A COVID-19 outbreak occurs at your school or office.
Do you speak to media?
Do you write a press release?
How do you keep other stakeholders informed/calm?
The key steps are explained: Liam Cox with Peter Wilkinson.
What should a school or office do in terms of communications in the event of the COVID outbreak, Peter Wilkinson? We’re going to see this scenario, play out all over Australia in the weeks to come. How do you ensure your crisis ready? Do you write a press release? Do you speak to the media?
The first thing I’d say a couple of things off the top. The first is, this isn’t in the same bucket as sex abuse at a school. So, you don’t need to be panicky about it because everyone’s going to face it. So, people will be on your side sympathetically, to start with, as long as you follow a few things. The second thing I’d say is, be ready because when it happens, you’ve only got a few minutes. Things will happen very quickly, particularly in an office. As you can imagine in your office if someone tests positive for COVID instantly people around that person will know and same at our school. Rumours in schools spread like wildfire. So, you really need to prepare. Once you’ve done that, there is a process you can follow very, very quickly. The first is to think about the different groups.
So, the most important people to contact are going to be the kids at the school, and they’re going to be the parents, possibly the neighbours of the school, because they will want to know that there’s a bad germ around the corner. And then, of course, there are the people who have to manage outbreaks state-wide and nationally. So, you’ll probably want to put a call into the Premier’s office or to the Minister for Health’s office. It’s that easy to do that if you’re unfamiliar with how to do it. So those are the first things you’ve got to cover off first.
And these are contacts that you should have prepared in the crisis plan. The next key stakeholders would, in this scenario, would be the media because it’s a huge story at the moment. Do you speak to the media or do you do a press release?
So, the decision you’ll always make here is built around one question, are we better off by involving the media or being involved in the media or not? And in this situation, you’re going to have media. As we’ve seen the media is inevitably going to turn up and want pictures. So, once you know that, then the next decision, really, quite easy because it’s better off in than out. Because if you’re not involved in the media, then the media is going to get pictures. They’re going to be interviewing parents, kids, security guards, whomever, who won’t do as well as you would like them to do representing the school. So, once you’ve made that decision, the next decision is about how to engage with the media. And there are two ways to do it. One is through a press release and the other is by doing interviews. And you’ve got an option to do one or the other or both.
Yes. And you’ll find particularly these days with TV that a press release doesn’t suffice to TV, they need a talking head. And we saw a great example of it this week. There were two schools in Sydney, side-by-side, an outbreak within three or four hours of each other. One school provided a spokesperson. Handled it beautifully. Handled professionally. There was another school that didn’t provide a spokesperson and the media were then forced to go and chase. And there was nobody altercation with a security guard on camera.
Yeah. So, in that situation… In a situation such as the one we’re talking about in an office or a school, I’d do two things. The first is, to do a press release. And you can turn these around really quickly, especially if you don’t be too flash about it. Just get the message out. Because you’ve pre-prepared you’ll know the journalists to reach or how to reach the news stations. You will have rung ahead and say, “If I need to get a press release out, who do I send it to?” And that’ll be something like [email protected] or something like that. And the press release should contain a number of elements. It should contain the essential piece of information. “There’s been an outbreak of COVID-19 at our school. Everybody at the school has been sent home. It happened within one hour. So, to prevent as much as we could of further damage.” But there’s another message you should get in there. And that is about the school.
And it’s got to be honest and it’s got to be genuine. But you could say our first… At our school, our first concern is always for the children. We really value, if this is the truth, besides education, a training for life. And we see this as an opportunity for kids to learn. Or something like that. Something that tells of the culture and the values of the school. And the third thing I’d do is if we’ve got a spokesperson, is I’d put a quote in from the spokesperson saying something personal. So that something more than the company spiel comes through. There’s a bit of personal spiel as well about values and culture and concern for the school community.
Talking to the media can be quite daunting, particularly in a scenario like this, where there’s lots of pressure. How would you advise a spokesperson before they talk to the media?
So, there’s a couple of things here. The first is, at a school, there are many spokespeople. So, kids are great fodder for cameras. So, the temptation is to say to the kids, “don’t talk to the media.” Bad move. It’s very easy just to say to kids, “If you’re going to talk to media, be conscious of the impact it can have on you, your friends and your family. So, if you’re going to talk to the media, just be aware of that.” Don’t say something like, “You need to be conscious of the reputation of the school.” Or stuff like that. Because that’s very 1980s, in the modern environment. And then you should have a designated spokesperson. Sometimes it’s not the principal because these things can be quite overwhelming. In a situation like this, the principal is going to be really frantically busy. Unless the principal has delegated somebody else to do all the other work around this. Media can soak up a substantial amount of time in a situation like this.
I mean, we’re talking about an hour to 90 minutes in a really compressed two hour period. Once you’ve decided on who the spokesperson is, it’s very easy, based on what I’ve just said should go in the press release, to design a news grab for the news media. And remember you’ve got no more than about 10 seconds. 10 seconds, three words a second. You’ve got 30 words. And if you write 30 words, you’ll find you run out of words very quickly. So, you’ve actually… A bit of… Again, this goes back to the first point, be prepared for this to happen so that you’re not scrambling to cobble something together in the middle of a crisis.
And I suppose the overarching objective of all of this is to maintain the reputation of your school or your office during a crisis?
If you have prepared for this, you can make it sound like, “We are well equipped for this. This Kind of a crisis we take in our stride.” Parents will take great confidence and comfort if you do it well. They’ll know that if an accident happens at the school, you can click into gear and manage it straight away. Neighbours will like it. The politicians will like it because you haven’t given them a massive task. They’ve got to go back and because if you stuff it up, the journos are going to be saying to the politicians, “Why didn’t you prepare the schools?” So, the politicians will like it if you’re on top of it. The media will like it because you’re succinct, concise. And of course, the public will see that you’re on top of it. And so yes, reputation goes up.
Great advice. Peter Wilkinson, thank you.
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Internal and external communications
Where required, separate strategies might need to be developed for engaging with the board, leadership team, staff, customers, clients, suppliers, shareholders, communities and the three tiers of government. This may extend to the international community. Tactics include:
- The development of key messages for internal and external communications, including business continuity communications.
- The development of a digital ‘crisis portal’ for the dissemination of information to all relevant parties.
- The mechanics of informing stakeholders in changes of procedure, or cancellations to services.
- Training/coaching spokespeople.
- Writing/editing communiques.
In this crisis, journalists are struggling under the pressures of shrinking resources and the importance of this story.
We work with journalists daily and have learnt from experience how we can best support them in this situation.
The benefit to our clients is that, with our help, journalists better understand their predicament. We do this by first understanding your situation and then developing a narrative and key messages that reflect it in a way journalists can appreciate. This can lead to a better outcome for everyone.
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