Strategic Planning — the Key to Make Social Media an Invaluable Asset in Crisis Communication

Valerie Francois
Valerie Francois

Along with thousands of New Jersey families, the Ranney School community of parents, students and educators experienced unprecedented communication challenges during 2012’s Superstorm Sandy and subsequent nor’easter. Strategic planning and the inclusion of social media in the crisis communication plan positioned our Jersey Shore school to communicate with constituents daily via Twitter, Constant Contact, web and phone alerts.

The use of social media, as well as mobile devices, also allowed the administration and Parents Association to provide immediate shelter for affected families and teachers, and to organize quickly to reopen the school weeks ahead of schedule.

The key to success was the inclusion of social media as part of our most recent strategic communication planning.

Update Your Strategic Plans

During the two years preceding the disaster, Ranney School leaders had been implementing a strategic plan that called for incorporating social media and mobile devices to meet not only established strategic goals, but also to be used within a crisis communication plan.

Thus, our communication efforts had support from the head of the school and the leadership team prior to an unforeseen emergency like Hurricane Sandy. The following steps can help ensure buy-in from leaders during meetings with staff teams:

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  • Focus on the value of social media during meetings with school staffing teams.
  • Review the latest trends and tools.
  • Propose strategic updates prior to the new school year.

Gain Support from Key Constituents

To solicit collaboration from key constituents and assure that an approved crisis communication plan using social media will be implemented swiftly, share details and seek feedback for your proposal from all groups with an interest in effective communication. These include:

  • Board members;
  • Administrative leaders;
  • Legal counsel;
  • School faculty;
  • Support staff;
  • Information technology staff;
  • Operations and security personnel; and
  • Parent groups.

Ongoing education about social and digital media through planned workshops, faculty presentations, Back-to-School night Q&A sessions, and online tutorials provides multiple forums for the community to gain awareness and prepares all stakeholders well in advance of a crisis.

Review Tools Strategically

Consider the purpose for each potential social media outlet and its specific use and value for your school community. If it does not promote your strategic goals and cannot be maintained regularly, do not feel pressure to add it to the social media mix.

Think about what tools are most useful in an emergency and build followers accordingly. Consider immediate next steps if cell phone towers are not functional, or if the school’s computer network is shut down and school email is not accessible.

Make sure the information technology team creates alternative email accounts, such as GMail, and inserts into the crisis communication plan a regularly updated list of cell phone numbers for text messaging. That could be your only way to communicate when all else fails.

Scan the Community

Formally or informally, survey how parents and teachers communicate. Do the majority have smartphones and rely on text messaging for school alerts? How are they getting to your website — desktops, tablets, smartphones? Analytics can provide useful data, and you may need to invest in a responsively designed website so that urgent announcements are formatted easily for any mobile device.

Does a large percentage follow the school’s Twitter page, or is more outreach needed? Have your parents’ association and alumni “liked” your school’s Facebook page? Having established followers ensures that the approved message gets to the community instantly and directly from school leadership to minimize speculation or uncertainty.

Research, Assessment, Planning

Thanks to research, assessment and planning, we were able to take full advantage of social media to keep communication lines open with constituents when disaster hit. Now is the time to be sure you’re ready to incorporate social media effectively when your schools face a crisis.


Valerie Francois is director of strategic marketing and communications for the Ranney School in Tinton Falls, N.J. She can be reached at