How can a school honour tragedy online?

The weekend news speeds across phone screens, in short, panic-stricken messages over social media.

Tragically one teen has been killed, and three others are seriously injured from a car accident in the early hours of Sunday morning. Information is sketchy, but the four teens attend two neighbouring high schools and are in their final year of school. The community links are inextricable, and the news is devastating.

News like this leaves us all in shock, paralysis and extreme distress.

When our schools deal with such tragic events leaders, liaise with local authorities, arrange counselling services and much more to support families, students and staff.  Effective communication is critical in dealing with such an event. What do we say? What mediums do we use? When is the timing right to make a statement? Who needs to be consulted in preparing our message? Should social media be included as a medium in this situation? These are just a few of the considerations.

Today, social media is important in the communication mix of a crisis by its’ speed and reach to an audience. This is not easy, as it requires us to plan and lead with an open heart to the frailties of us all when we lose those who are precious.

Understanding online human behaviour when dealing with loss is essential knowledge.

By the time our school leaders receive tragic news, it is a certainty that conversations will be online via social networks.  Curiosity takes over, and information spreads. People will want to confirm details, support one another and grieve. For all of us grieving is a personal process dependent on our make-up and many of us may wish to share our grief online.

School’s are often at a loss and choose not to acknowledge tragic circumstances over a social network for fear of heightening people’s first four stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining and depression (acceptance is the 5th). However, a strategic approach to social media can ensure it is a positive communication medium to support a community in a crisis.

So how does a school respectfully honour tragedy online?

Ideally, preparation for a tragedy is part of a broader crisis management plan in our schools. While this should be standard, many plans do not take into account the role of social media in crisis management communications. The majority of our school audiences now sit on social media accounts which poses a risk in a crisis.

Communities dealing with tragedy are looking to our schools for support and information. It is important schools take up the online space as a primary source of accurate and timely information for our communities.

Statements of this nature are extremely difficult to make online and discussing these among school leaders, counsellors and family members (where appropriate) before posting is critical.

When choosing to use social media draft with care ensuring that each post states the facts, shows concern and lists the school’s actions. Use a heading, write one paragraph 4-6 sentences long, sign off from the head of school and halt all other posts via social media. A photo can accompany the post but do so with caution so as not to offend. Finally, moderate the social media channel with care around the clock.

A strategy of four statements online is highly beneficial across a flexible timeline and could look like the following:

Statement 1 – should acknowledge the event, the impact it is having on the school and the community. It should also include a point of contact for further information.

Our Thoughts and Condolences

‘It is with great sadness that we wish to acknowledge the passing of…Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of… As a school, we see this as a tragedy for all of us and the broader community… The direct welfare of our students and staff is of great concern at this moment. To support everyone here at school, we have the following in place…. We will continue to provide updates of information and would ask if you have specific inquiries that you telephone the school office for assistance’.

Ms Janette Abor | Principal

A post of this nature brings people together online with dignity. Some people will feel the need to post, and it will allow for comments of grief and support. It provides enough information, is respectful and redirects people offline seeking further information.

Statement 2 – the above approach now enables a school to provide updates of accurate information. Tragedy has a timeline of its own making. Providing timely and accurate information will support your online audience and cut through rumour.

School Update

‘Thank you for all of your kind words, thoughts and wishes regarding our last post. The well-being of our students and staff continues to be of great concern, and we still have our services in place for anyone who requires support here at school. As information is provided to us regarding funeral arrangements, we will update you where it is appropriate. We would continue to ask that you contact the school directly by phone on…if you have any further queries so we can provide the appropriate support’.

 Ms Janette Abor | Principal

Statement 3 – should focus on developments and organisational details which may include funeral arrangements, support services updates and logistical information.

Funeral Arrangements

 ‘In keeping our community informed regarding the funeral arrangements of those connected to use we have the following information…We support the attendance of students accompanied by their immediate family to the service. Our school leaders and staff will represent the school with their attendance. We continue to provide support for students, staff and families who have been impacted by this tragedy. Our love and support continue to go out to our community during this difficult time’.

 Ms Janette Abor | Principal

Statement 4 – honours and thanks.

Thank You

‘We would like to say a heartfelt thank you to our community. As a high school, we are a focal point of participation that often extends beyond educating our students. The circumstances of the past two weeks reinforce to us the importance of our current connections and those who have moved beyond our gates. The spirit and actions of the community have been of steadfast support to us all’.

 Ms Janette Abor | Principal

Without emotion, the above sounds simple and straight-forward, yet more often than not schools miss providing another element of support and information to their community. In doing so, our schools are left open to criticism and emotion moves quickly online.

When a tragedy occurs, it is a stark reminder of the special place schools holds in our community. They are a focal point in our lives during the formative years of our children.

Social media is a new communication frontier. Even in the dark times, they hold enormous potential with a positive human intent.

It is just the etiquette that we have to master.

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