When the World Trade Centers collapsed on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Dr. Bart Rocco, then principal of a suburban Pittsburgh high school, was able to reassure the students in his building with a simple message: “You are safe.”

Eighteen years later, the communications landscape is infinitely more complex — and to students, their families, and school staff, infinitely more difficult to navigate. 

“Having plans and policies in place is critical, but social media has really changed the dynamic,” said Rocco, now a fellow with the Grable Foundation. 

Melissa Friez, assistant superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools, agreed. With the widespread availability of technology and student access to global platforms such as Twitter and YouTube, “if a crisis happens during the day, you have dozens of reporters texting their families,” she noted.

Both Friez and Rocco served as panelists in Premo Consultants’ thought leadership workshop on school crisis communications, which included school officials, legal experts, and members of local and national media to discuss what all agree is a universally pressing task.

Whether it’s a shooting, a natural disaster, a pending teacher strike, litigation, or something as simple as a questionable social media post, panelists agreed that the message is clear: it’s not a case of if a crisis will happen, but when.

Comprehensive planning and continuous practice of crisis communications “is as vital as a fire drill,” Rocco said.

A packed audience of school officials listened closely as the panelists deconstructed the complex communications landscape, outlining best practices for creating more immediate, more effective sharing of information with parents, the public, and the media. The panel was captured by Sparkt, a community-based news site that leverages social media to share impactful stories.

Marty Griffin, a longtime investigative reporter for KDKA-TV and a host on KDKA radio, urged schools to work toward building lines of trust with the media. Without it, “the flow of information doesn’t get to the people who really matter: the parents,” he said. “‘No comment’ is the worst thing you can tell a guy like me. It inspires me … I believe in helping people. If I believe I am helping someone or providing a public service, I will do it.”

Ira Weiss, solicitor for Pittsburgh Public Schools and several other districts, agreed that defaulting to “no comment” is a poor decision in a crisis. Rather, he urged the audience to prepare factual accounts of what happened to the extent the circumstances and the law allow.

“You have to plan what you’re going to say and how you’ll respond to both official and social media responses,” he said. “You’d better have a plan and know who is going to talk to the media.”

Joanna Doven, CEO of Premo Consultants and former press secretary for the city of Pittsburgh, explained that the company’s experts have helped shape crisis communications both through proactive training and in real-time assistance to districts as crises unfold. 

“As a parent, I believe that I should know how my kids’ school is going to communicate with me if something happens,” she said. Parents are busy, and a crisis only accelerates confusion: “Make it easy for them.”

Additionally, she urged participants to view the potential for crisis as an opportunity to shine in preparation. 

“Run drills, planned and unplanned, regularly. Work with a third party to audit your plan and response time,” she said, adding, “In a crisis, school districts should think of themselves as a news outlet. You have all the tools to do that.”

To watch the full panel discussion, CLICK HERE.

Will your school be prepared when faced with a crisis? Premo Consultants is available to audit your current communications plan and to help create proactive protocols and messaging that will allow you to act immediately when the time comes. Contact us today at info@premoconsultants.com or 412-219-9402.