The vast numbers of survivor testimonies already published on ‘Everyone’s Invited’ have struck hard and deep at the core of everything schools are expected to stand against, which is why it is so shocking and difficult for schools to respond to. Particularly those schools that the testimonies have shone the spotlight on whilst many others are waiting, hoping the light doesn’t shine in their direction. This short article seeks to establish how schools could respond to such a crisis, what they could do to prepare before it strikes and how this whole experience might be used to help prepare for the next big challenge facing education.
Put ‘people’ at the heart of any crisis response
When at the centre of negative public and media attention, it is easy to become defensive and lose sight of the reality of the situation. If school management responds to the Everyone’s Invited issue as a reputational crisis first, they are missing the point entirely. First and foremost, this is a safeguarding situation; young people may have been hurt and the response should focus on this. An appropriate first public response might therefore be: ‘we need to establish the scale of what has actually happened and secure everyone’s welfare as a priority, we need to show we care. Then we need to demonstrate we are in control by explaining what we have already done to prevent this situation in the past. Finally, we could commit to planning what we can do to help make the situation better now we know about it and how we can ensure it stops here’.
At this point, the opportunity might even be taken to thank Everyone’s Invited for highlighting such a significant issue that management was previously unaware of (I don’t believe any school sets out to create a “rape culture” environment). But of course, now that school management is aware, an opportunity presents itself to react and implement any necessary cultural change for the good. Failing to implement tangible change is only going to store up bigger issues for the future.
A movement for change
This powerful movement for change has been spreading rapidly via social media, not the website many of us ‘oldies’ have stumbled upon. It started with students connected to London independent schools, all in close proximity. Why? Because the students’ expansive social media networks overlap between nearby schools. More recently the movement is filtering across the country into state, independent and universities. It continues to spread from network to network. The ‘r’ number is way over 1! This is not a problem that can be brushed under the carpet, it won’t just go away.
The problem with social media
As Pharos has received calls from client schools asking what they should do in light of the current press stories, we discovered that very few have established effective social media monitoring, including the various permutations of their school name. School staff have been manually scrolling through the Everyone’s Invited website looking for a reference of their school name. Pharos works with enough schools to know no-one has time for that!
There will be other websites, other forums where your school is being discussed, positively and negatively. You will want to be alerted to what is being said so you have the opportunity to join the conversation and bring it under control before it goes viral, before the press picks up on it and before it causes reputational damage.
We will commit to writing a separate article shortly about how schools can set up social media monitoring (and no, Google Alerts alone won’t suffice!). If you need this done properly and urgently, Pharos can assist you, but there are many software solutions out there that you can configure to do this for you cost-effectively. Hootsuite, Gramfeed, Social Mention, Radian6, Meltwater and SproutSocial are just some of the services you could utilise to do all the hard work. As all schools have hundreds or thousands of social media experts as students who communicate almost exclusively via this medium, to not have proper social media monitoring in place puts you at risk. In short, it means you may find out you have a problem via a call from a journalist.
Use the media to communicate your message
While many schools issued a brief statement to openly condemn the alleged behaviour, they were less open about how they plan to investigate the scale of the issue, how they will look after those most affected, what they have done previously to protect against this scenario, what they will do to help address the situation and to explain how committed they are to ensuring it is stamped out, once and for all.
All those young people sharing their most personal, darkest secrets are doing so to enforce a change. Their privacy is a hefty personal price. So they deserve to know what is going to be done differently. Answering these questions is not only fair, it is the responsible thing to do. It is putting ‘people first’ and shows you care but it also gives the media less opportunity to point the finger. When someone apologises and tells you they won’t do it again, it is hard to chastise any further. The same goes for the media.
More than that, all those stakeholders, past, current and future, will hear your message, written to them but delivered via the media and they will make an assessment about how you’re responding. Be warned that the media will aim to seek out a credible source of information for any story. If that is not you they will find a less credible, ‘credible’ source and report their side of the story instead.
So, avoiding the press when the story has already broken and it’s all about you can be a risky strategy. It can create the impression that there’s something to hide even when there isn’t, which might breed suspicion. Suspicion often feeds journalist intrigue which can in turn translate to negative headlines. In summary, when the media start gathering at your door, rather than pull the shutters down, it is far better to take a proactive stance, provide enough detail to demonstrate you genuinely care for those affected. That you are in control of the situation and that you are committed to ensuring you will make it better for the long term.
More than just words
Noone goes to work expecting a crisis to strike (well, Pharos is probably the exception there!). The point is you are not expected to have all the answers immediately, but you can promise to find them. It will be important that the words spoken to the media and other stakeholders are reinforced by actions. Exactly what is the school doing to find the answers and formulate a plan? One school has recruited a former female judge to conduct a thorough investigation. This is very sensible and demonstrates they are taking things seriously.
Furthermore, in managing the situation, the school can demonstrate solidarity and a desire to work together with other local schools to address a wider cultural issue, which after all this is. Create a platform for students to be able to confidentially and safely report inappropriate behaviour of all kinds. There will be a great many modifications schools can make to help rebalance attitudes, the Everyone’s Invited website even lists some on their ‘write to your school’ page.
Don’t wait, prepare
It is probably fair to say that the wider issues highlighted by this movement are cultural, with some parallels to #meto or #BLM. They are not isolated to independent schools or any particular type of school. So if you are nervously waiting for some secrets connected to your school that you don’t yet even know exist but you’re probably sure are out there somewhere, what should you be doing now?
Firstly, you’re not alone. Pharos has received a number of calls asking this over the past couple of days. Secondly, remember this should be about people, not reputation, so take the front foot and act as if you have been listed. Implement those changes (see above) that will help redress the balance and remind all students to be kind to others and that we are all equal and have equal rights. Start the conversation with your students and parents by explaining what you’re doing already and what you will do going forwards. Keep listening and responding.
Don’t wait for the media to call before you act.
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