We owe our staff, students and other stakeholders good leadership – but remember to show a human face as well

If there’s one word that sums up the challenge facing educational institutions in the current environment it’s uncertainty. There’s a lot of it around and a lack of clarity makes it hard to know what is the best action to take.

At this time, the most important thing that will reduce uncertainty is good communication. Students, parents, staff and other stakeholders are looking for leadership from your institution on how the emerging situation affects them.

More importantly, they want a human response. Think about those with concerns or who will be anxious, or disappointed. How does the 15-year-old teenager feel when they realise they have unwittingly left school for the last time?

In my work across different education sectors (primary, secondary, FE and HE), I’ve been offering support and developing plans for this situation over a few weeks now. The following are my five key steps to help your communications reduce uncertainty.

1. Be clear and truthful

Choose your words carefully People need to hear a clear message, using a few carefully chosen words. For example, state that your site, campus or office is closed to everyone for the foreseeable future. Detail any exceptions, provide contact details and explain alternative ways that support or services can be accessed.

The purpose is to avoid students or staff turning up in person. Consider how humiliating it would be for already anxious students to arrive at a locked building because they didn’t understand the clever phrase you’d come up with.

Captain ‘Sully’ Sullenberger was genius at this. You’ll remember he was the pilot who landed his Airbus A320 in New York’s Hudson River. His message to 155 passengers was clear and simple: “This is the Captain. Brace for impact.”

Explaining this choice of words in a Tweet, he said: “I wanted to sound confident because I knew courage can be contagious. In our aviation vocabulary there are certain single words that are rich with meaning. ‘Brace’ is such a word. And I chose the word ‘impact’ to give passengers and crew alike a vivid image of what to expect.”

2. Be accessible, be visible

The worst thing that an institution can do is to appear to be hiding from those who need support. You may not be able to resolve all of their concerns, but by being accessible and visible, you provide a human contact, which in itself is reassuring. That may be through email or other digital channels, answering the phone or in person. Take the time to listen to concerns, show empathy and ensure those you talk with feel informed and involved.

3. Keep communicating

Planned, regular communication is really important. Let your stakeholders know what information they can expect and when. Include a date and time when publishing or circulating information. Things are changing rapidly so share up-to-date information, and ensure anyone reading it knows when it was updated.

Your choice of communication channels (email, text, Messenger, social media, website, telephone or post) should depend on your audience. Don’t make assumptions. According to the UK Office of National Statistics one in eight 11-18 year olds can only access the internet at home using a mobile phone – and a large number of others have no way of getting online at home.

4. Keep yourself and others updated

Curate relevant information for your audiences. Bournemouth & Poole College does this with a dedicated COVID-19 page on its website. It provides links to official government and health websites plus FAQs for complex information. Chunking information into easily digestible segments makes relevant information quick and easy to find.

5. Keep the media close

Understandably, COVID-19 is currently the only story in town and journalists are looking for every angle to cover it.

  • Check that emails or texts couldn’t be misconstrued if leaked to the media.
  • Watch out for potential disgruntled parents or students, as the press like such stories.
  • Remind staff of who to contact should there be any media enquiries and of relevant policies on media relations.
  • Engage positively (when possible) if contacted by the media – they can be valuable when you’re trying to engage your community