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Crisis communications: your go-to guide

It’s likely that college public relations staff will have deal with incidents that require professional crisis communications management. Often the cause is completely out of the college’s control, but the response will always require clear and concise communications.

In the face of disturbing events and a hostile media glare it is essential to ensure that the right people have the right information. The focus of this webpage and document is to provide a guide for the worst-case scenario. Below there is information on what a crisis management plan should look like, and in the attached document here, there is also information on media relations and social media as well as a range of checklists and resources.

How to develop a crisis management plan

    Your crisis management plan must be developed, refreshed and agreed at least once a year. It should involve representatives from across the college community, the key public and the emergency services. Legal advisers and insurers need to be told about the plan and your intentions for managing it.

    The plan should include the following sections:

    • To stop or go on?
    • Assessing the level of the incident and its likely impact
    • The response team
    • An audit of resources or facilities needed
    • Practice makes perfect

    To stop or go on?

    Before anything else, a decision must be taken as to whether to close the entire college, close some parts of it or carry on as normal.

    It could be a mark of respect if there have been fatalities, or it might be unsafe or unwise to stay open for several reasons. As closing can cause problems for many people in many areas, it should not be done lightly. Whatever the decision and the reasons for it, it must be communicated immediately to all those who will be affected.

    Assessing the level of the incident and its likely impact

    The first task, if something has happened that might attract media or public attention, is to assess the level of interest. The director or head of the public relations function (which might be the principal) should be leading the assessment and considering at what level to place it as follows.

    Level 1
    Extent of interest: international and involves people from overseas and/or has unusual or particularly newsworthy aspects, such as violent crime
    Likely to involve: royals, VIPs and public’s attention
    Story might run for: one to two weeks

    Level 2
    Extent of interest: national, and involves something unusual such as violent crime
    Likely to involve: VIPs and public’s attention
    Story might run for: one week

    Level 3
    Extent of interest: national, and fits a current news theme
    Likely to involve: public’s attention, including national politicians
    Story might run for: few days nationally but possibly a week locally

    Level 4
    Extent of interest: national, and comes at the end of current news theme
    Likely to involve: public’s attention, including local politicians
    Story might run for: one day nationally but possibly a few days locally

    Level 5
    Extent of interest: local, and has local human interest
    Likely to involve: only those interested
    Story might run for: one day

    The above is not the whole picture and should be added to by the team as they work through scenarios or when observing incidents elsewhere.

    Through issues management, media or environment scanning, the public relations, communications or marketing department should have information on the likely reactions of journalists, social media players and those in community in relation to incidents affecting others. They should also be monitoring the national scene closely to be aware of any current news themes and political agendas which could be brought to the door of the college if the story fits.

    The response team

    A response team should be in place before the difficulty occurs to eliminate the need to create such a structure under pressure. It should establish an understanding of who is responsible for what, should the worst occur. There should be a full list of all the names and contact details of the response team hosted on an internal college intranet (see appendix for a template).

    The roles needed are a leader, a spokesperson, an internal/ external relations lead, a media relations lead, a note taker, and relative support. Some of these roles could be fulfilled by one person, but no one should have all of them.

    There are few colleges with enough qualified people to do their reputation justice on a day-to-day basis but when a major incident occurs, there is no organisation that has enough resources within their public relations, communication or marketing teams to cope.

    The team on these occasions needs to be added to from other areas. While the incident or the size of the college might not warrant a separate person for every one of the roles described, every one of the tasks needs to be considered and carried out if it is seen to be necessary. If the interest extends internationally the team will have to be much larger, as the news media and relatives of involved parties could be calling day and night.

    Therefore, there should be enough people to cover two or three shifts and each team should include trained people to adequately cover the following roles.

    A senior, preferably qualified communications or public relations, person. In some cases, the leader will be the principal or deputy principal. The leader will:

    • advise the principal and any other spokesperson to be involved,
    • liaise with HR, legal advisers and emergency services where appropriate,
    • prepare the key messages and briefings,
    • direct the team,
    • chair news conferences,
    • handle any VIP visitors and,
    • keep in contact with key people, or opinion formers, who might not attend but will want to be kept up to date.

    The team leader must, in line with the college’s normal media handling protocols and in consultation with the principal, sign off all communications about the incident.

    All media or public enquires must be routed through the team leader, who will then brief the spokesperson. The team leader should, in consultation with the principal, manage the creation of a media statement containing key facts about the college and all the known details on the incident (subject to liaison with the police press officer, if a crime has been committed), which will be updated as soon as reliable information becomes known.

    They should also ensure that question and answer sheets are available to prepare the spokespeople for interviews and news conferences.

    Spokespeople will, after consultation with the team leader, give interviews, talk to relatives and be the guides for any visiting VIPs. Not only must the designated spokespeople take part in the whole team training day, but they must also be media trained.

    If there are any deaths or serious crime issues to be discussed, it should be the most senior member of staff or board of governors available at the time who is interviewed. If the incident is serious and the principal and/or the chair are known to be in the country and not publicly visible in as short a time as possible, it will be taken as being cavalier and uncaring, which will be instantly damaging for the college’s reputation.

    While delivering the agreed message, the spokesperson must:

    • be genuinely concerned about the situation,
    • accept responsibility for it (but not blame),
    • apologise and explain what has happened as far as they know and what is going to happen next, and
    • find out more and move towards resolving the incident or, when it is at an end, prevent its recurrence.

    Spokespeople must never speculate about what might have happened, make defensive excuses, blame anybody else, offer to resign or over-promise.

    Internal and external relations
    This role will be responsible for ensuring the college and the wider community is kept fully informed. They will handle calls from students, staff and others, according to briefings from the team leader, and co-ordinate offers of help and log all enquiries. They will also ensure that relevant members of the public, as directed by the team leader, are kept fully informed.

    As offers of help might arrive from various quarters, the team leader will create a briefing as to how they are to be handled. This team member might be someone in a media relations post and should also ensure that the website and all social media channels are kept fully up to date with outgoing information and are monitored for activity, questions or emerging issues.

    Media relations
    This role will deal with calls, ensure they are answered promptly in accordance with briefings from the team leader and organise news conferences. There must be no time or room for speculation and the news media will also require a room (not close to a relatives’ room) with catering and regular spokespeople, reports and, if appropriate, daily news conferences. The news media can be extremely helpful at times of crisis, and they should be regarded as such. As with social media, news channels should be monitored and mentions of the college or the incident logged for evaluation.

    Note takers
    As each call or question comes in, note takers will need to record them along with any action taken to deal with them. This not only provides a full record for the eventual debrief but it also helps to ensure that every call and question is answered and answered again as the incident unfolds and more reliable information comes to hand.

    The notes will also be invaluable for future training, for responses to any Freedom of Information requests on the incident and to give the communications department a good record of who was interested, how their interest was expressed, handled and later used.

    Relatives’ support
    Some major incidents will require this post. This role will deal with all enquiries from and contact relatives and might set up a room where they could wait comfortably and be supplied with refreshments (in the event of an incident away from college involving staff or students for example). The relatives, even more importantly than the news media, must not be left to guess or speculate about what has happened. Their support person must gather their questions and organise for people to answer them, explain the situation or just talk to them while more information is sought.

    Other considerations
    Some incidents might need more help than the team can provide. These should be coordinated with HR, the emergency services, the security or estates department or others, as appropriate, who will be mindful of any child protection or health and safety issues that might arise.

    During the incident, the team will need to be regularly fed and watered, replaced and sent home to rest (even if they don’t want to) after eight hours. Therefore, a catering manager may also be part of the team.

    There must be appropriate resources for emailing and using mobile phones from the rooms identified and it helps to know where on the site the best signal can be found for a satellite truck, which is also safely within cabling distance of a power supply. The room where the core team and the news media are working should have a whiteboard, where information will be posted at regular intervals.

    Some parts of the site might have to be sealed off and visitors to the site should be carefully screened. Therefore, a senior member of the security staff may also be part of the team.

    The switchboard will need to have a full list of the contact details of everyone in the team so that they, or a substitute, are contacted and brought into college without delay. They should know that all media calls should go to the media coordinator and should also be aware that the news media might pose as students or parents, so all calls must be screened carefully. Therefore, someone from the switchboard could also be part of the team.

    As it may well be necessary to arrange for counselling, personnel or volunteer support, a senior member of the HR department could also be part of the team.

    Once you’ve assembled your team, the next steps are below.

    • Ensure each response team member knows how to contact the other at work, after hours and on holiday, also nominating back-ups for each role.
    • Ensure that nominated response team members are aware of their role and responsibilities as part of the team.
    • Ensure all relevant national, regional and local media are in possession of the contact details the nominated spokesperson.
    • Ensure key staff are aware of how, and on what matters, to contact the response team (e.g. media inquiries, student incidents, premises incidents etc).
    • Ensure all switchboard staff are aware of the appropriate protocols for media calls.
    • Ensure a system is in place for collation and appropriate filing of all relevant communications (documents, media materials, reports, etc) prepared and disseminated on specific incidents.
    • Maintain an ongoing awareness of wider FE sector issues and external college reputation.
    • Allocate responsibility for editing the audience impact checklist and incident scope checklist (see appendices) to suit the specifics of your college.

    If you know that you will not be able to train enough people from within your staff body for your needs, it’s worth securing help from outside. It might be possible to work with others in the public sector, such as the NHS, the local council or even possibly some of your feeder schools. It is vital that they come and train with your team, so that everyone knows their roles.

    A PR consultant who has expertise in crisis comms in FE is always worth considering, however, there are a couple of things to check first.

    You need to see evidence of work done by them and be able to check the impact that they have had during a crisis, especially on their clients’ reputations. The price must be agreed in advance, and you can check with AoC to make sure that it is a fair price at the time.

    Audit resources and facilities

    All equipment needed (notebooks, laptops or iPads, name and role badges, tabards, etc) must be kept somewhere that is easily accessible.

    A plan of the site, with rooms clearly marked for their suitability, must also be easily accessible along with the plan. You’ll need a room for the core team to operate from, and possibly rooms for relatives and the news media, too.

    News conferences should be staged in a room with doors at the front and back, so that those being interviewed can leave without having to walk through the journalists, who will very likely delay them from getting back to work. The plan should also show the best places for satellite trucks.

    You could provide journalists with media packs, containing useful information about the college, like site plans, staffing charts, subject areas or whatever might be appropriate to the situation.

    The response team list must also be checked regularly to ensure that all numbers are present and up to date. The principal must be called first followed by the team leader and the first team shift on the list. All members of the team should also hold a list of contact details for each other and others who they may need to call.

    As soon as an incident begins to unfold the team leader, or their deputy, must be brought in to assess the situation, and the emergency services and the switchboard must have their contact details. If required, the first team shift should be brought in for a briefing on the situation and set to carry out their roles and start their work. The rest should be left to be called in to replace the first group when they become tired. If a second shift is needed, there must be a full handover to keep matters running smoothly.

    It’s important to keep detailed notes of any incident because it will likely reoccur at another college at some point. The news media may publicly revisit you at the most difficult times: on anniversaries, during any resulting inquests or legal cases, when reports are published and so on.

    Practice makes perfect

    The team leader could also invite a local journalist or PR consultant to lead training for your team to ensure they have the tools and information they need to be able to work through a crisis comms situation. If you need recommendations, please do get in touch with AoC.

    Although a Level 1 incident is unlikely, it is useful to train for all eventualities. The scenario to be used should only be known to the team leader or a separate facilitator, who will take the team through it in real time, giving out information sheets as the day and the incident unfolds. Desk-top exercises can be also held to test communication channels, develop checklists and identify the need for specific skills in the team.

    Reports on practices or training should be added to the plan for information on any issues identified.

    For more advice and support on media relations and social media, as well as a range of checklists and resources, click here.

    If you need any support, please contact Julia Belguaty, Head of Communications, Marketing, Media and Research on and Kate Parker, Press and PR Manager on