As the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic continues, school leaders find themselves in the middle of an unprecedented situation. With most schools closed across the country, school districts are still working to provide vital meals and childcare and ensuring that students are still learning, all while allaying community fears and answering key questions.
School communications leaders find themselves on the front lines. Melissa Braham, associate director for the National School Public Relations Association, says the key is to “alleviate fear through improved information.”
“Right now, school communication leaders are conducting research, listening to administrators, and developing strategies for providing key information without causing undue stress to students and parents,” explains Braham.
While schools do a great job at getting updates and information out, many are struggling with a key piece of the fight against the panic and misinformation that often come with health crises like this: effective listening.
Is it easy for students, parents, and others to get their questions quickly and accurately answered by the right person in your district? Are you using the vital insights from community questions to inform your day-to-day strategy? If the answer is no to either of these, your district probably isn’t getting the full picture on the virus–and its potential impact.
We’re not health experts. If your school or district is facing real health concerns about Coronavirus, the CDC recently released this checklist.
What we do know is how to effectively engage your community in times of crisis. Based on the conversations we’ve had with school communications leaders, here are five steps that are critical to alleviating fear. In each case, we’ve offered a potential solution using our K-12 customer experience solution Let’s Talk!.
1. Keep your community updated and informed
In times of uncertainty, a lack of information often spurs rumors that can lead to unnecessary PR crises or social media controversies. To avoid this, your leadership team should send out regular communications with as much information as possible to help keep your community informed. Messages may include updates from local health officials, links to FAQs about the virus and tips for prevention, or important school cancellation announcements.
These messages should be sent through as many channels as possible–from your website to email to social media and others–so that they reach parents and staff where they are most comfortable communicating.
Districts that use our K-12 customer experience solution Let’s Talk! can send a campaign like this one (featured below) to all of their families, informing them on the latest updates, and directing them to Let’s Talk! to submit specific questions.
2. Let community members know you’re ready and listening
No matter how much information you put out about your strategies for addressing Coronavirus, parents will inevitably have more questions and concerns. Make it easy for anyone to reach the right person in your district by creating a dedicated place to submit questions or concerns related to the virus. This could mean setting up a phone hotline or virus-specific email address.
It might also mean creating a custom Let’s Talk! landing page, like this one (see below), that provides key information about the virus and allows community members to submit questions, concerns, comments, or suggestions that district staff can track and respond to. Let’s Talk! districts can also provide a dedicated number for community members to text their questions or concerns directly to the district. Those texts then automatically enter the system as dialogues.
3. Be prepared to respond quickly and accurately to community concerns
Potential health threats like Coronavirus require responsiveness to ensure student and parent safety and to also prevent the spread of misinformation. Having a dedicated space to receive questions and concerns is an important first step, but will only work if you are able to address those questions quickly and accurately.
One way to help speed up response times is to develop templated replies to common questions you receive. Let’s Talk! users, for instance, can create customizable saved messages called response templates to make replying easier. They can then send that reply to multiple dialogues using the bulk reply feature.
If you are responding via email or social media, you should also consider creating similarly templated messages for common questions or directing parents and community members to a list of FAQs.
4. Extract critical messages, tips, and trends
As important as it is for your district to inform your community, students, parents, and staff also play a critical role in providing key information to you.
The first step is to ensure all virus-related inquiries are collected in a central repository that’s accessible to everyone. This eliminates potential silos between key leaders or departments and helps your team identify important patterns in the questions you’re being asked.
Finding critical pieces of information in a flood of questions or inquiries takes time and resources, which is why districts should also consider utilizing tools that help identify key trends or terms related to the virus. Certain social media management or monitoring systems, for instance, are capable of identifying key trends around specific topics.
If you’re a Let’s Talk! district, you can create critical alerts that recognize any incoming messages with trigger words or phrases related to Coronavirus like Coronavirus, virus, or sick. These messages are marked critical and then escalated to designated district team members.
5. Inform your strategy with real data
Too often, school leaders use anecdotal information to inform their strategy, rather than real data. This could be a costly mistake during a fluid, constantly moving crisis like this.
Luckily, the questions students, parents, and other community members are asking make up an important batch of data that should be informing your Coronavirus strategy every day. Start off each of your Coronavirus coordination meetings by looking at this data and let it inform and guide your decision-making.
Also, as much as your district is relying on community, state, and national health organizations to provide guidance on the threat of Coronavirus, you can also provide key insights to those organizations. Consider sharing important specific messages or key trends in the conversations you’re having with community members. This may include providing reports from your social media monitoring systems, Let’s Talk! dashboards, or data from other communications systems that help health officials track down potential outbreaks or concerns in your community.
Interested in learning how other school districts approach crisis communication during a pandemic? Looking for a solution to more easily manage mounting questions or concerns, we’d be happy to connect you with school districts that are doing this work. Click here for a free demo.