Whether it’s having to manage the fallout surrounding the government’s student vaccination programme or the wellbeing of staff, pupils and parents, it’s fair to say everyone in the education sector is feeling the strain. As the pandemic drags on, issues continue and the result is a rising number of critical social media posts about schools’ handling of the pandemic.
In many respects, this is not a new phenomenon. Social media channels have long given parents the opportunity to send highly critical messages and “advice” directly to teachers and to share their opinions with other parents and the wider community.
But the situation has clearly worsened over the past 18 months. Many more schools are contacting us about reputation management issues, and in some instances to find out how they can push back against false claims.
The first step is to understand that, although potentially damaging, not all negative statements or misinformation about a school are defamatory. In order to be considered such, a statement must be in writing and published to a third party. It also needs to lower the subject in the estimation of right-thinking members of society.
Even then, a published statement will only be deemed defamatory if the complainant can demonstrate as a fact that they have suffered, or are likely to suffer, serious harm because of it. This means that statements that may be offensive, embarrassing and/or simply wrong but don’t cause serious harm are not legally actionable.
Then there are also a number of defences against a defamation claim, and all of this means that pursuing a defamation claim can be difficult.
So what can a school leader do?
In the first instance, even if a published statement does meet the threshold of being defamatory, litigation can actually inflame the situation, so it is better to consider other means of settling matters. Rather than make the publisher more vocal, your main priority should be to contain the situation and limit the potential harm done.
Those on the receiving end of defamatory comments tend to have one of two reactions: to rebut the allegations line by line in a public statement, or to issue a “no comment” and hope it will all go away. Almost invariably, both courses are inadvisable. The first only serves to breathe life into the issue, while the second creates the perception that there’s something to hide.
Instead, statements should be short and factual, explain what is being done to remedy the matter, state the organisation’s relevant policy and say there will be no further comment.
A further approach is to remind parents and students what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour, ask them to remove the post and remind them where they can access your policies.
If this doesn’t work, it may be necessary to take legal action. The first step would be to prepare a legal letter which sets out why the comment is defamatory, what the true position is and invite the publisher to remove the statement in order to avoid action being taken against them.
Should the matter not be resolved, legal proceedings will take place in the High Court. This is an unattractive prospect for any publisher.
But even a court victory won’t fully undo the damage, so it’s better to be prepared in order to de-escalate a situation early. Crises can’t be predicted, but a crisis communications response plan should detail the fundamental actions to be taken irrespective of the specific incident.
Next, know your audience. Engaging with certain individuals can invariably make things worse. And always assume that whatever you write will end up in the public domain. That’s why it’s essential to be fully aware of all the facts before you start writing legal letters.
However, if you do write a legal letter, it goes without saying that you should be factual, empathetic and truthful. Cover-ups get exposed, and the reputational damage of that can be more harmful than the incident itself.