ISSUE 73 -October 19, 2011
- Jump to: President's Message
At the risk of sounding like an insurance agent, I ask if you are prepared for a catastrophe in your school district. I don’t mean a crisis that requires meetings and strategies to navigate through. I mean a catastrophe where there is no frame of reference and you are operating in completely new territory.
Unfortunately a number of TSPRA members have found themselves in that new territory as their communities and schools faced destruction by hurricanes and wildfires. Even the most prepared PR practitioners could not anticipate the challenges of natural disasters such as these but there are PR lessons we can take from them. That’s why I spoke with two colleagues recently who shared their experiences and lessons learned from catastrophic events.
Donald Williams, executive director for community services and communications with Bastrop ISD, faced a multitude of challenges as 450 square miles burned last month in central Texas. A total of 1,600 homes in the Bastrop community were lost to fire just one week after school began this year.
“In the midst of the crisis you realize how important the school district is to the community,” said Williams. “Working closely with county officials, we worked to keep families informed about the fires, road closures and relief efforts for example.”
Because the fires were affecting numerous communities outside of Austin, specific information about the Bastrop fires was hard to get from local television or radio. The schools became the primary source for information and later became the center of relief efforts as well.
“We immediately opened up our doors to families who had lost homes and began processing and distributing donations that were pouring into the community from around the country,” he explained. “Since then we have been coordinating donations and requests to help those affected by the fires.”
Bastrop primarily used an automated calling system (SchoolMessenger) to send phone and text messages to parents. They also held scheduled press conferences twice a day with county and city officials. The scheduled conferences allowed the staff time to handle other duties and prepare for the conferences instead of fielding interview requests throughout each day. The media outlets also appreciated the schedule which fit their morning and evening news cycle.
While Bastrop was able to use facilities for relief efforts, Clear Creek ISD faced the added challenge of rebuilding schools that were damaged during Hurricane Rita.
Clear Creek’s director of communications, Elaina Polsen, explained that all of the logical communications channels were destroyed by the hurricane.
“There was no electricity and no cell phone service immediately after the hurricane hit. We were posting messages for parents on marquees and taping them to the doors. At the time we had a hardware based calling system so we lost that capability as well.”
Like Bastrop and Austin, much of the Houston area was impacted by the hurricane so local news for Clear Creek residents was hard to come by.
Earlier that same year, hundreds of children had been relocated from New Orleans to Clear Creek due to Hurricane Katrina. The school district had a system for processing the children and helping them get clothes and needed school supplies. A similar program called Operation Crayon was then employed by Clear Creek to help the many families who were homeless due to the storm.
Both Donald and Elaina felt that a good working relationship with local and county officials is critical to managing the crisis. Things go more smoothly when the agencies work together instead of competing for attention and resources. It is also a good exercise to imagine how you would manage a crisis if there was no school administration building or there were no schools. Clear Creek ISD saw 41 out of 43 campuses damaged by the storm. Bastrop lost no school facilities but found transporting students extremely difficult with numerous road closures.
Both also advised colleagues to look at their communication tools. Off-site websites, mobile apps and Internet based callout systems can all help manage a crisis from a remote location.
The emotional toll on students, families and your employees can’t be overlooked, they both explained.
“You can’t separate yourself from the events when people you work with have lost everything,” said Polsen. “It takes a long time to and a lot of counseling for a community to come back from something like this.”
As the year is winding down we understand that several of our longtime TSPRANs will soon be retiring. And after years of bragging on behalf of their districts, employees and students, we thought it appropriate to take a moment to brag on their behalf.
Mary Ann Simpson, APR
Chief Communications Officer, Fort Bend ISD
After a 38 year career in public school communications Mary Ann will retire on Friday, November 11. She has spent the last 16 years at Fort Bend ISD (FBISD) serving as Director of Community Relations, Associate Superintendent for Community Relations and Partnerships and concluding her career as the FBISD Chief Communications Officer. Prior to coming to FBISD, she served as the Public Information Officer for Region IV Education Service Center in Houston.
During her years at FBISD the Community Relations and Partnerships office was recognized by both the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA), Texas School Public Relations Association (TSPRA) and the Texas Association of Partners in Education (TAPE) for outstanding achievement in both print and electronic communication.
Over the years Mary Ann has been very active in TSPRA serving as president in 2001-2002. She was honored with TSPRA's professional Achievement Award in 2003.
As for her retirement plans, "While I look forward to the future and having more time to pursue new interests, I will greatly miss working with my extremely talented staff and the many, many, other wonderful colleagues and TSPRANs that have been a pleasure to work with through the years. I have made life-long friends and that is something that I will always treasure."
She leaves this message for TSPRA members, "I want to thank TSPRA and all of my many fine TSPRA colleagues. TSPRA has always been a valuable resource to me in many different aspects during my 38 year career in public school communications. TSPRA provides opportunities to share, to learn, and to network with colleagues who face similar challenges--and that is probably the most important thing that TSPRA offers to its members. There were many years that I was very active in several leadership roles, i.e. president, regional vice president, committee chair for several of the larger revenue generating committees, as well as, the strategic planning committee. Serving in these roles taught me invaluable leadership skills that have served me well in my career."