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Clarifying Crisis Communications

In a significant number of school incident after-action reports (AARs), communication is called out as a failure point in the response. In nearly all, communication is noted as an area for improvement.

The incident commander (IC) in a school response (generally the building administrator) is likely pushed to the limit in providing operational direction. Despite the IC’s heavy task load, providing information to the groups affected by but not directly engaged in the response should be a prime consideration.

A simple method for improving communication with these groups is the identification and addition of a crisis communications specialist (CCS) to a school’s incident planning and response. The CCS may or may not fill the more traditional role of public information officer, but during an incident, he or she will be much more involved in operational types of messaging, providing consistent and timely information and direction to the school community. This will help to lower misinformation, prevent distortion, and limit rumors.

When identifying an appropriate CCS, consider that the person should be a full-time member of staff who is generally on-site, without a student-supervision role or able to be freed from that role during a crisis, who functions well under stress, has good verbal and written communication skills, is technologically adept, and is willing to serve. Do not require someone to take this assignment.

The CCS should be involved in emergency and reunification planning processes, and he or she should have access to and training in all communications resources—including social media outlets. To familiarize the CCS with communications resources, utilize the individual for general school community mass communication tasks outside of emergencies and work with them to prescript messages for potential situations. Ensure that during drills—including regular fire drills or lower-impact incidents such as power outages—the CCS is involved and follows the designated process to gain experience and uncover any gaps.

Clear, consistent, and timely communication is a necessity in any emergency. It becomes even more so during an event that impacts people’s children. Good communication will make a bad situation better; poor communication will make it infinitely worse.

Guy Bliesner is a founding member of the Idaho Office of School Safety and Security, and he serves as a school safety and security analyst assigned to schools in southeast Idaho.

Learn more about parent/student reunification practices here.