Crisis Communications for School-Based Health Centers

startup-photosA crisis communications plan is an essential tool for school-based health centers (SBHCs) and SBHC systems. SBHCs that have encountered negative media attention, misperceptions about services, and threats to daily operations and sustainability know all too well that this kind of opposition can be grueling and time consuming. With some forethought, however, a cohesive strategy will save time, support collaboration and partnership, and strengthen clear, accurate messaging should a “crisis” arrive.

One community recently had its crisis communications strategies put to the test. We share how they responded to inflammatory and inaccurate messages in the media, and provide a summary of best practices for crisis communications.

Lessons Learned

Without warning, a community that has long enjoyed support for its SBHCs faced unwanted media attention that raised concerns about the distribution of contraceptives at schools. While this isn’t an unfamiliar controversy for many SBHCs, widespread media distribution—from mainstream television stations to blogs with fine-tuned audiences—made it difficult to address inaccuracies and varied points of view.

Throughout the process, public health department staff maintained their focus on the needs of SBHCs and leveraged community support. Key stakeholders created a fact sheet for public distribution that emphasized crucial data points and information about school-based health care services with the intention of setting the record straight and maintaining the strong reputation of local SBHCs. County staff moved quickly to connect people at the county level with the press, SBHCs, districts and school boards, and data teams. They effectively distributed facts, answered media questions, and used key messages to create a blog post to ensure their message sustained an online presence. They even took a deeper dive into their data to help clarify how many students had received certain contraceptives through SBHCs.

Once the controversy died down, they were able to make suggestions for future planning and for other SBHC communities facing similar issues. Here are some planning and communications points to consider based on their experiences:

  • Be prepared for opposition. It’s not new and when it’s gone, it’s not gone forever.
  • Build and maintain relationships with elected officials, leaders, school boards, superintendents, and other stakeholders so they don’t lose sight of what an SBHC is and how it serves students.
  • Don’t stop communicating. Even in communities with significant SBHC support, opposition messages can rise to the top and gain traction in the media.
  • Distribute the facts in a way anyone could understand. Use straightforward language, avoid jargon and acronyms, and cite sources when possible. Use print, email, social media, blogs, press contacts, and phone calls.
  • Describe the services in question—such as contraceptive services—within the context of a full range of SBHC services.
  • Clarify how minor consent laws affect access to specific SBHC services.
  • Know the limitations of your data. Not all data points can be captured, so work to understand what is available and how that might impact perception.

Best Practices in Crisis Communications

All kinds of organizations, businesses, nonprofits, and government offices need and use crisis communications plans, and many do so based on best practices in the field. In fact, the tactics from the example above reflect what communications research says are effective strategies that can help all organizations—including SBHCs and SBHC systems—make opportunity out of crisis:

  • Document: Create a plan and update it with facts, data, resources, tools, and a list of current documents and web resources. Keep track of key stakeholders organized as primary and secondary contacts to help in times of crisis.
  • Partner: Develop partnerships before, during, and after a crisis to better coordinate efforts. Consider input and training from communications experts.
  • Assess: Review the potential for risk, particularly when events take place or new policies or laws go into effect.
  • Listen: Empathize with your audience and work to discover core concerns.
  • Communicate: Be honest, open, and candid. Deal with the facts, answer questions, and serve as a resource for the media. Prepare and test messages periodically.
  • Act: Respond as quickly as possible and distribute accurate information.
  • Evaluate: Debrief, share results and lessons, and aim for continuous improvement.

For more information about communications resources from the School-Based Health Alliance, please contact Kyle Taylor, Communications Manager, at or (202) 370-4384. If you have similar stories to share or additional suggestions, we’d love for you to include them in the comments section below.


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