Crisis Management in Public School Districts

Article excerpt


School districts, as public institutions serving kindergarten through high school students and their communities, can improve their crisis-ready status by strengthening crisis response strategies. Crisis management offers strategies and processes for preparing for, preventing, responding to, managing, recovering from, and learning from crisis events. Proactive steps can be taken to improve crisis readiness before, during, and after a crisis event. In the crisis-rich environment of the new decade, education systems need to continue to evaluate current crisis plans, modifying them to address emerging issues, incorporate new communication methods, and respond to diverse stakeholder groups.

Societal and technological changes swirl around us at a dizzying pace, creating new opportunities and, at the same time, exposing organizations to greater potential for crises. From the personalturned-public crisis of golf star Tiger Woods to worldwide economic and health threats, organizations are expected to be ready to respond quickly and appropriately, whatever the challenge.

Crisis case studies abound, if only organizations pay attention. In the early days of crisis management-following the Johnson & Johnson Tylenol tampering crisis in the 1980s- we saw ample examples of organizations slow to acknowledge new vulnerabilities. In 1985, Business Week reported that "most companies are abysmally prepared for crisis (p. 74). In a study by Fink (1986), 89 percent of the chief executive officers of Fortune 500 companies reported that a business crisis was almost inevitable; in spite of that recognition, fully half of CEO respondents did not have a crisis plan in place. Still, these CEOs were confident in their ability to adapt; 97 percent felt very confident or somewhat confident that they could respond adequately to a crisis. The Exxon Valdez crisis in 1989 is frequently cited for its shortcomings and the lessons that can be learned (Harrison & Prugh, 1989; Small, 1991). By 1992 Pauchant and Mitroff wrote that the "reactive 'try-and-fail' method... is ill suited to the present situation. Considering the dangerous technologies used nowadays, industrial disasters now have global impacts... We can no longer afford to muddle through. We need to become proactive and anticipate as thoroughly as possible the lessons for the future (1992, p. 32).

In the post September 11-era, it seems foolish to ask if crisis planning is something organizations should undertake. Crisis events may:

* Affect and disrupt the entire organization;

* Negatively affect the organization's publics, products, and services;

* Jeopardize the organization's reputation, future profitability, and even its survival;

* Dramatically redefine an organization, affecting its business and culture;

* Violate the vision of what the organization is set up to accomplish;

* Inflict long-term damage on the organization and its relationships with its stakeholders (Coombs, 2007; Coombs & Holladay, 1996; Fearn-Banks, 2007; Lerbinger, 1997; Murphy, 1996; Silva & McGann, 1995).

On the other hand, crisis management proposes strategies and processes for preparing for, preventing, responding to, managing, recovering from, and learning from crisis events. To be crisis ready, organizations should (a) evaluate the organization's communications climate, whether the organization is open or closed to sharing information; (b) identify stakeholders crucial to the organization's success; (c) create a written communication map or network of stakeholders that could be relied on in a crisis (d) develop ongoing, two-way communication between the organization and these key stakeholders; (e) incorporate a mix of traditional and new media in an established communication program; (f ) develop new ways of meaningfully engaging stakeholders in areas of shared interest and concern, and (g) anticipate the demands that users of traditional and new media will place on the organization in times of crisis (Gainey, 2007, p. …