Wednesday, October 22, 2008

How to Communicate Bad News Without Causing Panic

Today, just before noon, I received an email from Baby’s school:

A very unfortunate incident took place earlier today between the SA Police and a gang of high-jackers who were fleeing the scene of a crime. During the incident, the hijackers opened fire with a AK47 rifle and fatally wounded the policeman who was in pursuit of the high-jackers.

The letter explained that our kids were safe, and that “at no stage were the lives of the learners or staff endangered.”

It also mentions that some pupils inadvertently saw the incident (during a change of class) and that the school psychologist would provide individual consultation for them.

As a mother, I was horrified to hear this and worried about my daughter. [Turns out Baby was among the kids who saw the incident].

As a communicator and technology writer, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the speed with which the school communicated with parents and their use of email to send the news as quickly as possible (kids bring paper letters for parents who may not have email access).

School finishes in the afternoon, so parents were officially informed long before the kids left the school and could relate their own [ invariably more scary] versions to the parents.

The letter practically screamed “something unfortunate happened, but we’re in control, so don’t panic.”

So when Baby came home from school, I was better prepared to talk to her about the incident. There were gory details of course, and I would have panicked if I heard of the incident from my her first.

Yes,-they saw it happen, the father of one of the pupils is a policeman so there was some hysteria in her class about whether he was involved in the incident; one pupil claimed to know the dead policeman and gave a name.

It concerns me that the kids ran towards the scene, and some got close enough to be able to recognise the policeman. But then, they also managed to note the partial number plate of the escaping hijacker.....

For now we’re just talking through it, and will consult the psychologist if there are any major problems. And nope; we don’t need to move from this area. It's comparatively OK; that’s why there are cars that are worth hijacking in the neighbourhood. A good friend assures me that a similar incident happened outside a school in Pretoria this week, so it can happen anywhere.

The personal safety lesson I take from this is that parents must be careful when dropping their kids at school. The last thing you want is to be hijacked with your kid in the car.

The communication lesson that I learnt is that it’s more efficient to communicate the bad news directly to your constituency, rather than letting third parties disseminate it for you. If the school did not have systems to communicate with parents like this, we would have heard the news from our kids. You can imagine the panic that would ensue, because the kids would not be able to relate the important facts like, "the gate was locked at the time."

This is also the perfect demonstration of how a small organisation – be it a school, or a membership organisation, can use technology to quickly, cheaply and efficiently communicate with its constituency. A lesson a number of non-profit organisations here in South Africa would do well to learn.

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