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Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions podcast – Education in a Digital Age - Communicating in a crisis

Posted on 13 July 2021

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  Conversations on the legal topics affecting businesses and individuals today. 

Robert Lewis
In this episode, we continue to look at education in a digital age.  How schools manage their relationships with students, parents, alumni in the public from the perspective of Kate Miller, a Senior Reputation Management Specialist from DRD Partnership.  Why do schools need PR advice?  Are schools different from other organisations when it comes to managing their image?  And are schools being thrust into the public spotlight more than before? 

Hello and welcome to the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions podcast and to this, the third in a three-part series, looking at education in a digital age.  I’m Robert Lewis, a Managing Associate in the Employment Department and Head of the Education Group and I’m joined today by Kate Miller, Partner at DRD Partnership.  Hi Kate, thanks for joining us. 

Kate Miller
Thank you very much for having me. 

Robert Lewis
Now, I understand a large part of your work is advising schools on reputational matters and communication so, why do schools need PR advisers?

Kate Miller
Well, I don’t think anyone who has read the news over the last year can really doubt that, I think the range of issues that schools are having to deal with has sort of grown exponentially.  It’s always been difficult but throw in a global pandemic, issues around assessed grades, activism movements like Black Lives Matter and Everyone’s Invited and the whole cultural debate that’s currently going on, I think schools are very much at the forefront of a lot of really important issues and so, while they’re very good at communicating to their audiences on a day-to-day level, they often don’t have just even the bandwidth to cope with a full-on public media scrutiny in relation to a particular issue.  Some schools have Communication Departments that are really focussed, on the whole, on managing the day-to-day activities of the school and marketing and so forth but others, the role will very much fall down to the Head and when you are trying to manage a school with several hundred pupils, plus all your other stakeholder audiences then suddenly having a full media storm thrown on top of you as well can become very difficult.  Whereas in my role, this is what I do every day and therefore we can provide schools with both a third party perspective and insight into an issue, we have experience obviously of dealing with a lot of these things because we’re dealing with lots of other institutions and we’re also very used to working alongside other advisers and forming a partnership with the legal team and the coms team and the executive team of the school.  So, I think it’s sensible for schools to take advice.  We’re dealing with very highly engaged audiences.  We’re looking after people’s most important asset, which is their child and therefore you can expect a lot of scrutiny in relation to the decisions you make and some of the issues you face. 

Robert Lewis
Thank you.  How is advising a school different from advising another organisation like a big corporate or a large multinational or something like that?

Kate Miller
I think every organisation has its own communications dynamic and you have to understand an organisation really before you can advise it on how it communicates.  I think, with schools obviously, one of the challenges they have is just the sheer number and diversity of the stakeholders they have to communicate with.  On one level, you are communicating to children, you’re communicating to staff, you’re also facing parents, who as I said before are highly engaged, increasingly we’re seeing very active alumni populations and then also of course they’re very much in the public eye and of public interest.  So, often schools will be facing a significant demand for information from a range of different stakeholder audiences and trying to juggle this, obviously with the day to day job of running a school, teaching, managing what is actually in fact a very large and complex business means that you will perhaps need at times to take on board some additional help. 

Robert Lewis
And do you think the way in which reputational issues arise for schools has changed in recent years?

Kate Miller
I think it has, certainly from my perspective.  I first started advising schools, really by chance rather than design, post the Savile inquiry and all the issues that that threw up in relation to historic safeguarding issues and whilst that was huge and it ripped through the education sector, things moved slightly slower in those days, I think what we are really noticing now is the speed and ferocity at which issues can bubble up almost from nowhere it would seem and then of course be amplified by social media, which really means that schools are having to deal with issues very, very quickly, they’ve got multiple channels in which these things can be taking place, you know, in the old days the media would ring you up and you would have until 5.00 o’clock the next day to provide a statement, well in some senses that still carries on with some of the broadsheets but you’ve also got chatrooms, Instagram, Twitter, you’ve got a whole range of citizen journalists as well who will be breaking stories, commenting and the interface obviously between what’s going on on social media and what’s being picked up in the mainstream media, is another phenomenon, you know most journalists these days will admit that they get a large percentage of their stories from social media and I think that has really changed.  I think the other thing that I’m really noticing at the moment and whether that is a reaction to lockdown I’m not sure but it’s a very febrile environment that we’re dealing with and one in which vocal, angry minorities seem to be getting a disproportionate amount of voice because they are shouting the loudest and social media will amplify that.  Conversations about gender and sex, which are obviously dominating the headlines at the moment, are complex and easily inflamed.  So, I think it’s the speed which is the real gamechanger here but also the anger and perhaps some of the cynicism that’s being applied to schools’ actions.  There are a lot of people who will analyse every sentence and you can bet your bottom dollar that someone will find something wrong with what you said.

Robert Lewis
I’ve picked up on this as well and particularly in the past year, it feels that any moment in time there is some school, if not several schools, that’s in the public eye, that’s in the tabloids over some sort of scandal.  Why are stories about scandals in schools so popular?

Kate Miller
Well, I think first off, scandals are always popular wherever they are, they sell newspapers, they have done for years and they generate clicks so, we love a good scandal.  Schools obviously are something that we’ve all been at school, we’ve all been… whether we’ve got children or not, we’ve all been schoolchildren ourselves so, they’re very relatable these stories, we can all compare back to what happened to us when we’re at school so, you know, the Everyone’s Invited debate for instance, we had a lot of people saying well actually this is, this issue of what’s now termed ‘rape culture’ but actually has been going on for a long time, it happened to me when I was at school and therefore I am also invested in this conversation and interested in it.  Another reason I think, as I said before, you’re dealing with people’s most important asset, their children, so you’ve got a very, very engaged audience who will be interested in what’s going on and you’re dealing with people who have very strong and often very differing views, particularly at the moment, we’re seeing polarisation of views around all sorts of things, subjects like diversity, inclusion, gender and so forth, which can inflame the situation of course makes great copy, you know, media love a good fight.  Another thing, I guess, is an element of voyeurism and sensationalism, the media also understand that famous people sell papers so, if you can print a photograph of, I don’t know, Eddie Redmayne or Emily Mortimer and affiliate it to a school, well that’s, that makes the story even better so, sometimes I say to a school, one of the first questions I ask when they think they might be hitting a crisis is, who were your famous alumni and we can then take a view on quite how many column inches this might generate.  It sounds ridiculous but it tends to be true.  And I suppose the other reason is, that schools are very much at the front line of a whole series of issues regarding the cultural and societal change.  If we think about Greta Thunberg on the environmental side or Everyone’s Invited, schools are very much the front line for these issues to be played out and increasingly, the students themselves, through social media channels, are finding their voice, so that makes quite compelling listening. 

Robert Lewis
I mean that does reflect something that I feel, as both an education and an employment practitioner, which is that a lot of the cultural issues that we’ll deal with in the workplace are actually played out in schools five or ten years earlier so, you know, take the issues over transgender acceptance in the workplace, I feel like that was an issue that actually hit schools five or ten years ago and is now moving into the workplace and employers are thinking more clearly about it.  We can almost future gaze as to what the next generation of workers coming into the workplace are going to be doing by looking at what is going on with the students now. 

These are question that I’ve just been pondering about, from what you’re saying, now you talked about first of all getting involved off the back of the Jimmy Savile inquiry and I think, you know, a lesson taken from the look into historic sex abuse in schools is, in a way, that almost society expected too little of our schools in terms of keeping children safe in years gone by.  Is our society expecting too much from our schools right now?

Kate Miller
I think it is a challenge for schools.  They are being asked perhaps to take on a role which extends beyond the school gates.  We’ve seen a lot of criticism recently about whether schools are doing enough to teach students about sex and relationships, issues such as consent, and that’s obviously come to light in the Everyone’s Invited movement and some of the testimonials are heart-breaking testimonials that have come out of that.  I think it does raise some important questions, one of which is a lot of the schools are effectively being blamed for issues that aren’t necessarily happening within the school gates, a lot of the things reported are happening at parties outside of school, in houses which appear to be unsupervised, where children for some reason have access to alcohol and drugs and so forth and some of this is being put back on the door of the schools themselves, now my view and I know a view that is shared by a lot of people, is actually what we’re learning is there has to be a collaboration here between the school, who obviously are trying to provide a good rounded education, they’re trying to prepare their students to meet the challenges of the modern world, but also a collaboration with the parents and a dialogue there and I think that is perhaps one of the positives that is coming out, we are seeing a much more engaged parental community and much more of a two-way conversation but sometimes I think schools will face a very difficult situation where they do take action, I mean they have very strong safeguarding policies and practices.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that they can tell everyone what actions that they’ve taken so, schools sometimes get criticised for not doing something whereas in fact actually behind the scenes an awful lot of thought and consideration has gone on to deal with some quite complex issues. 

Robert Lewis
That’s an interesting point.  Just explain that in a little bit more detail, you know, why is it that schools are often not able to communicate with their students and their parent bodies about how they’ve dealt with a particular issue. 

Kate Miller
Well often these are very sensitive issues and actually you’re dealing with… don’t forget, you are dealing with children so, you may have a disciplinary process which might involve some form of sanction being awarded against and individual.  Now, is it right or fair in what should be a confidential process for the result of that inquiry to be transmitted more broadly beyond the actual affected parties and I think a lot of schools, very sensibly, are taking the view that no, these are matters that are confidential, they are sensitive and you have to consider the interests of all parties.  I don’t think it’s as black and white as people might want it to be. 

Robert Lewis
I mean, that’s the tricky thing, isn’t it, particularly with Everyone’s Invited where we’re talking about allegations of potential abuse against children but by children that the person being accused is also a child.

Kate Miller
Yes, and there’s a lot of concern from parents that children who have been reported for such things, their future lives might be blighted as a result, that it might impact not only their grades at the time if they’ve perhaps been excluded from school but also their chances at University and their future employment.  So, I think there’s all sorts of reasons why schools are very considered in their approach as to what they do and don’t communicate and I think most schools will take the position that they don’t comment publicly on individual cases and I think actually if parents step back to think about that, if it was their child involved, that’s exactly how they would want something to be dealt with. 

Robert Lewis
That’s really interesting, thank you.  Let’s take a bit of a wider picture on this.  Thinking about recent issues like Everyone’s Invited, where schools… individual schools find themselves plastered across the papers facing multiple allegations of sexual assaults between students.  How does a school prepare itself for being at the centre of the next media and social media frenzy?

Kate Miller
Well I think you can never underestimate the importance of horizon scanning.  Everyone’s Invited obviously hit us in March this year but actually it had been set up last summer and some of the issues that it has been championing are ones that we’ve seen play out, as you said before, in other areas of life, in the workplace and so forth, so I think for all clients, horizon scanning, seeing what is going on, perhaps not in your sector or industry but looking at where are there parallels going on elsewhere and starting to think about how that could impact on your organisation.  I think that is important.  The second thing I would say is, never assume it couldn’t happen to you, no matter how good you are, no matter how strong for instance your safeguarding policies may be, no matter how strong and happy you feel your culture is, things can be going on that you don’t know about so don’t assume that it couldn’t happen to you.  A common refrain that we’ve had, certainly in relation to Everyone’s Invited, is people saying, you know, teachers and parents alike saying well, we understood that something was going on, we knew a little bit of this but we had no idea the extent and the impact it was having on the children involved.  And I think what this does do is, it demonstrates the importance of asking questions and keeping a dialogue going, creating a culture within a school and with parents where conversations can be had and topics discussed. 

On a much more pragmatic level, obviously having simple things such as effective media handling protocols and escalation processes within the school, they can mean that you are much better equipped to handle at speed some of these matters.  Do you have your phones covered at the weekends?  What do you do during school holidays?  Are you monitoring your social media channels to be able to get the early warning signs that perhaps something is about to break?  The other area which I would advise people to do, is to think about if they do need external advice, that might be in the world of law or in communications, then who are the advisors that you’re going to bring up?  I always think it’s better to meet people in peacetime rather than meeting when the battle has already begun so, try and do as much as you can in peacetime, think things through and then obviously when a crisis does hit, you at least have a plan.  Clearly, once an issue has hit, you need to act and act fast.  It can be very frustrating if people have actually been sitting on an issue and not dealing with it so, you know, I would say there are two sorts of clients, there’s one client who comes to me and says there’s this horse, it was kicking at the stable door, can you do anything about it?  And yes, there’s quite a lot we can do about that situation.  There’s another situation where the client says there was this horse, it was knocking at the stable door, it’s bashed down the stable door and it’s disappeared, can you help me get it back?  Well, yes again, we can help with that but it is a lot more time-consuming and the results far less certain.  So, act fast and keep communicating so, don’t think well I’ve issued one communication on this topic and therefore it’ll go away, your audiences are going to have a number of questions and I find that actually in a crisis situation, if you keep your communication straight and frequent then you’ve got to try and keep ahead of your audience in terms of providing the information which they, very rightly, want to know. It’s also important to keep your messaging consistent across your audiences.  Perhaps in the old days, it was possible to silo messaging to different audiences.  Social media has completely changed that and also I would advise you to spend as much time listening as you do transmitting because actually your audiences are going to probably be very informed and be able to tell you an awful lot of stuff that is going on and certainly, you know, one of the points coming out of the Ofsted, recent Ofsted report into sexual harassment is that whereas we adults might think that we know what we should be talking to our children about, they actually probably have very different views and we need to listen to them and understand from their perspective what some of the issues are.  And finally, I think an important thing for clients to try and remember when they are in the midst of a crisis, is to keep perspective.  Social media has basically turned what used to be conversations that were held in the pub, it’s put them in front of you so you can now read all these comments and things that are being said about you which you might find very upsetting but actually this too will pass and so, put your hard hat on and keep a bit of perspective and remember that this is a small minority and not reflective of the majority of your audiences by any means. 

Robert Lewis
Thank you. For now, let’s wrap up there. I’d like to say thank you so much to Kate Miller for joining me for this podcast. This is the last of our series on education in the digital age but you can find the two previous episodes available at Mishcon.com. I’m Robert Lewis and thank you for listening. 

The digital sessions are a series of online events, videos and podcasts, all available at Mishcon.com and if you have any questions you’d like answered or suggestions of what you’d like to cover, do let us know at digitalsessions@mishcon.com.  Until next time, take care. 

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  To access advice for businesses that is regularly updated, please visit mishcon.com.

In the third and last in this series we continue to look at Education in a Digital Age. In this episode Kate Miller, a senior reputation management specialist from DRD Partnership, spoke with Robert Lewis, Head of the Education Group, about how schools manage their relationships with students, parents, alumni and the public. They discussed why schools need to manage their reputation and what makes schools unique when it comes to protecting their image. 


Visit the Mishcon Academy for more learning, events, videos, podcasts and reports.

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