39. Crisis Communication & PR Strategies with Janet Swiecichowski

Joined with Janet Swiecichowski, educational public relations professional, we address current happenings in crisis communications and discuss the breadth of public relations- going beyond media and distilling it to building meaningful and mutually benefitting connections with stakeholders in order to achieve your school’s goals.

About Janet Swiecichowski:

Janet is a nationally known educational public relations professional with more than 20 years of school PR, crisis communications and enrollment marketing experience. She is accredited in public relations and is a member of the Public Relations Society of America College of Fellows (500 of the top PR pros across all industries).

Find Janet Swiecichowski:

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Show Transcript

Tara: Welcome to Mindful School Marketing. I’m Tara Claeys. 

Aubrey: And I’m Aubrey Bursch. Today we’re joined by Janet Swiecichowski. Janet is a nationally known educational public relations professional with more than 20 years of school PR crisis communications and enrollment marketing experience. She is accredited in public relations and is a member of the public relations society of America College of Fellows (500 of the top PR pros across all industries). Welcome Janet! 

Janet: Thank you. I’m thrilled to be here for this great conversation. 

Tara: Thanks so much for joining us. We’re really glad you’re here. So let’s start out and if you could just tell us a little bit more about yourself, Janet and your background. 

Janet: Absolutely. My entire career has really been dedicated to bringing families and communities and schools closer together. So as you said, all that time in school, public relations through many generations of families and I’ve got two of my own, although they are now grown and independent, thank goodness out on their own. So a little bit more about me- I’m also really dedicated to being a lifelong learner. So I was in the profession about 15 years before I went back for my master’s in integrated marketing coms. And now I’m pursuing a doctorate in organizational change in leadership, focused on schools as well. So I think we always have to keep fresh. So this is a fresh conversation I’m excited to have. 

Tara: Yeah, that’s impressive. A doctorate. Wow. Good for you. 

Aubrey: And it’s very much in line with Mindful School Marketing, because we always are talking about how we grow and learn professionally and personally. So it sounds like you’re looking to grow and expand. So I’m excited and thrilled to have you here for many reasons. I think this is such a great topic and I’m eager to hear your take on things. And I think- just to back up a little bit, like for people who are unfamiliar with public relations, could you maybe talk about, what public relations is, and what are the key elements of public relations for, smaller schools and what should they be focusing on right now?

Janet: So at its foundational level, public relations is about building relationships with the stakeholders upon whom your success or failure depends. So who are those stakeholders that are gonna make you successful or who are the stakeholders that are going to block change initiatives. And how do you build a mutually beneficial relationship? I think too often, we think of PR as media relations, which is one tactic or strategy within PR, but it’s really about building those connections, partnerships, relationships so your organization can achieve their goals. 

Tara: That makes a lot of sense. It seems very logical, but I think you’re right- when people think of PR public relations, we think of press releases, that’s what, that’s what we think of. But it is much broader than that. And I love the idea of that relationship that you have with your community and especially with parents, what are some pR mistakes that you see schools making? 

Janet: I think number one is really thinking about information dissemination as a one way activity and that we have to tell all the time. But really if we wanna form connections it’s about finding people that want to carry our message and tell our story for us. It’s about making an emotional connection with the heart of families through storytelling, through images we have the opportunity in schools to inspire the future. We have the opportunity to leave a better future for our kids and our grandkids. And so really inspiring that hope and especially with children and teachers and administrators- making them believe that they can achieve more than they ever thought they could. And so when I think about mistakes, I think about it as if we think about a technical dissemination of information. Yes, we have to have that. You have to have basic information, but moving from a transaction of ‘here’s the information you need’ to, let’s all rally together around our kids, because that’s who we love. 

Aubrey: And that truly is the heart of the school. The kids and why parents are there is so important. So I’m curious because let me just be honest, it’s in many of my conversations with heads of school, this is coming up. Let’s dive into crisis communication. So right now, and in the past couple years, we’re dealing with COVID. Unfortunately school shootings, there’s a general tension around the country and especially around schools. What should schools be thinking about and how should they prepare for potential bad news or these situations?

Janet: Yeah. Well, first and foremost, we’ve gotta think about who the key stakeholders are that we’re communicating with. So in any situation and particularly in crisis, we need to remember that our internal staff are our first and most important communications. So our staff have to know what our crisis procedures are. They have to know what our safety procedures are. They have to be comfortable and practice them and be able to talk to parents in a really confident, calming and soothing way. That says the safety of your child is our top priority and we want you to trust. And we are asking for a huge amount of trust. So as we think about that, making sure that every member of our team is a key communicator that is sharing that message of safety and confidence. Second is thinking about the mindset or framework, frame of reference that our parents are in, cuz they are trusting us and it’s a big trust. It’s a big ask. And if we think about the parents that are coming of age and having children right now, the world is a really scary place. I mean, it really is. So last school year, we had a record number of shootings in schools. We have to be as much as we don’t wanna talk about it, we have to put safety protocols up front and have that a primary message cuz it is on the top of parents’ minds. Then you’ve got the safety with illness, transmission, whether that is COVID, whether that is lice, whatever illnesses- flu, every illness that is going around. Now important this year- I think it’s important that we’re talking and shifting our language a little bit at the national level, at the state levels, we are shifting from talking about a pandemic to being in an endemic phrase, this is something that COVID is gonna be with us for a long time. We’ve come a long way over the last three years and we know a lot more about how to deal with this threat. And so that’s why it’s safe to be back in school. It is safe to be still taking, you know, we wanna- all those health safety protocols, hand washing, staying home when you’re sick, all of those basic protocols are really important. And then talking about the fact that three years ago, we didn’t know how to treat COVID and we didn’t have immunizations. Now we have those things, so that for parents that are making that choice for their families, for certainly our staff being protected- we’ve come a long way. So we can shift from the fear of a pandemic to the resiliency of ‘this is part of everyday, like moving forward. And here’s how we’re going to build routines into our day that keep children always thinking about their health and safety’, frequent hand washing covering our cough, all of those things that we do on a regular basis to maintain as healthy of a society as we can. And then how we’re taking care of ourselves. Just basic good wellness practices- getting enough sleep, eating well, eating healthy, being active, all of those wellbeing pieces. 

Tara: That’s really helpful. I think crisis communication is such a tricky topic and I love how you’ve described that so gently. In terms of the communication, right there is the outward relationship with the general community, which can draw media attention for one thing or another, right? Whether it’s a staff person who’s in the news for something or something the school has done that’s good or bad. So that’s external. I think of that as maybe something that you might have less control over as a school. And, we work mainly with independent schools. So I’m gearing that towards that, that audience versus your internal communication and how those sync up with each other. Can you talk a little bit about those two audiences in terms of the relationships and media and communication?

Janet: Sure. As I think about our staff, they in any industry, our employees are our spokespeople all of the times, not particularly with media, but how are they talking about you as an employer when they’re in line at the grocery store, how are they talking about you as an employer when they’re on the sidelines at a baseball field, are they talking about what a wonderful caring place this is to work or are they talking about it as a drudgery day? And not thinking about the messages they’re sending parents in the community. So really having great conversations internally with your staff about how your organization wants to be perceived, what your core values are, how they can be repeated and then making sure that we’ve got internal channels that if you’re not thriving or you’re having a hard time come and talk to us so we can fix the problems or remove the barriers. But please don’t go whine at the baseball game and complain about your boss. Nobody would want that in any job. And then when we think about the media we have great stories to tell and people are hungry for good news. So when there are great lessons, hands on lessons or science experiments, or even every day reading goals that we can rally around proactively invite the media in, give them a couple days notice, never call ’em the day before, even though they call us the day before , we need to, when we wanna be proactive, say, here’s an evergreen story that you can come and cover at my school. And if it doesn’t fit tomorrow, can we make it next week and be really flexible, but we want to be proactive about putting our children, about putting, learning about putting our core values in the media any chance we can get. If I can go back to the crisis pieces because when crisis happens we only want one spokesperson and that should be the leader of the building. And there’s a great four step crisis protocol that I recommend schools take. And that is number one, anytime there is a crisis- speak quickly. And your first statement out of your mouth should be a statement of empathy. So whatever happened, this is hard, or this is devastating, or, we had a breach of trust today, and we want you to know that we are as concerned about it as you are. The second statement is a statement of fact really clearly and specifically what happened. And here’s what we know at the time without speculation, without too much information, certainly not disclosing anything confidential. The third thing is a statement of corrective action. What is your organization going to do about it? So if something has happened where a child was hurt on a playground, we are really sad that one of our children got injured on a playground and we are going to take action to make sure our playground is safe and have this inspection or whatever is required. And then finally, a statement of values. Wrap it up with that emotional connection with families to say, we love our children. We want our children to be safe. We want to provide a safe, nurturing environment and we’re committed to moving forward with that. Did that answer the question?

Aubrey: Yeah, that was pretty amazing. I think those if heads of school just had those four bullets in front of them, that would be so helpful because I think a lot of them have struggled recently with like, how do I craft a communication about whatever’s happening in the news or how parents are currently feeling or something that happened at school? And I think it’s just such a great, framework to be able to work from. So I really appreciate you sharing that. That’s incredibly helpful. 

Janet: So the opposite side of that is there are six or seven D’s that you wanna avoid. Okay, and those DS are denial, defensiveness delaying information, being dismissive of concerns being disparaging about anybody making a complaint or discrediting a report that has been made because that’ll just destroy your credibility.

Aubrey: That’s amazing. Such great, I mean, really just having those things in front of you would help a head of school, be able to craft a communication that was hit all those points, not the D’s, the other ones and to avoid things that I think make a situation worse, right? You know, you’re already dealing with a crisis and then you’ve done one of the D’s. Then the crisis blows up a little more. So I appreciate you sharing those. I’m curious, before we hit record, we talked a little bit about this and I’d love to dive into- kind of like this generation of parents that, that we have right now, because I think that probably influences like how you’re communicating and the type of communication. So I’m curious Sort of things in this generation, have you seen that has changed, it sets them apart and perhaps the considerations when we’re communicating with them, especially about crisis communication. 

Janet: Yeah. So there are two things that really define generations. One is common experiences that they’ve all lived through. So most parents today might have been in school or shortly after school when Columbine crisis happened and that school shooting in ’99 and they are defined by a concern for safety in school. They are defined by a distrust in many institutions that have fallen because of bad behavior, whether that is in banking or religion or government, many of our institutions have proven that they can misstep, to say it nicely. And the other is we are defined by the communication channels that were coming on as we came of age as adults. And so if our administrators are defined by a common TV news and our parents are defined by what’s on their cell phone coming across their feet at real time, that’s a real disconnect. And so for our administrators, I think keeping in touch. With parents and having parent opinion leaders that will be your ambassadors and will go to bat for you in real time. And in order to do that, you have to have a relationship with them. So whether that is a parent advisory committee that you meet with on a monthly basis but you really wanna empower parents to have confidence in you and speak up so that when something bad happens, they can say, ‘I trust this person, give them a few minutes or give them a little bit of grace. So that’s really key. I think another is that fear factor that there are just so many dangers in the world. And again, we’ve got their most precious resource, right? In our schools. And so we’ve gotta acknowledge and listen. And really acknowledge and attune to the concerns that they have and be careful not to be dismissive. Because while we might, while administrators might have, bootstrapped them their way up or walked 20 miles to school, whatever it might have been in their generation that they weren’t as fearful. We need to acknowledge that the emotions parents have today are real and we need to spend time with them and we need to work through them. We won’t, we also won’t have all the answers. I think it’s really important to remember that we are in the most complex era that we’ve ever been in, and as a nation with so much going on. So we don’t need to have all the right answers all the time either, but we need to be able to find the shared commitment and value to work through it together.

Tara: So brilliant. I’m really inspired by what you’re saying. and I wanna circle back a little bit to the beginning and the idea of media and what we commonly think of when we think of public relations and something that heads of school ask about often and administrators ask about often, which is how do you get media attention, right? I know you can publish a press release and send it out and that’s you know- what are some ways, some key ways to try to get media attention- good media attention?

Janet: So number one is that you have to have an interesting story. There have to be good visuals with it. Whether it’s gonna be on a blog that has a photograph with it or in a newspaper or on TV you really need to have great visuals and we need to be willing to let people come in. We can’t just say, ‘let me send you the information and you can’t see it firsthand’, because reporters need to see things firsthand. The other is watching, you have to be a consumer of news in order to speak to reporters. And so if you call up a reporter and want them to come and do a story, and you’ve never seen the type of news coverage that they do, you’re not gonna connect with them. Media relations is really about relationship building. Recognizing that media representatives are under incredible demands. I almost think more demanding than school leaders. They have to complete a story every day for the most part. They are on very tight deadlines. So the more we can have a story packaged for them, that will provide different points of view. If you want a story on a science curriculum, they may wanna talk to a teacher and a student, not just the head of school. If you want a story about an experience that your marching band is taking or that your music program is having they’re gonna want to have a little B roll with that student playing in the background. So know what they are interested in. I always laughed at one of my favorite reporters. I could never get her to come out and do a story until she had children and then she wanted to be in the schools all the time. And so the other question is, look at who has children? And is interested in school stories. You don’t wanna try to get a reporter that has never been in a school or has no interest and then make relationships. Who in your parent community might know or be friends with a reporter and your parents can sometimes be better advocates at pushing good news stories or happy pieces than an administrator.

Aubrey: That’s so important. I think that’s a question that heads of school are always asking and I think PR has changed over the years, too. It’s so much more complex than I think a press release now. As you just mentioned, the many things that schools can do to build those relationships before making an ask.

Janet: And I would add that newsrooms have gotten, had more budget cuts than any schools. They are really slim. And so it is harder today to get story coverage too. 

Aubrey: Thank you so much for giving us that information, because I think that everyone’s always asking, ‘how do we get in the news?’ How do we in, in a positive manner so I appreciate that.

I’m gonna switch kind of gears here a little bit through the lens of our podcast, we talk about mindfulness cause we’re the Mindful School Marketing podcast and how it applies to school marketing. I’m curious, like how do you define mindfulness and how do you see it being applied to like public relations?

Janet: Number one, I think of it as being present. And if we think about those relationships, It has to be, you have to be present for those relationships. I’m actually in my dissertation working on wellbeing and burnout among school leaders right now, which coming off the pandemic is really huge. And it is because we are asking so much of school leaders that they don’t have time to think. I think most important, whether you are in school communications or your school leader, you need to remember that if you are not refilling your own bucket, taking care of your own mind- no one will do it for you. Number one, and number two- you won’t, you’ll run out of what you have left to give to your staff and to your students. So as we think about the huge mental health concerns that are coming forward with students coming out of the pandemic from isolation the huge burdens on teachers and reports of burnout among teachers, we’ve gotta have our school leaders and heads of school showing up in their best possible cognitive state. And so as I think about mindfulness, are you planning time- whether you call it meditation or whether you call it organizing your thoughts or having quiet time- are you taking control and thinking about your thinking. Are you thinking about the energy that you’re bringing into your building every day? Are you thinking about how you’re feeding and nourishing and hydrating your brain? Because leadership in schools is really a cognitive brain activity. And I think as we think about mindfulness, we’ve gotta think about brain health and that’s really how I’d frame it for school leaders.

Tara: Thank you. Yes, I agree. And we had a guest that spoke about burnout and it is, it is overwhelming all that everyone has had to deal with in schools. 

Janet: And we don’t give even our staff and our children that time to just decompress and rest. We’ve got ’em going from activity to activity. Passing times.

Tara: Yeah. It’s a habit development too. I think, okay. I’m gonna move on to some some questions that we ask every guest. And so tell us what are the most important things that you do to grow professionally and personally?

Janet: I think I already hit on them. I am always in school and I have kids learning. And right now school consumes all of my life right now. 

Aubrey: I love it. I love that you’re always learning. That’s amazing. I’m gonna jump into our rapid fire question. So if you could put one book as mandatory reading in the high school curriculum, what would it be? 

Janet: Happiness Advantage by Sean Acre. I think it, he tells people that it’s not about chasing to be happy. That happiness is really the pursuit of becoming you and that happy people, happiness, precedes success instead of success, preceding happiness. 

Tara: I love that I was just listening to an episode of a podcast called, The Happiness Project’ over the weekend. I’m on board with that. I’ll have to look that book up. What is one app that you couldn’t live without? 

Janet: As a school public relations person, Otter.Ai is transcription. That is one. The other one, to be honest and my personal life is Delta. Delta.com. That is, I love to travel and that is one that always gets me where I’m going.

Aubrey: Oh my gosh, you might be the first person who mentioned Delta 

Tara: We’re coming out of Covid, so I think people haven’t been traveling much. 

Aubrey: That’s true. 

Tara: It’s a sign of the times. 

Aubrey: We’re back.

Janet: And their app functions really well. 

Aubrey: There you go. That’s awesome. What are you reading right now? 

Janet: I have two books going right now. One is The Righteous Mind by Jonathan, I’m gonna mispronounce his last name. I think it’s H A I D T and I believe he’s out of Hartford. But it is about the conflict and how really good people can have really different opinions based on social issues, religion, geography, all of that. So I’m really just getting into that one. And the second one is Going There Katie Couric biography.

Tara: I read the, The Righteous Mind awhile ago as well. That’s a great book. We have a Goodreads list. I’ll put a plug in here with a phenomenal list of books and I’ve doing this reading challenge and have been going back to our list and it really is chalk full of amazing books. So if you’re looking for any good books, check out our our Goodreads list. Okay, our last question is what is one great piece of advice you’d like to leave us with? 

Janet: Oh, I’ve always thought about children. And I remember sitting in a workshop, professional development workshop and writing a mission statement as really young in my career. And my mission statement was to really develop independent kids that would think on their own and explore on their own. And so it’s really, I think to give children whether you’re a head of school or a parent- give children wings and roots so that they always know there’s a place to come home to. And to never instill your own fears in your children. There’s some things we just need to learn on our own. 

Tara: Yeah, that’s great.

Janet: So we keep them safe, but we don’t need to bubble wrap and let them explore and learn. 

Tara: That’s great advice. And as the mom of two grown children as well I totally agree with that. Although sometimes it’s tempting to wanna be needed more than you’re needed as they grow up. But it’s a good thing when you’re not. So I appreciate that little that piece of advice. I take it to heart. Thank you so much for joining us, Janet. It’s really been enlightening and inspiring all that you shared with us. Where can people find you online? 

Janet: Two spots, probably C E L pr.com/janet is my professional bio. And then on LinkedIn, or I’ll give you a Twitter at @jswitch

Tara: Great. 

Aubrey: Thank you, Janet, for coming and sharing with our audience, such an important, piece about crisis communication, about PR in general. We just so enjoyed having you, so thank you. 

Tara: Yeah. Thank you so much. All right, bye bye.

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