Jun 24, 2021 8 min read

The Communication Skills You Need When There’s a Crisis at Your Center: a Webinar Recap

Leah Woodbury By: Leah Woodbury

When there’s an emergency or a crisis at your child care center, you need to know what — and what not — to do. 

And often, there isn’t much time to make that decision as a small problem snowballs into a serious situation that could harm your center’s reputation.

Jason Russell, a former Secret Service agent, founded Secure Education Consultants to help centers mitigate the impact of small and big problems alike. He is the company’s president and chief executive officer, and gave his tips for handling a negative incident in a webinar sponsored by Procare called  “The Communications Skills You Need to Navigate a Crisis at Your Center.”  

So let’s jump into a recap of the webinar, in which Jason describes the importance of having a plan in place for a crisis and what you can do to prepare your business.

Understanding the scope of the problem

Jason described the difference between a crisis and an emergency.  An emergency, which can occur without a crisis, is a dangerous incident that requires immediate action. A crisis is a time of intense difficulty, when difficult and important decisions must be made.

He said to assume the worst-case scenario in every situation and that it’s okay for centers to worry about their brand and reputation — even in bad situations.

“Most of the time I see a crisis occur, it starts with something small,” Jason said.  

He recommended asking the following questions to determine the scope of your crisis:

  • Are people outraged?
  • Is it our fault?
  • Does it generate fear, making people wonder if what happened could happen to them or their family?
  • How large is the problem?
  • Is the problem escalating, and how fast?
  • How far is the reach — local, regional or even national?

When a situation spirals

Social media complicates efforts to spread accurate communication in a crisis situation. Posts on social media about happenings inside a daycare are something Jason sees more and more, especially as centers hire younger employees who frequently use social media. 

He walked through a scenario about how a seemingly minor problem grew into a serious issue that damaged a center’s brand and reputation. 

In that example, he described a situation of a 4-year-old boy who misbehaved in class and pulled a teacher’s hair. The director instructed the teacher to tell the boy’s mother what happened, which the teacher did.

But that evening, the boy’s mom saw a Facebook post from another parent at the center describing seeing a teacher forcibly pull a child from another teacher, and watching a teacher kick a block that almost hit another child.

The next morning, the mother noticed black and blue marks on her child’s arms and believed that Facebook post must have been about her son. She called the police, who contacted the parent who made the Facebook post. Officers also went to the center. That escalated to parents posting on social media that a police car was parked at the center. 

Soon, state licensing authorities got involved and requested records and video to investigate the incident, and a teacher was put on leave.

“Small things lead into big things when not handled correctly,” Jason said. So even when a problem seems small, ask yourself what information is missing and do your due diligence.

In this situation, the director could have talked to a different teacher to get another account of what happened, or checked the video. It’s human nature to filter information through a prism in a way that’s beneficial for the person recounting an incident —  so ask further questions before relaying any information to a parent. 

“There’s a pressure for you to communicate quickly to parents and stakeholders,” Jason said. But often, that pressure causes incorrect communication.

It’s the nature of people, especially in uncomfortable situations, to want a problem to go away as quickly as possible —Jason said he sees this in child care, and a crisis develops when a problem doesn’t just disappear.

Collect information with care 

The biggest weakness in responding to a crisis, Jason said, is that we want to respond quickly — but in an effort to do that, centers can be lax in gaining vital information and do not take the time to collect factual information to prepare an accurate account.

“Don’t be pressured to communicate too quickly,”  he said.

You don’t want to be put in a position of being forced to correct inaccurate information. It makes you look like you’re not good at what you do, he said, or that you’re hiding something. Mistakes happen when you try to catch up to events rather than get ahead of them.

“You look unorganized and have much more negative impacts,” he said.

Jason said he’s seen a director send an email to parents without getting approval from a center’s owner, or a teacher sends an email without running it by the director, and thus spreading inaccurate information. 

Document everything

And when something goes wrong, he said to document everything. 

“I’m a big fan of over-documentation,” Jason said. “You can never document enough.”

When Jason begins his work helping a center navigate a crisis, the first thing he does is pull the file of the employee who is involved. And almost always, necessary forms, such as those on policies and procedures or yearly trainings, are not signed. He encouraged centers to make sure such forms are completed correctly.

Make sure everyone involved writes down what they know about the incident — but stick to facts — and do that quickly before someone’s memory is impacted by other pieces of information or a person decides to change the story of what happened. 

Get information from sources that can’t be corrupted, such as a video recording. Without video, you’re forced to rely on what people tell you and are left to sift through accounts that vary. 

Make sure you have a policy on what your staff can say on social media.

He recommended having a written policy of how long you keep video and written documents. Generally, a good retention policy is keeping video for 14 to 30 days and documents for around a year for most small incidents.

Then if someone comes to your center two years after an event happened seeking a document that you’ve thrown out, you can point to your policy of keeping documents for one year.

How to communicate effectively 

When there’s a crisis, prioritize communicating with your staff, Jason said. Many centers put external communication first, giving staff the impression they aren’t as important. And that can lead some staff members to make their own conclusions. 

Jason is a strong believer in written, and edited, communication. Get a professional to read any statement you put out about an incident. And do not make excuses. Jason said making excuses equals losing. 

He said unless there’s a public safety reason, such as a child who has gone missing, there’s no reason to talk to reporters. But if you do, stick to talking points such as noncommittal phrases used by politicians including “safety is our top priority” and “we are cooperating with law enforcement.”

If a story does appear in the media, resist the urge to Google it — frequent online queries can move the story up in Google results so people will see it when searching for information on your center.

And use crisis services. Provide counseling for parents, children and staff, even in a small situation. 

“You’d be amazed how much those services get used,” Jason said.  

Upcoming webinars

If you’d like to hear Jason’s entire webinar, click here. And please join Procare for upcoming webinars! 

At 1 p.m. ET on July 14, Monique Reynolds, director of ECE business support services at Quality Care for Children, will discuss ways to automate to tackle your biggest child care business challenges.

And at 1 p.m ET on Aug. 18, join us for a webinar hosted by Tony D’Agostino, chief executive officer and founder of Inspire Care 360, to learn about how to stop the revolving door of ECE staff turnover.

Register today for the free webinars.

And don’t forget about Procare’s The Business of Child Care Conference on July 21 for Procare customers. From software-focused sessions like payment processing and lesson planning to sessions that help you shape the culture you want and hire the right people, the conference will give you a variety of strategies to help you take your business to the next level. Register here! 

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Leah Woodbury

Leah Woodbury is the head of content at Procare Solutions. Her job includes writing about topics that matter to child care professionals and finding ways to help them do their important work. She’s a mom of two who loves getting updates about what her preschooler is doing during the day via the Procare child care mobile app!

Leah Woodbury