Safeguarding your School’s reputation – the dos and don’ts of communicating in a crisis

Barnaby Fry

The most serious potential crises that can affect schools almost inevitably relate to the safeguarding of children. In these instances schools will usually have little notice that an arrest is imminent and will frequently have to liaise quickly with the authorities to ensure safeguarding proceedings are in place and initiate a rapid response for dealing with concerns and enquiries.

It normally starts with a phone call from an investigating journalist, or a surprise arrest. The shock that a trusted member of staff may have acted inappropriately will have a profound impact upon the close community of any school.

That is why it is essential to ensure you have the right steps in place to deal with the intense interest from the media, local communities and parents that inevitably follows a crisis incident. A media crisis can be triggered by a range of factors, including staff actions, abuse, pupil behaviour, business issues or historic cases coming to light.

Alongside this, news may quickly break following an arrest. In one case that MHP advised on, a parent was a journalist and was alerted by a message from their child. It is therefore vital that crisis plans are regularly updated and tested to ensure they are fit for purpose.

It is also important to recognise that saying nothing is simply not an option. The Times mounted an extensive investigation into historic abuse at some of the country’s most high profile public schools because its journalists were suspicious that they were being ‘fobbed off’ by some schools. Many institutions still have senior members of staff who stick to the mistaken belief that discretion is the best way to preserve a reputation. In this area, it is not. Honest and carefully crafted answers are best.

Preparing statements

It is important to establish clear lines to take. Statements should be prepared that match developments – a complaint, a police interview, an arrest, a charge, a trial, a conviction, a staff dismissal, an investigation, etc. These statements must be written or checked by someone with communications experience in this area. Also, assume any ‘internal’ message to pupils, staff or parents could leak to the press, so ensure all communications are aligned and don’t say anything that you wouldn’t want to see in print. Finally, it is important to see these statements as living documents, as crisis situations usually evolve rapidly as details emerge.

The importance of a competent and appropriate spokesperson

After statements are agreed it is important to establish who will be your spokesperson. They, and only they, should be authorised to speak to the media. They do not necessarily need to be the head teacher but should sound authoritative. A coherent image or line can quickly crumble if a Governor who should know better decides to speak to a newspaper Editor they once met at a lunch.

Legal considerations

To avoid contradiction, any statements should also be approved by a school’s legal advisers. However, it is vital that your lawyers are experienced in this field. A traditional country general practice may not have sufficient relevant experience. You need a law firm with strong credentials in advising schools, particularly in relation to employment and litigation matters.

As a PR firm, we have frequently been caught between conflicting advice from local authorities and legal counsel as the law in this area is complex. For example, Section 13 of the Education Act 2011 gives immediate anonymity to a current member of staff who is accused of committing an offence against a pupil at their school. However, it does not apply to historic offences at other schools or if the victim is not a pupil.

Beyond the initial statements

As a crisis progresses, it is also important to look beyond the statements you have prepared. Other considerations such as privacy, anonymity and social media need to be considered. Newspapers and broadcasters abide by strict rules when it comes to protecting the identities of children. Courts are also sensitive to this. Social media is not.

Parents and pupils are likely to tweet or post comments on Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat. Setting up Google Alerts will not be enough; instead specialist social media monitoring tools such as Brandwatch allow real-time tracking of comments and sentiment.

Taking stock and learning lessons

Finally, it is tempting to shut the door after a crisis has passed, breathe a deep sigh of relief and get back to normal. That is a big mistake. Any organisation needs to take careful stock of the damage done to their reputation and identify the communications steps necessary to rebuild.