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New study reveals how school leaders approach crisis communication

State of K-12 Customer Experience

Anyone who’s ever been in a K-12 leadership position can tell you a story about a seemingly minor issue that, left unattended, ballooned into an all-out PR crisis.

It comes with the territory in K-12 education and in the social media-fueled landscape in which we live today. A failure to act can have massive repercussions on your district’s brand. 

Not surprisingly, it came as quite a shock when I started digging into results from our first-ever State of K-12 Customer Experience Report survey, and discovered that school leaders, for the most part, ranked preventing PR crises and crisis communication near the bottom when it came to strategic priorities. 

More than 500 national school and district leaders responded to the survey, which asked them to identify strategic initiatives important to their districts. While building community trust was a top priority, with 90 percent of school leaders calling community trust very important, preventing public relations crises ranked among the lowest priorities, with only 63 percent of school leaders agreeing that it was very important.

I thought, surely there is something wrong with this data.

The idea that school and district leaders, most of whom are laser-focused on mitigating risk in their schools, would categorize managing PR crises and crisis prevention below, say, customer service, for example? It didn’t seem right.

Then I thought about it for a second and started talking with people.

It wasn’t that school leaders were saying crisis prevention was unimportant, it’s that the ability to build trust and provide exceptional customer experiences reduced the number of PR crises and crises overall that school leaders ended up having to deal with or worry about.

Anatomy of a PR crisis

To understand what I mean about the relationship between building trust and preventing PR crises, consider this infographic.

PR crisis infographic

What’s really at the heart of this example? 

Jimmy’s mom isn’t upset because she doesn’t know the options available to her family. She’s upset because she feels ignored by the school district. By not acknowledging Jimmy’s mom in a timely manner, the district feeds the perception that it is not listening. This perception fuels frustration in the broader community. 

What if this district had made building community trust a priority–either through listening, or stronger customer experiences, or both? Would this mom’s concern have gone unanswered? If it had, would community members have been more patient and supportive of the district? Maybe.

Building trust, preventing crises

In the face of rising competition, K-12 leaders are quickly realizing that traditional ways of dealing with PR crises don’t cut it. A one-off press release or a public meeting can do little to reverse the flow of misinformation once a story gains traction in the socialsphere. 

To truly prevent crises before they happen, your district needs to earn community trust up front. That can only happen through a system of ongoing, active listening.

My colleague Dr. Gerald Dawkins, a former K-12 superintendent, often cites these three key steps for building stakeholder support and preventing potential crises:

  1. Set up a listening station. Conversations about your schools happen everywhere, all the time. Make sure you have a way to easily monitor and respond to feedback and social chatter as it happens. Having your ear to the ground will give you a head start on a potential problem or crisis.
  2. Make trust a part of your culture. Parents, students, and staff often know and sense problems before you do. They need to know they can come to you when something’s not right. Create a safe place for these conversations and empower your community to speak up.
  3. Listen like you mean it. There’s passive listening. And there’s authentic listening. School districts are great at getting information out. Where they too often struggle is on the other side of the equation—at listening and responding to feedback. If you want to stay ahead of a crisis in your district, you have to listen with purpose.

The question now for school leaders is, how are you working to build trust in your community? 

For more on the State of K-12 Customer Experience Report, or to sign up for the First Look, visit www.k12cxreport.org

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About the Author

Shelby McIntosh
Dr. Shelby McIntosh is a former educator and school researcher living in Texas. She is currently Vice President of Client Success for K12 Insight. Contact Shelby: shelby.mcintosh@k12insight.com

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