Wednesday, September 4, 2013

When No News is NOT Good News

I have spent this morning watching the news unfold around yet another episode of school violence. I have been particularly paying attention to HOW the story is unfolding. What is the news media saying? What's happening in social media? What are the perceptions of the parents waiting for news? The first news conference played just a few minutes ago...about three hours after the event itself. The school district spokesperson said that as soon as the incident happened, they had two priorities: 1) restoring safety to the school and protecting the students and 2) preserving the integrity of the investigation. Only after those two priorities had been accomplished did they begin to communicate to the families.

I was impressed by a couple of things I heard this morning. At one point, one parent noted how well previous lock-downs had been handled by this school. What I heard in her voice was confidence in the leadership of the school--and that seemed to have a bit of a calming effect on her. The second impressive comment was from the school administrator, who was able to very clearly articulate the priorities noted above. Many people may disagree with those priorities, especially those parents who were craving information about their children, but the priorities were clear and were followed according to plan--did you catch that? According to PLAN. 

So why this post on a blog about faith communities and disaster? No organization is immune from these kinds of situations. Handling communications and in some cases, the media, are key. In the absence of information, people will fill in the gaps--with varying degrees of accuracy. When people are worried about loved ones, no amount of information will ever be enough--but no information creates fear and panic. How do you set and manage priorities around communication and message management?

When people are afraid, often the first reaction is to point fingers and criticize those charged with managing the event. So scratch that off your list right now--you will not avoid criticism in the short run. But how do you balance the need to communicate with the need to get a handle on what is going on? Just a couple of thoughts:

1) Have a plan. Who can speak for your organization? How do you reach your constituency in a hurry?
2) Share your plan. The woman who was confident in the leadership of the school because she knew their plan for lock-down was able to be calm and confident. Do your constituents know your plan? What can you do to develop trust---before you need it?
3) Come to grips with social media--it's here to stay. We can either fight it or learn to use it and get out in front.

I'm sure there are other things about communication and media management that others have learned--perhaps the hard way.  I would love to hear about it!

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