Posted by Susan Hardy Brooks, Assistant Vice President
As I watched news coverage of Moore Public Schools’ back-to-school activities I was moved by the fact that teachers and principals from schools that were destroyed after an EF5 tornado struck May 20, the ultimate crisis, could be ready to greet children in time for the first day of school at alternative locations. It was an emotional reunion for students, parents, teachers and staff. Getting to that first day of school took a huge amount of kindness, determination and teamwork.
In the days immediately following the tornado, I experienced those same traits when I had the privilege of working alongside Moore Public Schools’ leaders and school PR professionals from across Oklahoma and the country as we teamed up to manage the crisis communications response. Our firm was gracious enough to allow me to volunteer my time to assist. I was humbled to be a part of the team, and I learned a lot in the process.
When a crisis of that magnitude strikes, it is hard to imagine the overwhelming emotions, especially when precious lives are lost. And in the midst of all that emotion there is an onslaught of media attention and the need to create order out of chaos. Many schools, businesses and organizations have a crisis plan, but even the best plans may not incorporate some of the things I learned.
- Normal communications channels may be down for a few days. The school district’s phone system and server went down when the administration building was damaged. That meant that district officials had no mechanism for communicating directly with parents and staff. The crisis communications team quickly set up a Facebook page and Twitter account, and enlisted the help of Norman Public Schools and Moore Norman Technology Center’s websites to get information out. The Facebook page became a huge asset for communication in the days and weeks following the tornado.
- Don’t hesitate to ask for help. Members of the Oklahoma School Public Relations Association and National School Public Relations Association offered assistance in Moore immediately. Leaders in Moore quickly realized the magnitude of communications challenges they faced, and welcomed the assistance. To give you an idea, the crisis communications command center was staffed with 10-15 people from 8 a.m. – 10 p.m. or later, seven days a week for several weeks.
- Digital media will be a friend and foe. In spite of the success of the team’s digital media efforts, several citizen journalists, including teachers, posted videos and photos of real time events that framed early perceptions, good and bad. Be sure to incorporate guidelines in your crisis plans about when it is and is not appropriate to take photos or shoot video for the world to see.
- Managing donations and volunteers becomes its own challenge. School leaders from Joplin who came to Moore to help with the crisis response warned school officials about the well-meaning flood of donations and volunteers that would pour in. An online mechanism for donations was created, and people were encouraged to give dollars and gift cards rather than stuff. It was also important to develop a mechanism for organizing and managing volunteers.
- Kindness and teamwork will always prevail. The early hours after the crisis seemed somewhat chaotic as the communications team sorted out roles and responsibilities within a group of volunteer PR professionals that, for the most part, had never worked together. At times it seemed there were “too many cooks in the kitchen.” In spite of a few tense moments, there was an air of kindness and collaboration that brought everyone together as a team. Obviously, the school district’s response to victims and the school family were the first priority, followed by responding to massive numbers of media inquiries. The results were nothing short of amazing. Here is a quote from Confronting the New Normal in Crisis Response, an article by Jim Dunn, APR and Tom DeLapp, which ran in a recent issue of NSPRA NETWORK.
“Together, this team of volunteers set up a Facebook page (now over 6,000 likes) and a Twitter account, reformatted the website, started a newsletter, set up a media newsroom with dedicated phone line and email, created a 200+ media list, and arranged the first national news conference for Moore Public Schools to begin to tell its story. They squelched rumors, protected staff, created superintendent messages, set up systems to handle the media, collect donations and help with volunteers. They planned all media coverage of the Moore graduations, enabled President Obama’s visit and tour, collected quotes from the memorial, and wrote countless memos. This was all done in 62 hours.”
I have great respect for the folks at Moore Public Schools who demonstrated so many acts of courage and love following the disaster. Their work will continue for years to come. Every anniversary, storm season and graduation will bring memories and acknowledgement of that terrible day in May. I also have great respect for the many school communications professionals I got to work alongside during the crisis response. There is tremendous power in the human spirit, especially when we work together.
Susan Hardy Brooks, APR, is an assistant vice-president at Schnake Turnbo Frank, where she provides strategic public relations counsel to a range of clients from the public and private sector. She spent more than 19 years as a school communications professional, and still enjoys any opportunity to work with education clients from K-12, career tech and higher education. If you’d like to learn a more about Susan please visit her bio, contact us at our Oklahoma City office or connect with her on LinkedIn.