It was only a matter of time. As the technology revolution seeps inexorably into every corner of American education, administrators increasingly must deal with cyber-related crises.
Here are just a few recent examples garnered from school public relations professionals around the country:
• During sensitive budget negotiations, an eMail reply composed by a frustrated administrator that blasts a local elected official is sent accidentally to the offending party and the press.
• A beloved teacher receives racist eMail threats on her home computer from a former student, prompting an intensive federal investigation.
• A local television station requests access to all campus and school bus surveillance tapes, citing the Freedom of Information Act.
• Two teenage boys post nude photos of their girlfriends on a web site created at home and at school, download the pictures, and then pass them out during study hall.
• A math teacher demonstrates the new mobile tech lab for parents, only to find out that one of her more enterprising students has programmed every computer to scream “(name of school) sucks” when the multimedia laptops are turned on.
• A detailed bomb threat and a “hit list” of popular students are found blinking ominously on a media center computer, prompting an immediate school-wide evacuation.
• A coach creates a web page touting a new sports drink and other supplements (all of which are banned by state policy), links it to the school’s web site, and promotes its use by student athletes.
Ranging from simply embarrassing to criminal, incidents like these are still novel enough to cause a big media splash and generate tough questions from the school board and community.
As with non-cyber crises, the best offense is a good defense. Check your school and district policies and procedures for any weaknesses and omissions.
Is your district’s acceptable-use policy (AUP) clearly written? Does it spell out the different rights, roles, and responsibilities of students, faculty, and staff? Does it cover non-classroom uses, web authoring, and publication rights?
Are technology-based expectations and potential violations adequately addressed in your student and employee discipline codes and handbooks? Do parents and students sign a compliance agreement every year? Are employee eMail and web guidelines reviewed at staff meetings and covered as part of the district’s orientation program for new teachers?
If your district’s Federal Educational Right to Privacy Act (FERPA) policy says that yearbook photos and videos are directory information, does that mean these items may be obtained as a public record by the media or posted on the web without permission? What about the videotapes from campus and school bus security cameras?
Many board policies, including those covering FERPA compliance, were written before the advent of the web; having a strong AUP is only the first step.
Even the best-trained and prepared school personnel are going to blow it once and awhile. Add tech-savvy teenagers to the mix, and the likelihood that you’re going to have to grapple with some sort of cyber crisis in the future increases exponentially. Suddenly, that air-tight policy will look like a sieve when the media is done chewing on it.
The key is to get control early. Get out in front of the issue by quickly telling people what happened, why it happened, and more importantly, what you’re doing to deal with the issue or people involved. If appropriate, share what you’re doing to keep this type of incident from happening again.
As more information and details become available, share them, briefly and concisely. Focus on your internal audiences first. Your employees want to find out about issues and problems from you, and not from the daily newspaper or local TV station.
This is where your internal communications networkincluding eMail, online publications, voice mail, intranet, and cable televisionbecome invaluable. Armed with accurate information, employees can help diffuse the situation. If they have to guess at the truth, chances are they’ll guess wrong and wind up fanning the flames one more time.
Research shows that school employees, especially teachers, are the most credible information sources for parents. Employees can be powerful allies during a crisis; you ignore them at your own peril.
As soon as you get the facts to your internal audiences, start leveraging your external communication channels, from PTA and business leaders to the media. Don’t try to cover things up or keep the issue “within the family,” or you’ll only make it worse.
The goal is to get the issue resolved within one news cycle. If the media doesn’t think you have something to hide, chances are they’ll move on to the next story within 24 to 48 hours.
Stalling, refusing to comment, withholding public records, and threatening staff with disciplinary consequences if they talk to the media practically guarantee that a one-day story will turn into a multifaceted investigative report.
Even if the media stays on the story longer than the facts warrant or sensationalizes it beyond recognition, you can still keep students, parents, teachers, staff, and community leaders on your side by keeping them informed as facts develop.
Fax blasts, eMail updates, and electronic newsletters will help you keep your key stakeholders apprised. You can even post an open letter to the community or a digital interview with the superintendent on your school or district web site.
The goal is to get there first, with the good news and the bad. The more transparent your organization becomes, the more effective your communications will be.
While we need to work proactively with the media, we need to recognize that no matter how positive our relationships with reporters are, they still have a job to do, and it’s not serving as an extension of our school PR or public information office.
The only way to make sure that the people who matter most know what is really going on in your organization is to tell them yourself. While cyber terrorism may make the news, the real power of technology lies in the ability it gives us to communicate quickly, effectively, and inexpensively.