COMMUNICATING IN COVID: HOW ONE SCHOOL IS MANAGING THE CHALLENGE
23 Feb 2022
James Tucker is Assistant Head for Strategic Communications at The McAuley Catholic High School, Doncaster. A Geography teacher by training, he took on his current role two years ago, managing the school’s marketing and its three social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook and Instagram).
His school, a large 11-18 comprehensive on the outskirts of Doncaster, UK, has suffered the impact of COVID over the past seven months – from the initial lockdown closures to recent positive tests in several year groups. James talked about his experiences and passed on a number of highly valuable tips for anyone in the same position – read on to find out more…
Planning ahead and checking with others
As the COVID pandemic developed, James realised the school had an important role as a trusted centre of the community – translating complex Government information and delivering what was at times difficult news. It was therefore essential to plan ahead when making announcements and he took time to anticipate potential developments (such as having to send student groups home), and drafted statements, as well as considering carefully when would be best to issue messages.
This advance preparation meant that he had time to share statements with other members of staff – other school leaders, colleagues working in the school reception who have regular telephone contact with parents, and fellow teachers with secondary-school age children. This meant that he could compare what the school was saying with other schools, anticipate the reaction from parents and add in extra explanations where needed.
The system wasn’t failproof though – for example he was surprised to receive a number of messages asking why his school had not arranged ‘deep cleans’ when cases of COVID were identified. This was because other schools had led with that message, whereas The McAuley School had it as part of a regular routine!
Another frustrating time came when the school announced that it was waiting for information from a local bus company before publishing return-to-school information. This triggered a number of parents to immediately ask about specific bus routes – ignoring the actual message!
Using social media in a crisis
The McAuley Catholic High School has invested time and resources in building up a strong social media presence, especially on Facebook and has an active community of over a thousand parents. The issue facing the school was how would this relationship work if it was used for crisis messaging rather than positive ‘marketing’ messages?
From a practical point of view, social media was effective at spreading messages widely – the announcement the school was closing in the initial lockdown received 60,000 impressions within hours – and the school’s statement was picked up and run verbatim by the local newspaper within 90 minutes of posting.
However, there were huge number of comments and messages, with a number being negative. James took the decision to ‘hide’ these – but only while engaging with the poster to explain the school’s position in detail – in order that the comment did not detract from the important messages being conveyed in the original post. He reports a high level of success in defusing the issues raised this way. He is also looking to invite the most negative commentators to a Zoom or telephone call to explore their issues in detail – he has found that using his ‘school name’ is also good at reducing tensions as people will behave worse with an anonymous online presence!
Bing aware of the diversity of the school community, James was also concerned whether parents would prefer to access information in a written or visual format and so in addition to regular emails and written posts he created a series of Facebook Live broadcasts to talk to the community. As you can see from the link, these sessions were very popular and generated much positive feedback. They also led to extensive questions as well – one evening announcement meant that James was up from 9.30pm until 12.30am responding to questions – something that schools will need to plan for if they use this method of communication.
One final issue with social media – James is clear that you need to look at the positive as well as the negative! He printed off two pages of positive comments to share with fellow staff recently, to ensure that staff were able to see the impact of their hard work on the local community.
If you have tips and ideas for fellow school marketers, or would like to share your story, please leave a comment below or get in touch via email.