Communicating with families during times of emergency and crisis – a guide for ECEC
Early childhood leaders are many things – compassionate, thoughtful, dedicated. One thing many are not, however, is trained media professionals. Many leaders have not had experience in writing communication which may be shared many times over, and for those who are working in smaller settings, there may not be a team of public relations or marketing professionals to support them in delivering complex messages.
With the recent summer of fires, and now as the world comes to grips with the unfolding reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an increasing need for early childhood education and care (ECEC) professionals to communicate calmly, quickly and effectively with their parent community, realising that at any point in time, those communications could be shared more broadly via mainstream or social media.
In the absence of clear, calm and concise communication, parents and carers using a service may experience increased levels of anxiety, or may choose to withdraw their children from care prematurely, which could have a lasting impact on the viability of the service.
Likewise, employees who are not kept informed of changes can feel frustrated, anxious and confused, reacting negatively to changes, and seeking reassurance about their rights as workers.
To that end, The Sector has prepared the following guide, tailored to ECEC, to support in the development of “crisis communications” which may be required in a number of different situations, including in response to the ongoing pandemic.
Broken down into three main stages – before, during and after the crisis – the guide seeks to be an informative and valuable resource for the sector.
Before the crisis
Step one in this space is to be proactive. Look within the structure of any given service to identify the strongest communicators. These should be people who are able to speak from an educated position of authority, and who are able to research and understand the latest developments.
The person (or people) who speaks on behalf of the approved provider during a time of crisis, ideally, should have some type of media training, contextualised to the Australian media environment.
Once this person (or team of people) has been identified, they should meet with the approved provider, and brainstorm any and all of the crises that may affect the day to day running of a service.
These may include:
- Dealing with a natural disaster
- Managing a loss of life within the service
- Preparing for, and responding to, a pandemic
- A large change in the structure of the employees in the service.
The outcome of this discussion will not only prepare the service for the next steps in the response plan, but may also influence the quality improvement plan and risk management strategies the service uses.
Once the risks have been identified, a crisis response communication plan should be developed, which outlines how any operational changes that need to occur are communicated, to whom, and when.
It is important for the communications plan to include information about how key messages are shared, internally and externally. Instant messaging, social media, phone calls, email addresses, press releases, audio and visual messages…All of these are options for sharing information, but the method chosen needs to be fit for purpose.
While social media may be the quickest way of getting a message out, it often bypasses protocols and policies, and can cause unnecessary confusion amongst parents, families and educators when misinformation is shared.
The method chosen should take into account the needs of the parents and carers using the service. An email may be an appropriate choice in a community where the bulk of families work in desk jobs, but may be a poor choice in a community where many families have low levels of literacy.
Using more than one method – for example an email, a Facebook post, and a sign with heavy visuals within the service – may be the best way to get a message out quickly and consistently.
During the crisis
Caring for children will always be the top priority during times of crisis and challenge, but protecting the financial and reputational arms of the ECEC business is important too – after all, if incorrect messages are being shared, there may not be a place available to care for the children once the crisis has passed.
Knowing what is being said, by whom and where, is an essential part of managing a crisis. In both traditional and social media, employees, families and other stakeholders may be giving their opinion and perspectives on unfolding events, and being across this can help to catch negative trends before they get out of hand.
As well as seeking feedback from educators and families directly, it is important to monitor the digital presence of a service during a time of crisis. One freely available way of doing this is with Google Alerts, which can be set up to email a message whenever a series of terms appears on the web.
During a crisis, it is also important to have what is known as a holding statement. Holding statements are messages that are designed for use immediately after a crisis breaks, and can be developed in advance to be used for a wide variety of scenarios to which the organisation is perceived to be vulnerable, based on the assessment conducted before the crisis, freeing up time to manage the crisis itself.
For example, in the event that a service had to close due to the presence of COVID-19 among the staff team, an immediate holding statement may be:
“We have closed XYZ Early Learning today due to a confirmed case of COVID-19 in our educator team. We have implemented our crisis response plan, which places the highest priority on the health and safety of the children in our care. We will be supplying additional information when available on our website. Thank you for your care and concern.”
After the crisis
Once a crisis has passed, the crisis communications team should meet and review the situation.
- What worked?
- What didn’t?
- What were the consequences?
- Does any messaging need to be changed or altered?
- What did parents, educators and children want to know?
- What did we learn from this?
These communications and discussions can be recorded and used in the quality improvement plan for the service, providing an opportunity for reflection and growth.