Treading on thin ice, schools chief delivers an ideal apology

During a recent spell of bad weather, I was home watching a communication crisis unfurl, a crisis that hit close to home.

An ice storm had moved into the Austin area in the early morning hours of Jan. 28. Like many parents in the area, I woke up expecting an announcement that school would have a delayed opening or be closed completely.

By 6:30 a.m., there was no announcement, so we proceeded with our morning routine. I dropped my kids off at school and then started the long commute to the office.

Fifteen minutes later, just as I was hitting traffic, I received a text message about a two-hour delay in the opening of school. Luckily, I was able to turn around, get back to the school, and pick up my kids.

Other parents were not so lucky. Many were stuck on icy roads or in hours-long traffic snarls caused by the icy conditions. Many kids were on school buses on their way to school when district officials decided to delay opening. One school bus carrying students slid off the road and hit a guardrail. No one was injured.

School district officials eventually canceled classes for the day, but the storm that followed featured something other than ice.

Parents aired their grievances on social media, to local media, to anyone who would listen about how the school district had endangered their children. (Other area school districts announced the night before that they would delay the start of school because of the ice storm.)

At 2:21 p.m., our superintendent, Bret Champion, sent an email to all parents. In the letter he explained what had happened, took full responsibility for the incident, and apologized to everyone. It was well written, straightforward, and sincere.

The letter offers a valuable lesson in crisis communications: how to craft an effective apology.

“Although my staff and I do our absolute best in this process, we know that often no perfect decision exists,” Champion wrote. “If you do not feel as though it is safe for your child to attend school, I encourage you to use your best judgment on whether he or she should attend.”

He also included a detailed explanation of how the decisions of the day were made, and why the established timeframes weren’t met.

It’s too soon to tell what the long-term consequences of these events will be, but this was exactly what I, as a parent, wanted: an explanation of what happened and assurances that the district would work to prevent another such incident in the future.

PR Daily readers, what do you think?


This article was first published on Ragan Communication’s PR Daily.

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