Communication in the Time of Change in Education

Background

The number of crisis situations affecting educational institutions globally is rising by the day due to a multiplicity of factors residing in the schools’ internal and external environments. Schools and other organizations experiencing a crisis employ diverse strategies to convey messages elucidating the situation to relevant stakeholders (Stephens, Malone, & Bailey, 2005), hence the importance of having an effective crisis communication plan (Charlebois & Elliott, 2009). This paper uses the higher education scenario to discuss the main elements of a crisis communication plan that could be used by a faculty leader to address a crisis situation involving laying-off five instructors within the department due to budgetary constraints and low morale due to changes being witnessed within the university.

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Crisis Communication Plan

Research is consistent that a crisis communication plan is basically a tool or guideline that presents policies, procedures and strategies for the coordination of internal and external communications within an organization in the event of a disaster or contentious issue (Charlebois & Elliott, 2009). The issue exhibited in the case scenario can be termed as contentious or controversial since it entails laying-off five instructors within the department. As such, the communication plan that will be used to resolve the issue revolves around three major components namely empathy and assurance, focus and alignment, as well as ownership and involvement. In empathy and assurance, the faculty leader needs to disclose the plans and schedules for change to the union representative, instructors and other departmental staff with the view to minimizing speculation that could potentially lead to change resistance. Here, it is important for the leader to undertake surveys and interview a wide range of instructors and other employees within the department to determine how people feel about the issue of laying-off the instructors and what kinds of questions are being asked on the ground (Mai & Akerson, 2003). The information received from these surveys and interviews will assist in the development of empathy for the issues and concerns raised by the affected instructors and other members of staff prior to implementing the change effort (Stephens et al., 2005).

In focus and alignment, the communication plan should be concerned with ensuring that the faculty and the educational institution move forward irrespective of the issue or transition being witnessed. Here, it is important for the faculty leader to not only put the affected instructors and other employees in the picture by providing the latest plans and explaining the importance of laying-off the instructors, but also to ensure that the day-to-day workflow of the department is sustained against the risk of slowdown or paralysis from the affected instructors or other members of staff who may feel that the instructors are being unfairly targeted. Two of the foremost strategies that could be used to achieve these outcomes include putting stakes in the ground for all stakeholders with the view to understanding the new orientation as early as possible (Mai & Akerson, 2003), and ensuring that changes to the faculty structure, teaching relationships, and other issues that may potentially affect the functioning of the department are revealed to the relevant stakeholders sooner than later (Stephens et al., 2005). In this stage of the crisis communication plan, it is of immense importance to keep communication channels open and ensure that all the affected stakeholders are involved in the decision making process.

Lastly, in the ownership and involvement phase of the crisis communication plan, the faculty leader should involve other leaders and employees in operationalizing the change effort and shaping the new organization or way of doing things. Available literature underscores the fact that “the best way to build ownership in the new organization is to get people working together to define what the new organization should look like” (Mai & Akerson, 2003, p. 140). In reinforcing ownership and involvement, it is important for the faculty leader to not only present a well thought out justification for laying-off the instructors, but also to encourage other staff members to view the change effort as an opportunity that will ensure the continued growth and development of the faculty as well as the educational institution.

Maintaining Morale

To maintain morale during this time of change, it is important for the faculty leader to provide the union representative, instructors, and other departmental staff with the opportunity to share in formulating policies detailing how the change process will be implemented. Available literature demonstrates that involvement in the decision making process increases satisfaction and reduces resistance witnessed during times of change (Coleman & Glover, 2010). Morale can also be increased by adopting a softer, people-centered, and collaborative approach to decision making that provides an enabling environment for critical decisions concerning the laying-off of the instructors to be reached through consensus. Lastly, the faculty leader needs to use face-to-face communication channel to make the situation as clear and plain as possible to the relevant stakeholders, along with ensuring that any arising questions are answered in a direct and honest manner (Mai & Akerson, 2003).

Incorporating Traits and Behaviors

In terms of incorporating the traits and behaviors needed to make the decision and convey the message to the relevant stakeholders, it is important for the faculty leader to, among other things, listen actively, observe as well as listen, assist the stakeholders in understanding and defining the issue of staff lay-off and why it is needed, allow feelings to be expressed freely, encourage the stakeholders to develop alternative solutions, and get the stakeholders to develop their own implementation plans (Coleman & Glover, 2010). Since the issue of staff lay-offs is an emotive one, it may also be important for the faculty leader to use the compromising and accommodating approaches to conflict resolution with the view to not only reaching a quick agreement but also avoiding escalating the problem further. Additionally, since the union representative may prove difficult to handle due to the fact that the change proposed may impact negatively on the instructors who will be laid off, it is important for the faculty leader to demonstrate assertiveness and engage them in the process of developing solutions (Coleman & Glover, 2010). Lastly, since the issue of staff lay-offs is a highly specific one, it is important to use arbitration and persuasion strategies to solve group conflict and ensure the actualization of an enabling environment for fruitful negotiation to take place.

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Crisis Description

One of the potential crisis situations that can occur in large boarding schools is food poisoning. This type of a crisis can have far-reaching consequences on the image and reputation of the school by virtue of the fact that it can lead to the death or incapacitation of students, leading to a huge public outcry.

Steps Taken by the Leader

As a leader of the crisis management team (CMT) in the school, it is important to first respond to and act upon the food poisoning incident. Here, available literature underscores the importance of taking responsibility to minimize the effects of the crisis immediately after it is brought into the leader’s attention by, for example, coordinating rescue and first-aid sessions for students who are most affected by the food poisoning incident (Coleman & Glover, 2010). The second step should entail checking the rules, standards and school districts policies relating to how a crisis emanating from food poisoning should be handled. This step, according to Coleman and Glover (2010), allows the CMT leader to enquire whether there are any legal factors to take into consideration or processes that should be followed when dealing with food poisoning in school contexts. The third step should entail developing an ethical awareness of the food poisoning dilemma by identifying the values, principles and responsibilities upon which to ground the decision relating to how the crisis situation will be handled and solved. Here, it is important to consult widely within and beyond the CMT with the view to developing an adequate ethical awareness of the food poisoning incident and what other stakeholders in the team think is the best approach to solving the crisis (Coleman & Glover, 2010; Stephens et al., 2005).

Afterwards, in the fourth step, the leader and other members of the CMT need to undertake an ethical analysis focused on reviewing the crisis situation and integrating personal and professional values with the view to identifying which principles or standards are non-negotiable when it comes to addressing the food poisoning incident (Coleman & Glover, 2010). The fifth step should comprise seeking support for the decision reached in the previous step and then preparing to present the decision to concerned parties, such as parents, school authorities, media outlets and other relevant stakeholders. In the sixth step, the leader should arrange for a meeting with the concerned parties to announce the decision that was reached by the team and how the food poisoning crisis is being managed. The last two steps entail concluding the decision-making process by writing a crisis report and evaluating the consequences and effects of the food poisoning crisis on the organization with the view to providing closure of the problem (Coleman & Glover, 2010).

Process and reasoning

In such a situation, it is preferable to adopt a problem-solving approach to crisis management. This process entails the use of strategies such as mutual agreement (consensus), confrontation and employment of superordinate goals and objectives to exchange ideas and information with the view to developing an integrative solution to the crisis situation (Amesi & Amaewhule, 2015). The justification for using this process is embedded in the fact that it not only allows for broad-based consultations and negotiations among team members in order to develop a viable solution, but also focuses its attention to a particular issue that needs to be addressed (Stephens et al., 2005).

Communication Plan

The communication plan that can be used to successfully address the described crisis contains four main components, namely identifying the crisis communication team, developing the response action plan, developing key messages, and leveraging various communication avenues. Although the first component is evidenced by the existence of the CMT, it is important to define the roles and responsibilities of each member of the team during a crisis situation, after which members should be exposed to formal training with the view to enabling them practice the decision-making process (Charlebois & Elliott, 2009). The second component of the plan (developing the response action plan) entails creating a checklist of the most fundamental questions you will need to ask to guarantee you capture all of the information during a potential food poisoning crisis, putting in place mechanisms that will ensure team members are notified at the onset of the potential crisis and facilitated to assemble with speed in order to evaluate the nature and scope of the issue with the view to determining the impact of the crisis on the organization, and creating an action plan that will comprise the objectives and goals to attain, what materials or resources to develop, what communication avenues to use to notify the key stakeholders, as well as the plan that will be used to provide ongoing support and communication to students, teachers, parents and other stakeholders during the crisis (McIntosh, Davis, & Luecke, 2008). The third component entails developing key messages that will be used to share only indisputable facts about the food poisoning crisis and how the organization is dealing with the issue, while the fourth component (leveraging various communication channels) entails making a determination of the communication avenues that will be utilized with the view to accurately and speedily communicating any arising issues to the key stakeholders (Mazzei & Ravazzani, 2015; Simons, 2014).

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Anticipated Problems

Some of the anticipated problems include (1) utilizing ineffective or inadequate communication channels to communicate with key stakeholders, (2) providing an ill-worded response or speculating about the crisis, hence generating more questions than answers among the key stakeholders, (3) failing to reach consensus on any decisions that could be taken to deal with the crisis due to inter-group conflict or lack of persuasion capabilities, and (4) failing to build a credible case that could be acted upon based on its established logic (McIntosh et al., 2008).

There was a time when one of my colleagues in a faculty-based crisis management team communicated the sacking of two instructors who had been accused by the organization’s ethics committee of seeking sexual favors from female students in exchange of good credits and grades. The message was delivered to the two instructors via email due to its capacity to allow for the personalization of the message (Mai & Akerson, 2003). As expected, the message evoked an emotional response from the two instructors, who started to accuse the organization’s ethics committee of targeting them unfairly and witch hunting. This was expected based on the communication channel’s capacity to evoke an emotional response (Mai & Akerson, 2003). Emails were also sent to other members of the team informing them of the decision reached with regards to the two members of staff accused of sexually molesting female students.

The actions and behaviors used by the colleague included employing persuasion strategies to alter the attitudes and perceptions of other team members on the issue, using data and organizational policy directions to clarify the position taken to sack the instructors, employing surrogate communicators and employee peers to ensure that other members of staff within the faculty were duly informed about the reasons behind the sacking of the two instructors to avoid potential resistance, and ensuring that the messages were consistent and had a personal touch (McIntosh et al., 2008). Lastly, the colleague demonstrated a positive and affirmative attitude in communicating the decision to the affected instructors and other staff members within the faculty. Overall, however, it was more appropriate to hold open communication forums with the accused instructors to get their side of the story due to the seriousness of the accusations.

References

Amesi, J., & Amaewhule, W.A. (2015). Crisis management and conflict resolution strategies in business organizations in Rivers State. Developing Country Studies, 5, 6-13. Web.

Charlebois, S., & Elliott, G. (2009). Mining for mindsets: The conceptual anatomy of a successful crisis communication strategy in mining. Journal of Marketing Communications, 15(1), 55-71. Web.

Coleman, M., & Glover, D. (2010). Educational leadership and management: Developing insights and skills. Maidenhead, United Kingdom: McGraw-Hill Education.

Mai, R.P., & Akerson, A. (2003). The leader as a communicator: Strategies and tactics to build loyalty, focus effort, and spark creativity. New York, NY: AMACOM.

Mazzei, A., & Ravazzani, S. (2015). Internal crisis communication strategies to protect trust relationships: A study of Italian companies. International Journal of Business Communication, 52, 319-337. Web.

McIntosh, P., Davis, J.H., & Luecke, R. (2008). Interpersonal communication skills in the workplace. New York, NY: American Management Association.

Simons, G. (2014). The international crisis group and the manufacturing and communicating of crises. Third World Quarterly, 35, 581-597. Web.

Stephens, K.K., Malone, P.C., & Bailey, C.M. (2005). Communicating with stakeholders during a crisis. Journal of Business Communication, 42, 390-419. Web.

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