Dear principal: a student at your school has overdosed on an illicit drug sold to them by one of your teachers. The national media knows and they’re about to run the story.
Schools are no stranger to negative headlines, but how they navigate the fallout of bad publicity can often mean the difference between ruin and recovery.
Scenarios such as assault, drugs, unfair dismissal, inappropriate teacher-student relationships and serious OH&S incidents tarnish the reputation of schools from time to time, but there are trained professionals whose job it is to cushion the impact of these problems – even before they hit the headlines.
Today The Educator spoke with founder of InsideOut Public Relations, Nicole Reaney. With her 15 years of experience in the public relations industry I asked her to share some ideas as to how schools can effectively manage the fallout when things go from bad to worse.
The Educator: Crisis management is something that can mean the difference between ruin and recovery. How prepared do you think schools are from a PR perspective in dealing with potential crises?
Nicole Reaney: They are not very prepared for this at all. For example, in the case of schools there are concerns such as children safety and security which have to be taken into account, so schools really need to be better prepared for potential issues like this.
TE: What are some precautionary steps you would recommend that schools take when a negative story appears with their name in it?
NR: I think the first step is about understanding the exact situation and the cause of whatever has happened, then transparently trying to work through it and resolving the issue as effectively as possible. If it is something to do with a particular teacher or student it is about isolating and resolving that situation efficiently.
TE: What would you say to schools that are hesitant to invest in a public relations practitioner? Or would you suggest someone – probably the principal – has some media training to know how to handle media inquiries?
NR: With a PR practitioner the benefits are that you can do some proactive public relations programs in the community. If you think of it like a bank, you’re depositing all of that goodwill into that bank so that when things do go wrong you can fall back on that reputation that you’ve already built.
If schools cannot invest in a PR practitioner, then yes, I would say that having the principal media trained is critically important. It’s really so that they can understand how the media works, and so they can make sure that they’re developing the best outcome possible for the situation and the school.
TE: After the dust has settled, would you have any tips on how an organisation can re-position a tarnished image?
NR: It mainly depends on what the particular situation is, but I think it’s about making sure that there are systems in place, and that communication goes right through to when that negative story appeared in the paper. It’s about finding out what the situation is, isolating it, resolving it and then putting steps in place to ensure this doesn’t happen again. It's important to communicate so that people are aware that the school has taken steps to prevent the situation from occurring again. Finally, it’s about positive PR, such as what the school has been doing in the community, as well as other programs that it can initiate, but the first priority is always making sure that you have resolved the particular issue and that you’re confident it won’t happen again.