Stacy Bettison

Stacy L. Bettison is a communications strategist and owner of Bettison Consulting LLC. Stacy focuses on crisis communications, reputation management and media relations. She is also a licensed attorney and has practiced law in both Chicago and Minneapolis.

Posts about Education and literacy

Dusting off school crisis plans – good for kids, families & schools

Posted by: Stacy Bettison Updated: September 12, 2012 - 4:20 PM

Back to school is upon us. Summertime schedules have officially yielded to school days. Fall is also the season when school/district crisis management teams meet to review their programs and policies.

Unfortunately for most schools, crisis is not a question of if, but when. It may not be this year, or even next. But given what’s at risk – the safety and well-being of our children -- schools must be vigilant.

Last month I presented “Crisis Communications & Issues Management for Schools and Parishes” at the Minnesota Catholic Education Association’s Annual Convention. Much has been written about school crisis preparedness, and there are countless resources on the internet to assist schools. My talk included some fundamental strategies for managing critical issues and crisis communications, and throughout I focused on this overarching theme:

Crisis typically results in chaos. And any type of crisis, controversy or conflict – no matter the size – creates distress for those impacted.  In the worst case, lives are at stake.

Crisis, however, can be an opportunity to strengthen an organization and its relationships. In planning for crisis, we must consider the opportunities a school has to become stronger so it can better fulfill its mission, better safeguard the well-being of the children in its care, and better develop the relationships that are vital to the school’s success.

It’s all about relationships. Crisis planning can result in stronger relationships with children and families, which ultimately benefits the school.

1.    Children. In planning, schools can find opportunities to strengthen the most crucial elements for a learning environment.  In reviewing plans, ask the following:

·         How does this plan create a safe, supportive, and predictable learning environment?

·         What other aspects of our plan would make our school more safe, more supportive, and more predictable?

A school can strengthen its relationships with the children by sharing age-appropriate information about its plans and expectations. Drills are an obvious (and required) way to plan, but other communications that help children know what to expect helps them feel safer and more trusting.  (See www.ready.gov/kids and www.ready.gov/parents-teachers for some options.)  Sharing plans can elicit questions from children, and this gives an even greater opportunity for teachers and administrators to hear and address new concerns.

For older students, seeking involvement and input for some crises may be appropriate and beneficial. Under what circumstances student involvement would be good for both the students and school are considerations that a crisis management team could give thought to as it plans.

In recovery communications, thinking through ways to validate the stress or fear of the past is critical. The balance here is to acknowledge the pain of the past, but not dwell on it. Positive, forward looking communications help the healing process. The communications are not trite, but they are substantive, meaningful and supportive of the student and their families.

2.    Families. Schools can strengthen their relationships with parents and families by asking this one question:  What would our families want us to do?

The particular demographics of a school may influence families’ concerns, but generally speaking, families want to know: 

·         If their children are safe

·         How and why the crisis happened

·         How the school/district will fix any problems

·         How the school/district plans to prevent the problem from happening again

·         Who is accountable for school safety and crisis management

·         How they (parents) can help

To top it off, families want answers to these questions immediately, if not sooner. Once word of a crisis spreads (text messages, Facebook and Twitter promise it will spread fast), the school’s phones will ring and the e-mail inboxes will fill with questions from panicked parents.

A prompt response is among the most important strategies for managing a crisis effectively and maintaining a strong, trusting relationship with families. Schools should review the communications portion of their crisis management plans now. They should focus on providing fast, accurate and detailed communications (through communications technologies, social media, special web sites).  Schools should do this even if all the answers to the above questions are not yet known.

The role of teachers and non-teaching staff. A school’s teachers and non-teaching staff are the lifeblood of any successful school. A school can strengthen its ability to respond to a crisis by giving all staff an opportunity to not just review and receive training of plans (which is required), but to provide input to the crisis management team as well. Because teachers and even some non-teaching staff are often the most connected with the students, they are in a good position to provide feedback about student needs. This enables school leadership and a crisis management team to develop a more comprehensive, effective plan.

In recovery communications, teachers and non-teaching staff are critical to assessing how best to support children, identify special situations that require attention, and effectively talk with children and parents to foster a trusting, safe and supportive relationship.

The school is a haven. Other than the home or place of worship, school is the most important place a child spends time. Schools are places of learning, friendship and development. They are places of success and struggle, triumph and tears. Above all, schools need to be safe havens because learning requires safety and security.

Climate change skeptic’s about-face: conviction and ego left behind

Posted by: Stacy Bettison Updated: August 7, 2012 - 8:23 AM
Richard Muller, professor of physics at University of California Berkeley, recently declared himself a “converted skeptic” on the matter of climate change. This news caused me to reflect on what it takes to undertake a public about-face as Professor Muller recently did.  
 
Muller had been a vocal critic of the scientific research suggesting the Earth is warming and that it is human-caused. His announcement last week that his own research shows global warming is the result of carbon emissions required courage to leave conviction and ego behind.
 
Conviction must give way to flexibility. The ability to blaze intellectual trails requires ample mental space. To understand the world better, we must set aside ideological convictions to consider new information, especially evidence that directly contradicts those beliefs.
 
“The Earth is flat” is one of many ideas in history that proved wrong—a development made possible when leading minds allowed conviction to give way to scientific research and observation.
 
Muller was not a zealot on the matter of climate change. Rather, his previous stance on global warming arose from his misgivings about the previous research supporting the occurrence of human-caused global warming.
 
Yet, he didn’t let his convictions that the science was flawed limit his thinking on the issue. In fact, he did the opposite: he conducted his own research focused on the flaws he spotted in existing climate change models, sought additional information, and tested his own models. 
 
His skepticism caused him to inquire further and dig deeper: “I embarked on this analysis to answer questions that, to my mind, had not been answered” writes Muller. 
 
Flexibility allows principled, set-in-stone thinking to be aside so innovative thinking can then flourish. It is the essence of intellectual curiosity and a requirement for advancing our understanding of the world.
 
To “see the light” requires humility. Whether through physics, congressional hearings or focus groups, the study of new information must also be done with a degree of humility. Long-held beliefs may be proven wrong if we are open-minded enough to let them.
 
The well-known story of Saul on the road to Damascus, used frequently to describe this phenomenon in secular contexts, underscores the point. “Armed with full powers and a commission from the chief priests” with the intention to bring back Christians from Damascus to Jerusalem for punishment, Saul came to “see the light.” Saul was humbled, and thereafter became one of the most significant early Christian leaders as Paul the Apostle. 
 
Whether in the New York Times or in the board room, a changed position will nearly always attract a vocal cast of critics making charges of flip-flopping, indecisiveness and even deception. The rotten tomatoes come with the job, but can be deflected with clear, concise communications as to the basis for the change. 
 
New information evolves our thinking, and evolved thinking means we change our minds.    
 
Follow Stacy on Twitter -- @StacyBettison
      

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