Issues management should be as much a part of forward planning in schools and trusts as the annual prospectus, says Elin de Zoete.

Many moons ago business magnate Warren Buffett said: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation, and five minutes to ruin it”… and that was before the days of lightning-quick social media. The language of reputation management and crisis communications used to be an alien lexicon in schools, but as the chain infrastructure keeps growing and scrutiny intensifies, education institutions need to equip themselves to share their successes and to manage any issues professionally.

It is inevitable that issues will arise

If we take an imagined chain of 15 secondary academies of average size (939 students), that is some 14,000 young people and hundreds of teachers who are acting on behalf of that trust every day. In institutions this big it is inevitable that issues will arise and – as many readers will have experienced – when a media crisis hits, it can quickly throw an organisation into chaos. Bad news stories ducked or handled poorly can have a lasting negative impact on recruitment and retention of students and staff. So here’s some basic advice.

Design an issues-handling protocol that all staff are aware of

A staff member speaking off the cuff before the full facts have been established, or indeed someone picking up the phone to the media and saying “no comment”, can be damaging.

Developing a simple system where enquiries are noted, with deadlines, and passed to the appropriate person, ensures much smoother handling. This gives the team time to assess the inquiry, get to the bottom of what has happened and consider a full response. By finding out the deadline at the start, it also gives journalists or stakeholders what they need, when they need it.

Nominate a person within each academy as your media liaison

There is often not the resource to bring in a full-time employee at school level dedicated to press and marketing, but staff members – teachers or members of the admin team – are often interested in taking this on. Having one point of communication for press enquiries in an academy makes it simpler for journalists wanting to get in touch – and easier for co-ordination – if there is an issue that needs to be escalated up to trust level.

Be ready for your media moment

Sometimes it is right to say no to media opportunities, but usually it is better to have your voice represented rather than enabling others to put words in your mouth. If you don’t respond to media enquiries, speculation will fill the information vacuum and you lose control of the story. So be ready to speak to media, both on and off camera. Speaking into an inanimate box with a microphone in your ear is a strange experience for even the most polished presenter, so invest in broadcast training and familiarise yourself with TV and radio techniques. This will help you to represent your organisation in the best way when the pressure is on.

Decide who is responsible and who is on call 

We all know that the old shtick about “short days” and “long holidays” couldn’t be further from the truth.

However, there are some hours that even teachers do not work. A key part of successful reputation management planning is to model out what would happen in a variety of scenarios at different times of the day, and check whether you are covered. It is important to have a regularly refreshed out-of-hours and holiday procedure, and it is also vital to have clarity on who has the authority to made decisions during all of those times. When an issue erupts you need to know who needs to be informed, who can approve the suggested approach and ultimately, who will speak to the media if needed.

Then, with all of your preparation in place, your spokesperson can put all of his or her training to good use, have time to think about responses and then confidently champion the brilliant work that goes on in our schools every day.

 

Elin De Zoete is managing director at education PR agency, PLMR