Schools are not immune to crises. Whether it be an earthquake, wildfire, shooting, or global pandemic, schools will always be required to react to crises. School leaders need to be prepared to communicate quickly, efficiently, and effectively with their communities in stressful times. The COVID-19 pandemic created an exceptional urgency for schools to practice and refine crisis communication strategies over an extended period of time.
My goal was to examine the practices and experiences that helped leaders to better communicate with their communities, both inside and outside their schools.
In the spring of 2022 as part of a master’s thesis, I had the opportunity to interview leaders (principals, heads of school, etc.) to reflect on the past two years and what they learned about communication during this time. My goal was to examine the practices and experiences that helped leaders to better communicate with their communities, both inside and outside their schools. Our conversations were focused on the positive lessons that have come out of the two years of pandemic communication. While these findings were from leaders in British Columbia, I expect they can be useful in your context as well. There were four main findings that came out of our conversations.
The Supremacy of Email
One of the most significant things that came out of the study was that email continues to be the most effective way that leaders can get their messages out. While this may initially be surprising given the number of emails that are unread or ignored, especially by younger generations, other platforms may not be as accessible to staff, community, or students. This means that email often remains a central platform for official communication. Furthermore, when an email is sent from someone in a position of power and has a clear subject line conveying the importance of what it contains, that message usually has very high rates of readership and follow through.
A main factor that also plays into whether an email will be read or ignored is the frequency with which emails are sent.
A main factor that also plays into whether an email will be read or ignored is the frequency with which emails are sent. The more frequently emails are sent out, the less likely they are to communicate effectively. One participant referred to this as “inbox exhaustion.” For this reason, many schools ensured that their official communication came from the overall leader (head of school, principal, etc.) or from a spokesperson for a leadership team. This person may have had a whole communications department aiding them or even writing the messages for them, but leveraging the position of people at the top of an organization helped to ensure that communication got out effectively.
Email is a bit of a double-edged sword: used poorly it can be ignored and is ineffective. However, when used intentionally, email continues to be an extremely effective tool to reach a very broad, but also targeted, audience.
Top-Down Crisis Response
Organizations that deal with high levels of stress and crisis situations often have a clear hierarchy built in. Military, police, and many emergency services have clear structures to ensure that everyone knows who is in charge and where to go for information. School leaders discussed the need for a central point of contact and official information. In other crisis incidents around the world, many school staff have taken on the roles of first responders for their students, and schools have become crisis recovery centers. Knowing that there is one person who is in charge (or that there is a spokesperson for the leadership team) can help to streamline the actions of school staff when time or complexity are challenges.
Focus on Your People
The leaders I interviewed underlined the importance of working together to utilize their respective strengths and consider how a message will impact their staff or community. Messages were also more effective when they were clear and understandable to all readers. Translating critical documents into other languages was, for example, one process that many leaders found important.
Knowing the strengths of the members of a school’s internal community can help leaders to delegate tasks so that they are handled more effectively. Staff input can also keep school leaders from making critical mistakes in communicating with the external members of the school.
The culture of the external community is another consideration when developing communications. Leaders discussed finding key people to aid in communicating beyond internal staff.
Simon Braun is a teacher in Agassiz, British Columbia where he lives with his wife and three sons. He recently completed his masters degree at Royal Roads University and is looking forward to the new adventures that await him and his family.