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How to Communicate When You Can’t Say Much at All

From a reputation management perspective, building relationships and earning public trust requires honesty, openness, and transparency. When bad things happen or challenging situations unfold, stakeholders want to hear from leaders. 

Choosing to remain silent, whatever the reason, once discovered, is frequently a fatal management career error.” — Jim Lukaszewski, America’s Crisis Guru

There are times (pre-crisis), however, when openness regarding an emerging issue is at odds with other ethical commitments, so what do you do when you can’t say much at all?

Disclosure vs. Safeguarding Confidences

Every organization encounters challenging times when ethical decisions must be made to uphold confidentiality and privacy and protect individuals’ safety. Two ethical codes apply here: Disclosure of Information—open communication that fosters informed decision-making—and Safeguarding Confidences—ensuring appropriate protection of confidential and private information.

    • Employers are obligated to protect confidential and private employee information. (If you have questions about what is legally private or confidential, consult your general counsel.)
    • Schools are obligated to protect private student and family information ( re: FERPA).
    • Medical providers and employers are required to protect health information.

Whether it’s a sensitive personnel issue or a legal constraint, transparency sometimes yields to discretion, privacy or legal advice. S0, how do you communicate effectively when you can’t say much? Say something.

Collaborate with your public relations counsel and legal counsel, if necessary, to prepare a holding statement to answer inquiries.  Acknowledge awareness and reassure people that the matter is being taken seriously.

Pro Tip: Listen to questions and note concerns in an issues management log or tracking sheet. This will be handy if the issue escalates.

Draft a Holding Statement

Your holding statement may look something like this:

“We are aware of [overview of the situation in one sentence.) We are taking this matter seriously and appreciate your understanding and cooperation in respecting the sensitivity of this matter.  Know that the safety of our [customers, students, members] continues to be our priority at this time.” 

Communications strategist J. Marie reminds us that leadership’s actions (and non-actions) leading up to and during a crisis will be remembered. “As a school leader, it is critically important to breathe deeply, assess the situation quickly, and set a tone that conveys that your leadership team is ready and able to address the issues at play. “ Even when you can’t say anything about the situation at hand, you can communicate your values, resources, and policies.

Acknowledging the Situation

Acknowledging an issue can help maintain transparency and trust. Draft a message acknowledging the situation without divulging specifics. Emphasize the district’s commitment to addressing concerns while respecting privacy. Genuine empathy for those affected will reassure parents, students, staff and community of the district’s dedication to upholding your values and principles. 

“We like to frame statements around four fundamental principles: Empathy, facts, corrective action, and connection to organizational values,” advises Janet Swiecichowski, APR, CEL Vice President. “Connecting on a human level builds trust. Avoid sounding robotic or cliche.”

For instance, imagine a situation in which a beloved staff member unexpectedly goes on leave and another teacher is brought into the classroom the same day.  

Let’s apply a few of Jim Lukaszewski’s principles of effective practice:   

    1. Act ethically, promptly and urgently. 
    2. Do the doable; know the knowable; get the getable; arrange the arrangeable. 
    3. Focus on what really matters.
    4. Intentionally look at every situation and circumstance from different perspectives. 

Sample Letter to Families

Dear Families:
We’d like to update you on a change in your child’s classroom. On Monday, your child’s teacher started an unexpected leave of absence. We understand a change can be unsettling for students, so we want to let you know how we are handling the change.

        • NAME and credentials will be your child’s classroom teacher for (period of time) 
        • WHO will be providing additional support with the students during the transition.

Our priority remains to provide a welcoming and supportive learning community for your child and everyone in the class. Please contact me with any questions or concerns at PHONE and EMAIL We highly value our children, staff and families and our partnership with you. We appreciate your understanding and cooperation as we navigate this change.”

If appropriate, offering contacts for counseling support and communication can foster trust and understanding. Encourage people to reach out to (Principal or Superintendent) with any questions or concerns, assuring them their voices are heard and valued. Be prepared to listen, know the legal and confidentiality parameters, and uphold the code of ethics

Intentionally look at every situation and circumstance from different perspectives. It becomes helpful to have answers for the top five questions that you know will be asked.  When you can’t answer the questions due to confidentiality, privacy or legal reasons, state that fact.  However, here is what I can tell you and be specific on the facts that you can share. 

Our principal is meeting with your class today to introduce the interim teacher.  S/he brings years of experience, and some of your children already know her. Your child will continue to be loved (cared for), learn, and have the support of the entire school staff.  Respecting confidentiality and privacy laws, this is all the information we have available regarding the (teacher’s) leave at this time. 

Repetition and Consistency

You will likely receive the same questions from multiple people in various formats. Listen with respect and empathy. Log the question.  Answer by repeating the information in your statement. Thank people for their respect and interest in the well-being of your business or school community. “Look at every question as an opportunity to communicate,” Lukaszewski reminds us, — and build a relationship, as outlined in Jim’s manifesto of trust and integrity.

What To Do When You Need to Rebuild Community Trust

Openly engaging with your community and being honest about past missteps can help rebuild trust over time. To do this effectively, rely on your mission, vision, and values as a roadmap for your communications moving forward.

If your strategic communications plan isn’t enough, don’t hesitate to contact us for assistance. We’re here to help you realign your communication strategies with your organization’s values and goals. Together, we can rebuild trust and strengthen relationships between schools and their communities. 

Still, wondering if silence is an option? Perhaps you have another ethical dilemma? Check out this ethical decision-making protocol.

This post has been edited since it was originally posted on April 3, 2024.

Published on: April 3, 2024