CAT-like crisis communications (think reflexes, not the attitude)
I might be showing my age here – so I hope I’m not alone – but have you collected lots of old files over the years? You know, on all kinds of topics? (Y2K, Goals 2000, Proposal A – the pros & cons, creating a photo darkroom in your custodial closet, etc.) I’ve got a bunch of ’em. Most of the stack is now in my “irrelevant” bin. I’d jam them into the huge recycling container, but I’ve heard the producers of “Hoarders” are auditioning here in town next week.
One dusty file caught my eye, though. It contained a 45 minute school crisis response presentation I made with Karen McPhee more than a dozen years ago. At the time Karen was the the Assistant Superintendent & Communications Director for the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District (MI). I was the communications coordinator for one of our local school districts. Today, she is the Superintendent. I am still the communications coordinator for the local school district. (Obviously, I won’t write about the topic of career advancement anytime soon.)
Anyway, way back then, many schools in our state were experiencing a rash of bomb threats. Like more than 400 cases. Fortunately, after all of the police dog sniffing and locker checking, no explosives of any kind were ever found, anywhere.
Because of my in-the-trenches crisis involvement at my district’s high school (as a school communicator, not a perpetrator), Karen asked me to co-present a few crisis communication tips to a group of administrators. The tips that Karen and I came up with are not as in depth as the recent one page tip sheet prepared by Kristin Tank, but they shed additional light on three areas.
In our pre-planning, Karen and I came up with the acronym C-A-T. She obviously sized up the skills of her presentation partner and diplomatically nudged me down a simple path. I didn’t fight her direction.
C stood for Convenience. A stood for Accessibility. T stood for Time.
Both of us each took home separate assignments to make our presentation fantastic. Karen would expand on the three points while I’d come up with a memorable graphic for C-A-T. Karen’s a great person to work with, so I didn’t care that she gave me the hardest task. Go team!
With our deadline looming, Karen and I got back together again to polish off our presentation. What she sketched out was
adequate enough very good, but my own drawing of a cat sadly looked more like an owl. I argued that we could change our acronym to O-W-L. That somehow we could rework this whole cat thing. C’mon, Karen. Why not think outside of the litter box?
Karen held firm. And she was right. That’s why these three points still have some validity in 2013.
For Convenience – we spoke about how schools need to make finding and receiving crisis news more convenient (defined: easier & predictable) for today’s demanding parents. There are so many communication tools available now. Choose easy. Choose predictable.Then publicize your process to parents and staff like crazy.
For Accessibility – we spoke about the importance of physically “being present” beyond your normal school or workday during a crisis. Of course, you don’t go home at 5 p.m. in the midst of a crisis – so why let your families and community think that you do? Concerned parents always feel better hearing and seeing that all hands are on deck when it comes to school safety.
Consider opening up a room near your crisis command center in those after-hours situations with coffee and such. Naturally, this wouldn’t work in many instances, but we once had our central admin “crisis monitoring” room right across the hall from the room where parents and others could gather together and sit and talk. Think of the typical hospital waiting room type format. Same thing here. We didn’t invite the media and our parents directly into the room where sensitive discussions and communications planning were occurring, but by having a friendly facilitator inviting concerned and anxious folks into a room “nearby” – we gained some big time trust.
For time – we spoke about the need to strategically decide right away how you were going to use the resource of time during a crisis. If you were going to be “go-go-go and quick” in your crisis communications effort, do so with the full understanding of the pros and cons of this approach. If you were going to be “deliberate and slow” in your crisis communications effort, again move forward with an awareness of what this entails, too. You don’t have to be paralyzed. Simply decide. Accept that you only have one chance to be pro-active (the quick approach), because all that follows later is by definition more re-active. But so what? One is not better than the other. It all depends on how well you and your team manage it. In a crisis, the resource of time is largely yours to shape.
This file is staying out of my “irrelevant” bin. I’m grateful to Karen for allowing me to be a co-presenter on this presentation. I’m also grateful that she doesn’t hold a grudge and has been so willing to regularly guest post on our broader scnforyou resource site. (Her most recent “sticky” advice is here. Just “free trial” or sign your way in.)
I’m also grateful for the first grade teacher who drew a decent cat for the presentation. It cost me a couple of movie tickets, but it helped me keep up my end of the bargain.