Importance of filling the crisis communications vacuum

Over the weekend the inevitable happened and a child at the school my children go to tested positive for COVID-19. What followed was the start of a classic crisis communications vacuum that needed a swift and decisive response. Initial reports on the school’s unofficial Moms and Dads Facebook group began with a classic ‘vaguebook’ post, by not confirming the year group the child was in.

The deliberate vagueness of the post led to mass speculation, with several parents suggesting potential year group bubbles. Speculation was based on children that had been previously absent from school or rumoured to be awaiting test results.

A perfect example of how the rumour mill or grapevine, particularly since the advent of social media, can these days even more quickly fill any crisis communication vacuum. However, in this particular instance the school response was absolutely spot on and particularly swift.

Filling the void

Sunday evening a text was sent to those parents whose children had been in close contact with the pupil that had tested positive and would therefore need to self-isolate for 14 days.

The text, as you would expect, was forwarded to other pupils who were not in the particular bubble affected, but those in the same year group and shared on Facebook and I’m sure in WhatsApp groups too. This created considerable uncertainty amongst the whole school community which overflowed into Monday morning.

To counter the misinformation circulating, a letter was sent early Monday morning from the school to update all parents on the confirmed COVID-19 case that we ‘may have heard about through our community on social media or from contact with other families this weekend’.

The clean up

The letter was impressively detailed about steps taken in line with advice from the relevant authorities and what action we as parents needed to continue to take if in doubt. Vacuum well and truly filled and many reassuringly positive posts on Moms and Dads Facebook from previously unsure parents. It certainly answered all the questions I had, in particular whether children self-isolating would be set work to do at home.

The communications vacuum is something I often talk about during crisis comms media training with housing sector clients. Typically, when dealing with an incident the lack of information from the organisation concerned creates a vacuum which will fill whether you want it to or not.

The most worrying aspect being the likelihood of it being filled with ‘dirt’ – often what our customers and other stakeholders imagine is actually far worse than the reality  of any incident. Our job as housing comms professionals, in almost all cases, is to get our messages out there first and to be proactive, taking control of the narrative.

Obviously, some incidents we can’t prepare for and we are only able to react to as quickly as we possibly can. But, for the more commonly expected incidents we should be ready to fill the classic crisis communications vacuum and have a set of pre-agreed messages prepared.

That said, my vacuum cleaner is always on charge should I need it at short notice.

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Sarah Thomas is an Associate Director at See Media