Why Edtech Startups Must Plan Crisis Communications

About the author

Michelle Levesley prepared this article as part of a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy

Chris Montgomery on Unsplash
Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

There is gold in those hills 

Michelle Levesley

Should you wade into venture capital discussions on forums or social media, you soon find excitement about Edtech (Educational technology platforms and services). Examples of these are platforms such as ClassDojo, Google Classroom or SatchelOne. Even Zoom has moved into this arena and has arguably become critical education infrastructure. 

There is much money and reputation to be made here. We see new platforms opening almost every week, as the pandemic and climate crisis affect more people. This pandemic-produced pertinence too often focuses on success, happy client stories and promises of gains. It rarely considers possible and often inevitable crisis or risk. A market built to exploit an urgent need, and scaled rapidly will always be at risk from promises that when betrayed, lose customer trust. This is a real risk with scaling fast: lean teams often have plenty of technical and sales experience and focus, but very little thought is given to risk or crisis. 

My advice to Edtech startups is to proceed with enthusiasm but caution. There is very little good practice and a real need for PR professionals who understand the issues relevant to Edtech crisis communications.

The good news is that we can learn from existing good practice in crisis communications, or mistakes made by other technology platforms in responding to crisis situations. 

The role of the PR expert and the CEO 

PR professionals called in to advise these organisations, or who sit in house, need to encourage each team to consider risk and plan for problems. CEO or leadership must recognise risks and the need for crisis communications as much as marketing. 

Sharing not silos 

This issue is not new to communications professionals. An expert in technology communications, Melanie Ensign blogged that PR and Communications professionals need to sit with design, engineering and development teams. This builds credibility and demands that these teams, often critical to crisis communications issues, are held accountable and asked to consider their choices. Mistakes are often made when one team is working on an ethical project such as differential privacy while another is embedding tracking into websites and app use. Having dedicated security and privacy communications in all your teams can function as a canary in a coal mine. 

Another expert in PR and communications, Charlotte Crawford blogged about the need for new platforms to have crisis communications plans, and to respond with transparency and honesty. She also states what I too believe: that your actions must reflect your stated values. PR professionals can play a vital role in reminding all teams of the organisation’s vision and values. “How would we defend or explain this” is as we have already established, a key question. 

Defining and weighing risk 

Therein lies the risk with Edtech: the data being unsecured, the risk of young people being harmed online, the ethical issues with data sharing to third parties, or a service issue.These have all occurred and should be factored into risk assessments. It is important to ask “Could this happen and how will we explain our actions and response?”. 

I would assert that open, transparent communications before any incident are critical to trust building. With the key provision that any promise or statement must be truthful. If a crisis occurs it is harder to keep trust if key promises or company values are found to be misinformation. Many people may know of your organisation, but not read your blogs or social media. Once you have a problem, you will be rigorously examined in the court of public opinion.Every word will be weighed and judged. So it is best to plan ahead and to act with integrity. 

I want to emphasise the theme of integrity here. Any business that targets children must remember that they are a special category of data subject, and that strict rules and safeguards apply to any interaction with them. If we build trust with educators or families or children themselves, we cannot betray that trust. This is why Edtech crisis are in my opinion more serious than for example, an airline data breach or a product recall. The public relations disaster and public outcry is demonstrably greater for anything involving children. A good example of this was the Thomas Cook Case. Edtech startups must be cognisant that the technology press in particular will seize upon anything relating to children, especially privacy issues, with the recent nursery cam 5 incident as an example. 

Case studies and the “cultural capital” 

A useful case study for crisis communications in technology is the Uber breach in 2016. The media narrative on this was and still is damaging to Uber. In 2016, Uber was notified that criminals had obtained personal data of riders and drivers, including phone numbers and driver licence numbers. In examining the crisis communications, we must start with the blog of then CEO Dara Khosrowshahi. This blog makes two huge errors that would be insignificant to the average person. The first is the blog’s omission that Uber did not lose credit card (CC) information because of secure practices already in place. This use of “security tokens” is considered good practice and is why the breach was not more significant. Mentioning this would have been a good public trust point that the technology press would have been able to recognise and amplify. 

This is where the stakeholder interests cross over. Your internal messaging needs to communicate and uphold your values. How you then present to your sector and your competitors or shareholders, will affect your success. Uber as a controversial organisation as regards worker rights and technology, was always in a precarious position within technology communities. A solid and trusted response to the breaches would have gained critical support within the sector. That did not happen. We can see how reputation damaging that was for Uber.So it is not sufficient to have PR professionals who understand issues, and we must listen to them. 

Culture matters 

The second mistake was to mention Matt Olsen, a Natsec (National Security) professional who was unknown to and had scant experience in the technology security sector. This shows the need for communications professionals to advise management on trusted sources. So in the case of Uber, communications teams needed to be focussed on technology, AI, privacy and security and ethics. This is very much like the need to be mindful of cultural issues within nations or continents, it is important to value the “culture” of the sector. Uber brought a stranger into a landscape filled with distrust. 

Sky Marsen in their 2020 report on crisis communications describes this as a critical lesson. Often we forget that different sectors have specialist media and trusted experts. While it can be said that both the journalists and the “experts” may have bias, we ignore them at our peril. The “culture” of a group matters. We must speak their language and come to them via trusted messengers. 

Social Media As A Weapon Or A Balm? 

Our second case study involves the proctoring software Proctorio and what can only be described as a combative and obstructive crisis communications process. Faced with student complaints about platform issues, the CEO of Proctorio breached confidentiality and posted chat logs on the social platform Reddit.  He later apologised but the organisation went on to litigate against an academic who blogged concerns about the ethics of the software.

As with Uber, we see here how there is no real focus on PR, no sense of control from within the organisation. The CEO, the leadership defended their product as a lion might defend its cub. One gets the impression that Proctorio felt incensed at a crisis and had not planned effectively for one. This would very possibly be what Turner called  “a failure of foresight”.

This case study highlights a critical element in modern crisis communications: social media. Dialogue is no longer one way, or delayed, or even organisation led. It can be a customer who discovers an issue, or who approaches a board member, or publishes a blog. In this case, increasing numbers of students are mobilising online12to fight Proctorio and similar platforms. Organisations need to plan for who responds on social media, how they do so and have a triage team to manage what can be thousands of live reactions. Social media has removed the option for an organisation to wait to respond or hide an issue for a while. However the Proctorio case demonstrates clearly how a measured, sensitive and respectful response will always be best. Sometimes it can be best to post “ we are aware of an issue and will issue a statement shortly with more information”, than to fight every fire. 

Good Practice Needs More Practice 

The best example of technology crisis communications does not come from Edtech. In fact there are no evident contemporary examples that meet the criteria of clearly planned, transparent and social media aware crisis communications. Perhaps the most useful example is the 2019 Canva incident showed a clear and transparent response and follow up. They took the open and helpful step of contacting individual customers and helped them to rectify issues. Technology journalists respected this response as it used recognised good security practice and language. Edtech startups would do well to emulate such a response. 

Final Thoughts 

In conclusion, crisis may be risk manifest, as Heath said, but crisis communications should be manifest honesty and cultural awareness. In Edtech this is especially relevant and a pressing issue.

As the sector continues to expand and to touch more lives, it will need to plan responsibly for inevitable crisis. If one seeks to work with children, to profit from them, one must also act with maturity and respect.

The required crisis communications need to be calm and compassionate and informative. PR professionals need to lead that process and advise their clients, or board, accordingly. They also need to manage the challenges and rewards of interacting with stakeholders over social media. As the Fyre Festival showed the world: the stakeholder with the smallest importance, cheapest ticket, smallest investment or lowest social media following can still be pivotal to a crisis.