range from the truth, a gun was found in a locker, to the wild such as a student shot up his whole class. The pure volume of social media posts makes it impossible to know what really happened. The news, desperate to get something on the air, interview parents waiting to pick up students who are passing along information sent by their students, who received it from other students who heard it from someone else. This”whisper down the lane” approach to live coverage further complicates the school’s messaging and now they have to correct the vast amount of incorrect information in addition to communicating what really happened and what they want parents and the community at large to do next.

After another 5-6 hours, I and all of the other students are finally reunified with our parents, the building is under control and the school can finally start getting corrected information out to parents in the district. Once the national news media realizes there is not a story, they pull out and corrected information is hard to come by on a national level. The student that had the gun is arrested and the Monday morning Quarterbacking begins. Every”expert” will dissect all the school could have or should have done and teachers of the student dating back to pre-school will have something to say about the student. 20 students who knew he was bringing the gun to school will post to social media that they knew – even if they didn’t.

What can you do?

Managing crisis communications in 2019 is certainly much different than managing it in 1984. It’s even different than managing it in 2017! It’s time to dust off your crisis communications plan, update it, and test it. Yes – test it. In the immortal words of Prussian General Helmuth Von Moltke from the 1870s, no battle plan has ever survived contact with the enemy. Even if it is a simple table-top exercise, bring all your communications players together on a regular basis to review and run through scenarios. Make sure everyone has access to the latest social media accounts and other communications systems that may have changed. Ensure everyone knows their role so that nothing is missed. Pre-write as many releases and content as you can with fill-in-the-blanks to speed time to release. And finally, make sure everyone on the team has access to this information no matter where they are. A plan on the shelf in a building you cannot get into doesn’t do you any good.

Another option you might want to consider is to just jump into the DeLorean, start up the Flux Capacitor, and go back to 1984. I am still waiting on my hoverboard.

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