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Dust off your winter weather communications plan


An article (see link below) about Western Kentucky University's winter weather communications plan popped up in one of my Google news feeds today. As I read it, snow is falling steadily, covering our streets, cars, sidewalks, and trees. It's beautiful, and the "storm" is predicted to be on the mild side as far as nor'easters go.


It takes me back to my days when I was the person who had to make the "snow day" call to school district parents. And it reminds me to remind you that you need an inclement weather communications plan. Do you have one?


Of all the businesses and organizations I've worked for and with, school districts understand best the value of an inclement weather communications plan. Parents - literally upon the first news of impending snow, sleet, or ice - want to know if school is going to be called off or delayed. It's understandable. Many work, and alternate child care needs to be secured as soon as possible. Others just want to know whether or not to set the morning alarm. Regardless, the snow day call is one of the most important messages a school district makes.


Although it wasn't my responsibility to cancel school (thank goodness!), it was mine to get the word out. And, it was my responsibility to develop the plan for doing so. Trust me on this, the PLAN is the key. Because weather changes, decisions happen fast, and people need to know what to do - and they want to know it an hour before you do.


Start with letting your stakeholders, both internal and external, know the following before an inclement weather notification - or any urgent message, for that matter - needs to be sent:


~ Who makes the decision: Let your stakeholders know that the decision will be made by a person in authority who has the responsibility to do so, and who will do it in a collaborative manner. For example, for winter storms, our district superintendent made the decision after consulting with municipal road crews, weather experts, the mayor, etc., so it was an informed decision and everyone was on board. Let your stakeholders know briefly how these decisions will be made. It establishes process credibility.


~ When the decision will be made: In prek-12 education, the parent push is to know the night before. But sometimes this isn't possible. Let your stakeholders know that the decision will be made as soon as possible and with everyone's safety in mind. Conditions can change quickly.


~ How to find out once a decision is made: Sorry, broadcast news folks - gone are the days when mom or dad got up early, poured a cup of coffee, and read the ticker at the bottom of the local morning news for 10 minutes, looking for a district's school delay or closing information. Tools such as social media, mass notification calls (sometimes referred to as reverse-911), websites, and mobile apps get the word out in addition to those morning news tickers - and faster. Let your stakeholders know what you will use, and have them "sign up" for the app or follow the social media thread in advance of any need.


~ What to do: Seems simple right? It's a snow day, so stay home. Not necessarily. Let me use my school district experience as example. Even in the worst of conditions, custodians (the heart and soul of a school facility - all hail!) would have to report for at least some of the day to make sure boilers were working and the building was secure. Certain administrators were expected to report unless told otherwise. It may not be as clear-cut as you think. Let people know in advance how you will inform them of what to do. For example, "The building will be closed" means stay home. But, "report when you feel it's safe to drive" means come in when your street gets cleared.


Then...

~ Have the basics of your messages scripted ahead of time, so you can grab-and-go when they are needed. My phone would ring anywhere between 4 and 5 a.m. on snow days, and the message had to go out before 6:00 so bus drivers wouldn't head to the depot to warm up the fleet. That's really early, and my brain might have been a tad fuzzy. It helped to have the bulk of the message ready to go - one for phone, the other for print - in advance.


~ Practice! There's nothing more tongue-tying than to have to record a phone message in a hurry at 5:00 in the morning.


So, here's the type of message I would send out to staff: Good morning, everyone. This is Communications Manager Beth Wagner, calling to let you know that due to the inclement weather, school is canceled for today and the buildings will be closed. All after-school activities also are canceled." So, no school, everyone (administrators, teachers and support staff) stays home (it's understood custodians report, though), no basketball game today, stay safe.


One additional note: Many businesses have a policy of following the inclement weather procedures of the school district or municipality where the actual facility is located. Although this is an easy way to manage inclement weather procedures, it poses a few issues. First, it doesn't take into account the commute. Some of your staff may live as far as an hour away. Living in greater Boston for 10 years taught me a 40-mile drive could separate no snow from a foot of it. Second, it puts the onus on the employees to get the information rather than be given the information. The latter shows a higher level of respect for your staff - you are reaching out to them. Something to think about.


Need help with your inclement weather communications plan? Let me know!


Oh, and here's the link to the WKU article: https://www.wku.edu/news/articles/index.php?view=article&articleid=7126

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