By Jane Maxwell Hulbert, founder, and Maureen Irwin Maguire, senior consultant, The Jane Group (IL)
A crisis impacts a school like nothing else does. Some of that impact is obvious: Parents, students, faculty and staff— and often alumni—are affected by what happened. Depending on the nature of the crisis, the head of school, the leadership team, or the board of trustees may be called upon to ensure that the crisis is handled with empathy and transparency, that the right resources are available, that the spokesperson delivers the right message, with the right tone, in the right way, at the right time, and continues to do so throughout the crisis.
The head of school works 24/7 to keep the trust of the parents and the goodwill and loyalty of the faculty and staff during a crisis. But those groups already have a lot invested in the school and, generally, if a crisis is handled well, they will remain supportive. Faculty and staff will choose to stay; parents will re-enroll their children for the following year. What’s not so obvious is the impact a crisis can have on admission department efforts. Prospective parents are a much more “at risk” group. They have not yet taken the final step of enrolling their children. At this point, it’s much easier for them to change their minds and select a different school.
What does this mean for the admission department? It means that their messaging during a crisis is critical for the school. It must to be consistent with what the head of school is saying. Everyone needs to sing from the same song sheet during a crisis. And the messaging should address the concerns of prospective parents and students—directly and convincingly. All members of the admission staff who might be talking with prospective families need to be trained and prepared for the tough questions and be ready to answer without hesitation. Ideally, the crisis team should provide the admission department with a list of expected questions, along with compelling answers. Often, if a crisis will impact the admission department, the director of admission is invited to join the crisis team.
Each crisis is unique and each set of circumstances is a little different. However, The Jane Group offers 10 guidelines that will help the admission department work successfully with prospective families during a crisis:
- When asked about the crisis, do not attempt to dodge the question or dismiss the problem as unimportant. Acknowledge the situation and that it is a difficult time for everyone. Do so with empathy and clarity.
- Know the messaging that the crisis team has developed and use it to answer the prospective family’s question.
- Stick to the message. Do not provide any additional facts, information, or worse, speculation. And do not talk “off the record” about what happened.
- Speak confidently about the school’s ability to handle the crisis and emerge stronger and more united. Talk about the school’s very capable leadership (if the head of school has been discharged, you will have to adjust this talking point).
- If the family continues to ask questions and does not seem satisfied with your answers, refer them to the spokesperson for the crisis (typically the head of school).
- Once you have discussed the crisis (hopefully briefly), refocus the conversation on what’s at stake: the parent’s decision to enroll a child at your school.
- Be positive and confident. This will go a long way to instilling confidence in the prospective family.
- Speak to the strong history and tradition of the school, including its core values and what it stands for in the community.
- Remind the prospective parent about why they first considered your school. Talk about what makes it great, unique, etc. State with conviction that none of that has changed.
- Talk about the strong school community and the mutual trust and respect between parents, faculty, and staff.
Remember—this crisis shall pass. And when it does, the skills you have honed with your expert handling of the situation will make you and your team a stronger admission office in the future.