Schools face a diverse range of crises that can be hard, if not impossible, to foresee. As a result, when something happens - be it a flood, accusations of inappropriate behaviour or even the death of a student - school leaders can struggle to keep up and find themselves chasing problems rather than dealing with them. In particular, a reactive approach can be hard to avoid once incidents have the attention of the media.
Although it is impossible to plan for every problem, it is possible to adopt a guiding set of crisis management principles. The process should begin well before any issue occurs and continue through crisis resolution, building resilience within the organisation.
First of all, you need to define what kind of crisis you are dealing with. "Sudden" crises are characterised by a rapid onset and quick escalation. The immediate cause may be quickly addressed but the consequences can have far greater longevity. "Smouldering" crises have longer incubation periods with greater potential impact on the organisation and stakeholders. It is the latter that seem to occur most frequently in schools.
So now that the definition has been decided on, what should the model plan and response look like?
Two actions are required of school leaders before and during a crisis. The first is a cycle of persistent questioning: asking what is happening, what is changing and what might happen. These questions should be addressed to those in senior leadership and asked regularly, at set intervals. Doing so will ensure that a crisis can be spotted at the earliest opportunity and monitored effectively.
The second action involves refining the answers to these questions. This is done by breaking down the issues - for example, by assessing relevant factors such as political, economic, social, technical, environmental, ethical, legal and organisational concerns.
Considering each of these points will put the issues you have identified in context and ensure that they are assessed in detail. It will also enable a more holistic view of potential sources of crisis and allow modelling of possible implications.
Review, evaluate and anticipate
A key step in managing crises is to review and evaluate problems that the organisation may already have faced and those that others have experienced. What lessons can be learned? What worked well and what did not? How can this be used in the crisis management plan? What resources are needed? How will we define the triggers to invoke the response in this situation? What is our capability?
Assess and analyse
Based on the above, make your plans and then assess them. For example, conduct a simple drill, hold a discussion-based seminar, or run a table-top exercise or simulation. Then analyse. How good were the plans? Make changes and test again. How well do they work now? Are people in the right roles?
The final consideration is communication, both internal and external. Irrespective of the audience, communication must convey information and assurance. The level of engagement depends on the nature of the crisis and the extent of relations.
For example, it may be enough to inform, but the recommendation is always to go beyond this: monitor the situation, consult relevant parties, involve them in discussion and ensure that collaboration occurs where needed. Being proactive can increase the chance of success in crisis response and improve trust.
The media is included in this group: building robust relationships with key people prior to an incident means that you are more likely to be able to use the media to communicate a positive message that you can influence. Include them in events, invite them to visit, be open about the school. It may also be possible to involve them in media training for headteachers and governors. A specialist PR company can be a powerful ally to train senior management in crisis communication. Remember, "no comment" is never an option.
Dr Sara Thorne is a senior lecturer in risk and crisis management at the University of Portsmouth
Elliott, D, Swartz, E and Herbane, B (2010) Crisis Management: guidance and good practice (BSI).
Elliott, D, Swartz, E and Herbane, B (2010) Business Continuity Management: a crisis management approach (Routledge)