As the nation marks the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting that killed 20 first graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, it has become apparent that heads of schools have one of the toughest communications jobs in America.

From elementary schools, to high schools, to prep schools, to colleges and universities, safety has become the number one priority. And the concern is not just coming from the parents who send their children to these schools. It’s everyone who’s on campus: students, administrators, teachers, support staff, security guards, visiting alumni, etc.

Instinctively, schools are spending large sums of money upgrading and enhancing a wide range of security systems. Just recently, the University of Massachusetts Amherst announced plans to spend more than $2 million to beef up dormitory security. In Florida, the School Boards Association proposed spending $100 million in security measures. While it’s difficult to pin down an exact estimate, my sense is that in 2013 more than $1 billion will be spent on improved hardware and software.

While these enhanced security systems will help prevent unwanted intruders, it’s unlikely they will be a panacea to the problem. In conjunction with the anniversary of the Newtown tragedy, NBC News reporters visited school buildings in the New York area and gained easy access. In New York City, a WNBC reporter walked into seven of 10 schools without being challenged. At one school, the reporter was able to bypass a metal detector, roam the hallways, and enter a gym full of students.

Communications Planning Lacking

Recently, counselors in Nicolazzo & Associates’ Education Group Practice have visited more than 20 prep schools and colleges in New England to meet with school heads and discuss another important facet of preparedness: contingency communications planning. What we’ve learned is that while schools conduct table-top mock drills and maintain simple “crisis contact lists,” few have specific, written contingency crisis communications plans in place.

Why are these plans necessary?

What happened at Penn State is a good example. By burying their heads in the sand and not dealing with the Jerry Sandusky matter, the university suffered a major reputational blow when the news media discovered the former coach was a serial child molester. From that point on, Penn State was forced into a defensive crisis communications mode. No matter what was said, millions of Americans will continue to associate the university with deviant sexual behavior.

While no one can dispute the need to spend money on better hardware and software security systems, I believe it’s equally important that institutions get their communications plans together before a crisis occurs. Here’s a primer on what schools need to do to ensure that they can effectively manage communications in a crisis:

Explore institutional vulnerabilities. Gun violence is one kind of crisis that can put a campus in panic. Sexual harassment, rape, inappropriate student-teacher relationships, lawsuits and cheating scandals are just a few others. School leaders need to assess the worst-case scenarios in their individual situations.

Establish communications goals and objectives. No matter what the incident, some goals and objectives are universal. Schools will always need to demonstrate that leadership is responding swiftly and decisively, and protecting the institution’s brand and integrity.

Develop strategies. People involved in a crisis often confuse goals, objectives and strategies. A goal or objective is the end result you’re trying to achieve, while strategies determine how you’re going to get there. When schools in crisis don’t have a strategy, the crisis manages them. This reactive approach does not usually work out very well.

Identify Key Audiences. Remember: it’s not just the news media. Schools have many internal and external audiences that must be kept informed in a crisis. Before something happens, leadership needs to decide who will communicate to each specific audience and what the core message will be. Message consistency will be critical.

Social Media Considerations. The unstoppable rise of social media has dramatically diminished response times for managing a crisis. What often took a day or more now requires real-time responses within hours and, depending on the nature of the incident, even minutes. Social media is powerful, but not without risk. Schools need to make sure they have fact-based information before responding or issuing statements via social media.

Write a plan. This is essential. I can’t count the number of times in my career that I’ve been called into a crisis where there is no plan. Starting from ground zero in the middle of a crisis places an unnecessary burden on school leadership. It’s a recipe for making poor decisions and executing inconsistent communications. In most cases, schools need outside help in developing a comprehensive plan. It’s a complex process that demands experienced talent to produce.

Regrettably, violence on school campuses is not going away. In the future, I predict part of the selection process for sending a child to a school will be that institution’s adherence to safety protocols and its ability to communicate in a crisis.

Schools that mismanage communications will do so at their own peril.


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Richard E. Nicolazzo is managing partner of Nicolazzo & Associates, a strategic communications and crisis management firm headquartered in Boston, Mass.