The Speed of Crisis Communication in the Social Media Age

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When I started in school PR in 1999, we sent home a letter when there was a crisis, and parents appreciated the prompt communication.

Today, waiting several hours for a letter to get home would be an unforgivable delay.

The two biggest changes affecting crisis communication were the speed of information sharing and the national increase in anxiety over school safety.

When we have to go into a lockdown or a hold, students can text their parents immediately. They don’t have to wait to get the facts right or give the principal a chance to respond to the crisis before he can share the details. So, in a social-media culture, some parents expect immediacy. They want to hear from the school just as fast as they hear from their children.

Fortunately, most parents understand a short delay to deal with the crisis and make sure the message is accurate.

Recently, we had such a crisis at one of our high schools, and a couple parents on Facebook bemoaned the fact that our message took 20 minutes to come out. Although we responded to the post, explaining the need for accuracy, as is usually the case in these situations, other parents quickly came to our defense with posts like this:

“Misinformation is worse than no information at all. Thank you PHSD for being prudent and ensuring accuracy in your mass communications.”

and this:

“I think it’s more important that the district ensure that the lockdown procedure is executed rather than making a text message to parents the priority. Good job PHSD.”

Although we did the best we could in this situation, these critiques did reinforce the need to respond as quickly as we possibly can, while still being accurate and responsible.

7 Replies to “The Speed of Crisis Communication in the Social Media Age”

  1. This post nails it. We had a similar situation in my district where a high school student started a FB live video during a routine drug sweep, claiming the school was on lockdown, no one knew what was going on and that she and all her classmates were afraid. Within minutes, local media were calling me, parents were calling and messaging us, and it put us in a little tailspin. District policy forbids us from being “friends” with students on social media so district employees didn’t see the student video and didn’t know what this “crisis” was. I immediately notified the school principal and superintendent and — while they were getting to the bottom of it — I posted a notification clarifying that the school was not on lockdown and everything was OK. This is a small community and it nearly caused a panic.

      1. The bigger issue for me was communication at the school level. I asked the principal to communicate more clearly with students that routine drug sweeps were just that, routine, and that there is no cause for panic. If the students had known more about the situation beforehand this probably wouldn’t have happened.

        Great blog post @Nicole Kirby, and great job getting out your crisis notification within 20 minutes. That’s a very fast turnaround.

      1. Rick, are you replying to Sandi or to me? Discipline seems excessive in my case, but makes sense in hers.

  2. Police activity in a neighborhood near one of our high schools necessitated a lock down. The problem was that the crime and notification came five minutes after the buses left the parking lot so we only had about 200 students still in the building. One mom scolded us for not locking down the school when we saw police cars driving by with their lights on.

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