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Your Must-Have School PR Tool: The Emergency Sub Plan

Planning is one of the most valuable tasks for school communicators. After all, a great plan is the ticket to improve school communication efficiencies. 

But for all the strategic communication planning that takes place in a school PR office, there’s a surprising lack of thought given to a tried-and-true tool school principals use for their teachers — the emergency sub plan.

What is an emergency sub plan?

Like most professionals, teachers usually know at least a day or two before they will be gone for an appointment, funeral or family need. Even a teacher who is under the weather will often put together a lesson plan or two for a substitute teacher to help keep classroom learning on track.

There are occasions — a traffic accident, medical emergency or other sudden event — when a teacher could be gone without warning or any time to prepare. In those moments, the office pulls the teacher’s emergency sub plan, which has the basics a substitute teacher needs to be able to walk into the classroom and lead the class for one day, until other plans can be developed.

This tool is so commonplace across schools, and it’s high time that school communication pros make use of it themselves. Consider it PR 101 for school communicators.

Want to improve school communication efficiencies when you’re away? Make a plan.

You can’t always choose the moments you’ll be gone. Writing a thorough substitute plan gives you the power to influence how things run when you’re gone — whether you’ve left for a conference, on vacation that has been on the calendar for months, or you got a call during the night about a loved one in crisis who needs your help.

“Especially when you’re a one-person shop, it’s easy to tell yourself a superhero lie,” said Kristin Magette, CEL communications strategist. “‘Nobody else in my district can do media relations,’ or ‘I’m the only one who can handle this committee.’ You may well be right that nobody else in the district can do it as well as you do. But creating a plan and identifying backups allows you to be intentional about cross-training and capacity building during staff meetings, retreats and individual conversations.”

As you create a plan, make a master list of the communications leadership and operations areas that would need attention if you were suddenly unable to work. Then, think through the colleagues and departments you could prepare with the basic knowledge to step in and keep things rolling. 

And remember, the goal isn’t to find someone who can do your work as well as you. Rather, focus on finding a few people you trust to do their best and make good decisions in an emergency situation. 

What are the key components that make up a strong emergency sub plan?

It’s normal to be worried about someone else going on camera or providing quotes for a news story. Done right, media relations work requires learning, practice and a steely strategic mindset. A communications team typically has at least one or two experienced backups who are prepared to step into a media role as needed. 

If you run a one-person shop, it’s unlikely you can equip your colleagues with all the skills and mindset they’ll need. You can, however, teach them best practices to help them navigate whatever may come. Most importantly, you can equip them to know when and how to decline or delay interview requests. It’s easy to lose sight of the partnership between a media contact and the reporter working on a story. But it is also appropriate to delay (even a few hours) when the usual media contact is out of the office.

The technology systems that make up the landscape of the average communications pro are varied — and more numerous than you may realize. An average day in the office might include… 

For example, an average day in the office might include:

  • Updating the website.
  • Making a graphic for a parent e-newsletter.
  • Sending an all-staff email.
  • Scheduling a mass notification parent message.
  • Searching for a photo of a retiring teacher.
  • Updating the online crisis team resources.
  • Checking results on an open survey or posting a reminder on social media. 

While some of those tasks are more time-sensitive than others, it’s a reminder of just how many systems you have learned to use efficiently. So, what plans need to be made to help someone else step in to complete an urgent task while you’re gone? Include the login and password a substitute would need, along with customer service contacts if the task is especially urgent or more complicated than usual.

While social media management is a set of systems, this area of substitute planning needs your specialized attention. Make a complete list of district accounts, and identify which require simple login/password access. By contrast, Facebook and LinkedIn will require thoughtful assignment of administrative credentials or privileges long before the time a sub plan is needed.

“All too often, school systems end up in a bind on Facebook or LinkedIn because only one person — the person who started the accounts — has admin rights,” said Andrea Gribble, owner of #SocialSchools4EDU, a company that provides social media services to 300+ school districts across the U.S. “If that person can’t log in for any reason, the account could become inaccessible and create a lot of challenges that can be impossible or very difficult to fix.”

Gribble recommends school system Facebook and LinkedIn pages maintain a minimum of two to three administrators at all times. While the backup admins may not have any involvement on a day-to-day basis, their admin access makes it possible to step in easily and quickly when the need arises. 

She also stresses that only active Facebook personal profiles — not “dummy” accounts set up separate from a personal profile — should be assigned admin rights on a page. Districts who use fake profiles risk losing access to their page permanently. Learn more about how to use Facebook Business Manager for the best possible security and continuity of access.

Whether you are a communications team of one — or many more — consider your network of school PR friends in other districts. Who would you call for quick advice or help when you are trying to solve a problem? Identify two or three of your most trusted school communications colleagues, no matter where they live. With their permission, include these names, districts and cell phone numbers in your plan. 

And keep in mind that the school communications pros at CEL are always happy to be a backup on your emergency sub plan. Just let us know how we can help you plan and deliver continuous communications coverage in your absence

Healthy Boundaries Help Prevent Chronic Stress

Not only does a formal substitute plan create stability for continued communications management when you’re gone, it also creates a structure that enables you to truly be gone from the office on occasion. 

Making a sub plan isn’t enough. It only helps when you actually use it — and prepare your colleagues and team to use it when you’re gone. School communications pros know all too well how difficult it can be to unplug, even on vacation. But the American Psychological Association shared four scientific benefits — life satisfaction, physical improvements, mental health benefits and improved productivity — for people who spend even a few days away from the office and unplugged from work. 

Speaking to the Colorado School Public Relations Association in September, Magette emphasized the risks of the high-performance nature of the school PR profession. 

“The talented people who are drawn to school PR are creative, courageous and compassionate,” she said. “They are also rewarded for their fast thinking, problem solving and occasional communications-miracle-working. All of this can quickly add up to occupational stress. And we know from the World Health Organization that poor management of stress can lead to occupational burnout.”

Magette, who led communications in her Kansas district for 12.5 years and partnered with school PR colleague Shawn McKillop, APR to launch the grassroots wellbeing conversation K12prWell, said she believes that creating and maintaining healthy boundaries, such an emergency sub plan, are key to preventing burnout and providing high-quality service to the school system and community for the long term.

File Your Plan — and Lead a Bigger Conversation

Your emergency sub plan is a critical structure for your own boundaries and your school system’s communications continuity and operational strength. For the most durable coverage, share with a few key colleagues and print a copy to file with your boss and in the HR office. 

As you develop your plan, consider the ways to bring more district leadership roles into the process. After all, the need for quick and responsive help in an absence doesn’t stop at communications. Leaders in transportation, food service, curriculum and so many more manage the details of high-profile operations that can’t afford to go ignored on any day. Take what you learn in writing your sub plan, and offer it as an administrative exercise during the next retreat or meeting. 

Magette learned first hand the need for substitute plans when she realized in a 2018 family emergency that she had left her district without the tools it needed to continue communications systems. She and McKillop share K12prWell with individuals and groups across North America.

Published on: October 6, 2021