Faced with communicating rapidly changing and fast breaking news—safety threats, snow closings, election results, and the like—schools need a flexible, easy-to use communication channel that’s accessible to masses of people.

Three-hours-later newscasts, day-later memos, and month-later newsletters just aren’t good enough any more. News is instantaneous, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Today, you don’t have to snooze to lose. A moment’s hesitation will do just dandy.

As school leaders, we know that getting there first—with the good news or the bad—is half the battle. You don’t want your colleagues and staff to find out their lives may be changing from the gossip mill, by opening the daily paper, or by clicking on your district’s anti-web site.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) faced this challenge just last month when the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals partially vacated a controversial ruling by the lower court in the school system’s ongoing desegregation case.

Thanks to a well-thought out Court Case Action Plan and a lot of teamwork and cooperation among the public information and technology departments, CMS’s internal and external web sites had a ruling summary with a link to the full court document shortly after it became available on the court’s web site.

As details developed, more information was added, including a press release announcing a special meeting of the Board of Education. To help all staff share accurate information with parents and the community, talking points were developed and posted on the CMS intranet.

Deploying all technology available, CMS blast-faxed and blast-eMailed the information to every school and department, as well as to community leaders and the news media. (Voice mail—another potent way for reaching all staff in a hurry—wasn’t a good option for CMS, as it isn’t used consistently throughout the district.) Recipients were then encouraged to tune in periodically to the district’s web site and cable television channel for ongoing updates.

As the Board of Education wrestled with the legal implications of the court’s decision, CMS continued to keep its various stakeholders up to date.

As new details evolved, our public information team drafted news bulletins and talking points, had them blessed by the legal department, then eMailed them to the web master at work or at home—depending upon the hour and the day. Immediately, they were posted on both the world wide web and the district’s intranet, with links to other relevant sites and documents.

The night before the district’s annual Showcase of Schools, the board voted to scrap the district’s Family Choice Plan. Since the Showcase also was serving as the launch for the now-defunct choice plan, the board decided to cancel it.

Within an hour, principals and volunteers at 145 schools and 15 departments were contacted and were directed to the web site and CMS TV Channel 21 for more details. The next day, after booths were dismantled and the food ordered for the Showcase volunteers was shipped to area shelters, a new communication plan and message points for the media and for staff were drafted.

Once again, CMS’s technology infrastructure and pre-planned communications strategy came to the rescue, as the public information office was able to dispatch the information through the web, eMail, fax, cable TV, and information telephone hotline within minutes.

Updates—including a timeline for key decisions and choice plan meeting cancellation notices—were posted and sent throughout the day and ensuing week.

Despite the ongoing controversy, response to the district’s communications effort by staff, parents, community members, and reporters has been overwhelmingly positive.

“People appreciate getting the information, even if they don’t like it,” noted Jerri Haigler, CMS director of public information. “The key is getting it right and getting it fast. It’s a difficult balancing act, but the results—especially in terms of staff morale—are worth it.”

Here are some additional tips:

• Think through your communication needs before you need them. CMS was able to respond quickly because it had involved staff members from several departments in the court case action planning and decision-making. Home numbers and eMails were shared, and everyone on the team agreed to handle specific tasks and responsibilities. A telephone tree was established, so that only one phone call was needed to trigger the entire response plan.

• Outsource areas where your staff is a little thin or when you lack certain technological capabilities. For example, saddled with outdated fax machines, CMS contracted with PR Newswire to handle blast faxes to internal and external audiences, as well as to the media. What would have taken the district several hours to accomplish, PR Newswire was able to handle within minutes. The time saved was well worth the cost.

• Remember to say “thank you.” Great communication is always a team effort. Successful collaboration is built on mutual trust and respect. “‘Thank you,'” said Haigler, “is probably one of the most underused phrases in education. We all need to do a better job of recognizing our schools’ unsung heroes.”