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Lead your school district through COVID with strong communications

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Success can be defined in a multitude of ways, but one skill set that can differentiate a good leader from a great leader is communication. You’re in charge of leading a school district and we know you do not take that responsibility lightly, but when faced with a pandemic of unprecedented magnitude, even the best communicators are challenged.

Timely communications: When a crisis occurs, students, teachers, parents and staff expect the district to communicate often and accurately, especially now. They need and want reassurances that the district staff is weighing all options and taking all the correct steps to mitigate risks to their children and potentially the families that they return home to every day. All the trust built over the years through hard-earned relationship-building can be lost in the blink of an eye if school districts are not communicating often enough.

You are front and center, communicating daily on the changes in the community, the changes in delivery options, the changes in classroom rotations or the protocols for deep cleaning. Not to mention the challenges this presents to your internal customers – your teachers and staff. Tasked with pivoting on a dime from in-person teaching to virtual, how can district leadership instill faith and trust that they are doing everything in their power to mitigate risk? Your internal audience is just as important to communicate with during a time of crisis. By delivering timely and thoughtful communications to them, they in turn will provide invaluable support for the community. Having clear communications ensures that all leaders of schools within the district have a plan on the direction of the district. The speed of news media today challenges leaders. Good news will always be received in a timely manner, however, bad news travels at lightning speed.

Words matter: The words used to deliver news about students or staff members testing positive for COVID-19 speaks volumes. We know that even when our intentions are to do what’s right for the students, these decisions can be met with resistance at all levels. When developing communications, it’s important to read the words out loud and seek a second opinion on all communications. Taking the time to consider all possible interpretations of the words chosen to deliver the message. The words should be straight to the point and deliver the message in a matter-of-fact way while still showing empathy and honesty. The message should also provide reassurance to all and provide a way for them to contact the district and its leadership directly with any further questions.

Actions matter: One of the first things the community does in a crisis is look to their leaders to see their emotional and physical responses. It can be very unsettling to see the District Administrator or Principal of a school angry, panicked, disheveled or confused.

In a crisis, non-verbal actions and facial expressions speak volumes. Leaders need to appear calm to reassure children, parents, teachers and staff they are making the best decisions possible with a clear head. Leadership behavior influences behavior.

Be on a fact-finding mission: Good leaders will question all they hear and make sure they are dealing with accurate information or seek counsel from professionals trained to interpret the information such as lawyers, HR consultants or government agencies. The worst thing a school district can do is pour gas on the fire by conveying misinformation, especially during an emotionally charged time.

Be proactive to not exasperate the situation: If the media starts calling, it’s probably time (may even be considered late) to deliver succinct, fact-based information to them. The media should hear the story directly from the school district versus others not directly involved. The posture of owning the situation upfront also speaks volumes to the trust the district has built. Yes, it takes time to respond to media, but the goal is if a school district has a communication plan in place and are proactively delivering timely updates, the pressure is lessened over the long-term.

This is also a good time to utilize a press conference instead of conducting separate interviews. This allows your message to be delivered to the media at one time. Even with social distancing recommendations, a press conference held online via a video conference can be an extremely efficient way to work with the media.

Remember, leadership during a crisis is a test of your leadership skills. Stay focused, stay calm. As a crisis communication professional agency, we see all too often what happens when a crisis occurs, and the districts are not prepared to communicate proactively.

BIO: Lisa Cruz owns Red Shoes Inc., a marketing and PR agency known for its crisis communication expertise. Cruz most recently was published in the international publication, Journal of Brand Strategy and helps companies protect their reputation through planning and execution. She can be reached at 920-574-3253 or redshoesinc.com.

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