When the pandemic turned everything we thought we knew upside down overnight, many schools were left scrambling with their crisis teams and developing “just in time” communications to keep their school community informed. More than a year later, we can reflect on what was successful and how to better prepare for the next crisis. Establishing new procedures and shoring up existing protocols enables schools to successfully tackle the next crisis. FINN Partners shares a checklist to get you started as you evaluate your communication plan and develop a crisis working group to learn from the pandemic and prepare for the future.

By Margaret Dunning, Managing Partner, FINN Partners

“Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors” — African proverb

Anyone in education today knows smooth seas are rare. Planning and preparation for rough waters is therefore essential. What’s involved – 

Create an “issues watch list”

  • List may contract / expand during academic year
  • Who’s on point to monitor these issues (including social media)
  • Establish general guidelines on risk level (when is it a crisis?)

Determine who should be involved in advance of and during a crisis

  • Consider creating a Crisis Working Group (CWG)
  • Establish a chain of command – who has responsibility for what within the CWG
  • Create a streamlined approval process so when decisions need to be made quickly it’s clear what needs to be done and who has final approval
  • Regularly update contact information for core team – and if someone’s ill or on vacation, who’s the backup person

Prepare materials for issues on the watch list in advance

  • Draft the following for each of the potent issues – these can be quickly updated in an actual crisis
    • Media statement, social media posts (language may simply frame a link to the statement or a letter), talking points for head of school and board chair, talking points for admission and development, correspondence for various communities (faculty, staff, students, parents, alumni, donors – may be very similar) and language for those answering phones to use (if media call main number, for example, seek name/number and then direct message to appropriate person)
    • Share media statement, shell of letters with legal counsel
    • Where will these documents be housed (password protected)
      • Who can access, who is responsible for updating
      • What’s the back-up plan should there be a power outage

Plan for how to handle media during a crisis

  • Who is spokesperson(s) for the school
    • Board chair is generally only person who should be speaking on behalf of Trustees
    • Spokesperson(s) should be media trained
  • If uninvited media arrive on campus, what are the protocols (same would apply for uninvited guests and protestors)
    • Create and review best practices with campus security
  • If press conference is needed, where will it be held (ideally in a separate building from any administrative offices)
    • If students have been injured, press event may be held at hospital
    • If law enforcement involved, coordinate carefully with them – they will have the lead


  • Add routine practice sessions to calendars for the CWG
    • Pick one, possibly two issues, for each practice session
      • Review materials drafted, update as necessary
      • Role play – goal is to be prepared to handle the actual crisis

Post crisis, debrief and update protocols based on learnings