Recent years have seen significant scrutiny such as in the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. We all know that negative press can be hugely damaging, and for schools in particular, it can harm the public trust and confidence placed in them. This in turn can affect relationships with parents, pupils, regulators, governors and staff (as well as those who may be looking to join the school in the future). It is far more sensible to actively seek to manage a reputational issue as and when it arises (even if, after careful consideration, that means taking no action) than to try to restore reputation after the event.
Here are some practical steps to help schools protect their reputation and respond to a reputational crisis:
Do not be pressured into making a statement on the spot or feeling the need to give a detailed response to initial enquiries. First statements to the press are almost always bland for very good reasons - not least because the full picture may not yet be clear, and saying anything which later turns out to be incorrect or inaccurate needs to be avoided. If the incident is serious enough to result in legal proceedings, the initial response may impact upon those. A more detailed response can always be given later, potentially with input from a PR advisor. At the outset, less is often more.
If a particular senior individual within the school is named in any complaint or allegation then it is important to consider any conflict of interest or any perceived conflict of interest. A named individual should not be the person leading the response to the issue, to protect both the school and the individual's position. Avoid having people marking their own homework.
Plan for situations posing the risk of reputational damage and when an incident does arise, ensure your internal team is organised appropriately and that there is a consistent message being given (and that all the relevant people know about it). Make sure that enquiries are directed to the appropriate individuals. Also consider tasking someone to monitor adverse comment in relation to the school and set up search alerts so that you become aware of any adverse issues.
Consider putting together a draft response or press statement as soon as possible. If the incident attracts wider attention, you will not be given much time to consider your response. This will also be helpful for planning the message that you want to send out. It may have an effect on your wider strategy for handling the incident. Plan your strategy before contacting third parties. Although you should prioritise compliance with legal and regulatory duties, care should also be taken to ensure that communications are effective. Carefully consider whether you want to be pro-active in communications as it may draw more attention to the issue.
Upon becoming aware of a potential issue, consider whether an investigation is needed. Consider what the school's policies and procedures require and, if appropriate, follow them. Even if any allegations may appear spurious, the school is likely to be expected to have considered them and be able to document that consideration. This will help the school make informed decisions. Retain all relevant information and take care when creating new documents relating to the matter (in any form, including email) as these could potentially become disclosable further down the line.
Bear in mind any obligations to report incidents to insurers, regulatory and public bodies (and consider the timing of such reports). It is sensible to review your insurance arrangements so you are aware of the available cover if needed and also so you can consider whether it is necessary to purchase further insurance to cover reputation damage and any associated PR and / or legal costs. Unless and until the school's insurance position is confirmed, nothing should be done which may prejudice the insurer's position.
Regardless of whether proceedings may be initiated (either against or by the school), understanding any potential claim is important. Essentially, you do not want to do or say anything that may have a negative impact at a later stage - having a strategy helps with this. Even where false and/or vexatious allegations are made about the school, careful consideration should be made before threatening or commencing formal steps such as litigation.
Asses the need for PR and legal expertise. Experts can help you respond to the situation and also help you consider any potential weaknesses which may leave the school open to media and/or regulatory criticism and how best to defend those. While many schools will have excellent comms teams, crisis PR often requires a different skill set and external support can be hugely beneficial. Given the short timescales often involved in responding to a reputational issue or media enquiries, expert input should be considered at an early stage on contentious and sensitive matters.
Review and monitor the situation on an ongoing basis, bearing in mind all competing interests and any deadlines.
From time to time, things will undoubtedly go wrong for schools, but responding effectively can help minimise damage to reputation.