To prevent activity from spiraling out of control, you need a crisis plan – especially if you’re responding to an actual tornado.
That’s the message Zac Rantz will share with school communicators attending the Michigan School Public Relations Association’s Fall Drive-In the morning of Nov. 14 at the Washtenaw Intermediate School District. Register online at mspra.org.
Rantz, a former English language arts and journalism teacher, is in his seventh year as a fulltime chief information officer for Nixa Public Schools in Nixa, MO. He and other members of the Missouri School Public Relations Association pitched in to help handle school communications the morning after a tornado devastated Joplin MO in May 2011.
It was the deadliest tornado to strike the United States since 1947. It directly claimed 158 lives and caused more than $2.8 billion in damage.
“People remember the rubble they saw in the news,” Rantz said. “But the devastation is much worse when you’re actually there, looking into the zombie-like faces of people who are completely overwhelmed by what’s happened and everything that needs to be done.”
Overcoming fears, pitching in, defying odds
Zac was studying an ominous green sky at home in Nixa – 1 1/2 –hour drive from Joplin – and considering whether he and his dog should take shelter in the basement on the Sunday night that the tornado struck.
He says he feared storms since age four, when a tornado sucked the doors off his father’s livestock feed and supply store and his mother “performed some crazy Ninja move” to yank him under a desk to safety.
For years afterward, he chose to wait out storms from inside his father’s closet.
Rantz said MOSPRA President Jill Filer’s call the morning after the storm to seek assistance with communications in Joplin required him to confront his fear of tornadoes head on.
Although he hadn’t know Joplin well before the tornado, Rantz said a collective conviction to transform the storm-wrecked town into a place to which families and students would return captivated him and others.
He stayed a solid week, working out of an emergency communications command center set up in Joplin’s North Middle School. The team fielded media requests from around the world.
Rantz returned frequently during an intense,84-day summer in which the community managed to open a temporary high school fashioned out of an empty big box store.
And Rantz returned regularly for years, celebrating with Joplin as it opened its brand new high school in September 2014.
Communicating in the wake of destruction
Information needs to get out, but the Internet is down. Mobile phone service is spotty. Dislocated students and their families have fled to their nearest unaffected relative – wherever that is.
Scenario for a communications nightmare: There are dozens of stories to tell and the communication tools don’t work.
Rantz remembers having to strike an unusual yoga pose to send email messages in the northeast corner of the library – the spot at North Middle School most likely to have a WiFi signal in the days following the tornado.
With his superintendent, Dr. Stephen Kleinsmith, Rantz has written a book titled Hindsight: Lessons learned from the Joplin tornado and other crisis events. They contend that ingraining good communication practices throughout an organization is the only way communication plans will hold up in a catastrophe, weather related or otherwise.
Check for the book at amazon.com. A portion of the sales go toward Joplin’s continuing efforts to rebuild.
“How you communicate now is pretty much how you’re going to communicate in a crisis, “ Rantz said. “That’s why you need to create good muscle memories now. In an emergency, you’re not going to have time to look around for your crisis checklist.”
Indeed, your file cabinet and your office may be long gone.
Rantz’s tips for communicating through a crisis
- Cloud computing. Critical information required to operate the school system needs to be stored off site, in a cloud, where you can reach it from anywhere. (Without this, Joplin would not have been able to run payroll.)
- Review and rewrite board policies to allow the superintendent, or principals if the superintendent becomes incapacitated, to have purchasing power in the event of a crisis. (A quorum of the board may not be able to gather immediately to approve purchases for critical repairs.)
- Use plain language or the same language your local law enforcement officers and firefighters use. (This reduces the risk of confusion. Not everybody knows what a Code Yellow or Code Red is.)
- Standardize crisis procedures, if possible, throughout your buildings. Protocols should be the same for similar emergencies. Your community, first responders and substitute teachers will thank you for not having to learn different plans for each school.
Emphasizing and celebrating community
The May 22, 2011 tornado devastated Joplin so severely that the whole town could have vanished, Rantz said.
Good communications before and after the storm are reasons the town didn’t fail, Rantz said.
Kim Vann, Joplin Schools’ community development director, had been engaging community groups long before the tornado struck. Nobody questioned whether ruined schools should be rebuilt or withheld help to accomplish it.
Systematically communicating stories about the rebuilding process assured families who had to relocate that they could return home. More than 90 percent of students Joplin lost after the tornado have returned — a statistic that makes Rantz marvel.
“There is this tenaciousness in Joplin that they are not going to allow outsiders to frame their story,” Rantz said. “They were determined to write their story, together, the way they want it to read.”
It’s clear that Joplin had some help writing its over-comers story from a friend, and fan, in Nixa.