Six of the best

A world away from Manchester, England I found myself sat listening to the head of communications for NATO talking about dealing with a crisis this week. It was one of those pinch me moments to make sure I was really there.

Crisis communication is fairly universal because at the heart it is like all communication it is about human responses. There were a number of important messages from the event that I thought were worth sharing.1. Prepare for the unexpected. Oana Lungescu from NATO highlighted what I have experienced. The key is whatever you prepare for realise that when a crisis hits it is extremely unlikely that it will be what you have planned for. This means you need to be flexible in your approach and preparations.

2. She also said that you need to have strong relationships in place to be able to respond to a crisis. This means having a strong relationship with key leaders so that you can call upon them and react quickly. But it also means you need to have relationships in place across the organisation so that you can call upon them at a time of crisis.

3. Oana also stated that tackling misinformation needs a confident and positive approach to who you are and what you do. If you do it right you can effectively bust some myths.

4. Communication by committee doesn’t work. When Oana talked of her work she says she was in important meetings to understand the discussion so that she is aware of the boundaries. Consultation only happens to the right people at the right time.

5. Merlin Koene, partner at FischerAppelt, said crisis communication was really about crisis leadership. The key is how it is led and managed and this includes within the world of communication. Senior people in the business all need to recognise this and understand their responsibilities.

6. There was another gem from Merlin when he said ‘trust is a business metric’. Trust is a critical asset to the organisation and to how it responds to a crisis. How do we ensure leaders recognise the importance of planning and preparing and involving communication? We have to demonstrate the impact on the business if we aren’t able to maintain trust. People move on and the brand capital will be diminished. That is why communication matters and should be prioritised.

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Leadership during a crisis

In just seven days we have seen schools close, businesses shut their doors, employees working from home and restrictions on going outside our front door. It is hard to comprehend the enormity of the changes that are taking place to our lives. For those at the top of organisations and in leadership positions the pressure is intense. As well as understanding how things impact on the business and employees they also have to manage the impact on themselves personally.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has shown the way for many when she appeared online from home last week after putting her child to bed to do a Covid-19 question and answer session. She was able to be both authoritative about the situation and human. I have highlighted her communication style in one of the case studies in my book Crisis Communication Strategies.

The book has taken some time to come together and includes a whole chapter devoted to the importance of strong and effective leadership during a crisis. There are 10 leadership qualities that I identify need to be demonstrated during a crisis. I have copied a short section from the book below which may be helpful as we are start the second week of the national emergency. It covers the 10 qualities and a bit more about the first five.

 

Crisis leadership qualities

There are 10 key leadership qualities that need to be evidenced to support effective crisis communication. A leader who can demonstrate them all will put the organization in a more advantageous position, and this should be something that all those leading organizations are seeking to achieve.

The 10 qualities are:

1 Motivating.

2 Consistent.

3 Decisive.

4 Compassionate.

5 Visible.

6 Ethical.

7 Resilient.

8 Responsible.

9 Effective at communicating.

10 Skilful at managing expectations.

 

Motivating

The world will be watching the leader of a business when it is affected by a crisis and everything they do and say will be analysed. Affected people, customers and those involved want to have the confidence that things are being effectively managed. Employees of the business want to feel they are being given support to do what is required to tackle the situation. All this requires the leader to be positive and to take people with them, creating an atmosphere where staff feel they will get through the challenging times. This can be achieved by the leader demonstrating that they are leading from the front, and they understand the impact of what staff are facing. A positive approach, where the leader also consistently appears to be unflustered by whatever twists and turns the crisis takes, will benefit everyone. It builds confidence and with that, employees will continue to do what is required, safe in the knowledge that it will move the organization and the situation forward.

Consistent

The importance of having a clear and consistent narrative about the crisis that is understood across the business has been outlined in previous chapters. Consistency is an important way to build confidence in the response. The leader can achieve this by embodying the brand values of the business. Organizations can move away from the principles the business operates under when an issue or situation develops. This is the easy option and will require fewer difficult decisions to be made. However, it is when the organization is under pressure that it needs to stick closely to the vision and ethos that it stands for. This will be understood by employees and customers alike and gives them some certainty during the moments of pressure. If the leader at the top of the business is seen to embody the brand values, then others will follow, which will build consistency across the organization and most importantly within the communication as part of the response.

Decisive

Responding to a crisis requires swift action, which means quick decisions need to be made. The leader needs to show they are in control and are comfortable to take those decisions that will put actions in place. This is not a time to waiver and appear nervous about the task that is ahead. It is why the leader needs to have been involved in the crisis planning so they are able to move quickly into taking a decisive role directing the response because they know the plan in detail. The response must be swift but never appear hurried because haste brings a flustered appearance and lack of control, and that in turn impacts on confidence. A true leader will be able to listen to advice and guidance that may be given by experts within the business and will show how they are using that guidance to inform the actions that are being taken. There is a careful balance that must be struck between being directive but also finding a way to be able to involve staff in the development of plans. It is particularly important for the leader to show they have listened to and heard the views of affected people, employees and members of the public. A failure to listen and ensure a course of action is in place will extend the lifetime of the crisis.

Compassionate

Historically, the public expectation of a CEO during a crisis was that they would show resilience, calm, and that they were taking action. These elements are all still important but alongside this there is an expectation of some humanity coming through the communication and activity. We can see the authentic and compassionate voice come through from New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the response to the terrorist attack in 2019, covered in the case study at the end of this chapter, or from the CEO of Alton Towers when the focus of his response was on those injured in the rollercoaster incident. People want to see that the emotion of the issue or incident has been understood right to the top of the organization. We see this in further detail in some of the case studies throughout this book, particularly Alton Towers, discussed in Chapter 8. When public statements are being made it is vital that they reflect an understanding of the human cost of the issue or incident. It also means that the leader needs to be able to show this visibly in the media interviews or any video that is undertaken. Without some emotion being evident the response will appear cold and impersonal. However, they should not be viewed as hysterical in their approach, which means another careful balancing act must be in place. CEOs should allow their human response to the issue or incident to assist in shaping the response, and if they do it with authenticity it will appear as an acceptable form of emotion. The CEO must be approachable, recognize the importance of the public response, and deal with things as a human being and not just the person in charge of the business.

Visible

A CEO that is not visible from the early stages of a crisis will be viewed as hiding from the problem, which will reflect on the organization’s response. As we have seen, a swift recognition that there is a crisis emerging or underway is vital to show situational awareness and increase confidence that action is being taken. This visibility needs to be in place throughout the duration of the crisis with the key groups that have been outlined in plans, both public and staff. It does create additional pressure on the CEO who is already facing a huge burden of responsibilities, but there are other aspects of the response that can be delegated to prioritize communication and being visible. The CEO must utilize methods of communication to show they are involved in the response, are directing events, but are also listening to views and meeting with those affected. If another senior manager is being used for communication that is fine, but at some point the CEO must be seen to speak. Face-to-face communication with key staff that have been affected or are heavily involved in the response is a vital part of the employee engagement work. The same is true for key external groups and individuals, including any victims, victims’ families, affected people, stakeholders and shareholders. It is an onerous task but one that is a key step towards effective crisis management and moving towards recovery. At the heart of the communication plan is that the CEO has a vital role as the face of the organization and must step up to do this at some point in the early stages of the crisis.

 

 

I hope this may be of some use or at least just give you some time away from the relentless pressure of work to think about things. If I can help get in touch. I will keep posting advice and guidance through my blog.

Stay indoors, stay safe and look after yourselves.

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No charts or trajectories

In just seven days so much has changed and this time it isn’t just for one of us but for all of us. It is easy to get caught up with financial concerns, frustrations with being confined, and worries about when this will end. But what matters in this situation was brought home to me this morning in an interview on the radio.

The woman speaking had lost her mother to Covid-19. She wasn’t able to say goodbye. She wasn’t able to see her. She will have no chance to bring everyone together to celebrate her life. Instead, she had to tell the doctor and nurse what she wanted her mother to know before she died. I can’t explain in words how deeply her story touched me.

Throughout the week we have seen lots of statistics and charts, curves and trajectories. We have had the potential spread of the virus explained to us over and over again. But this is a human tragedy. It isn’t about the finances or the restrictions. It is about the people who are losing their lives, the families who are grieving and the horrific circumstances that they are facing.

It is easy as a PR or communicator to get caught up in task and finish mode. Getting things done. Writing this to the required deadline. Making sure that employees have been told about X, Y and Z. There is an overwhelming amount of things to do when you are dealing with a crisis, and particularly one that is going to last for many weeks and possibly months. People are working extra hours, extra shifts and extra days. The commitment and dedication can be seen throughout the articles and comments in the media and on social media.

What we have to do, and it doesn’t matter who you are working with or for, is to remember those people. Whatever communication we are doing, writing, drafting or pulling together remember the woman who I heard talk so movingly about the death of her mother. The doctor and nurse, like many others, were doing what they could to make the situation better. We all have to do what we can to make the situation better. As communicators this should be in everything we do, and as people this is by staying at home and saving lives.

Thank you to all PRs and communicators who are doing amazing things throughout this national emergency. I hope you can get some time to relax and recover. Stay safe everyone.

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One priority for us all

Business and the biggest brands are facing one of the toughest moments in modern life. This is uncharted and unprecedented territory despite all the planning and preparation we may have done. Companies and organisations are facing pressure like they have never seen. I think it is safe to say have never seen because of the widespread impact and the restrictions that have now been put in place.

Difficult decisions are being made. Some people will have lost their jobs or will have had their income reduced as they are isolated at home. Many people are going to be under pressure because of gaps with those in isolation or dealing with the illness in the family. Income is being severely restricted both for the large business and the independent operator. There is no simple way to make this easier or to make those challenges go away.

But the decisions that are made now will impact on the future of the business and its ability to recover. If you do the right thing and ensure that you are protecting people as well as being honest about the business decisions that are being made it will go a long way to helping you in the future. Saving lives is the single most important thing now.

Sports Direct have shown what can happen when you focus on business rather than the people. At the start of today they were claiming they were an essential service and so staff would have to go to work to keep stores open. Following the outpouring of views and comments from senior politicians they are now closing the stores. At a time when we are trying to unite and show that we are all dealing with this crisis together, decisions that are made that appear to go against that will be lodged in people’s views of that business and organisation. And then there is the boss of Wetherspoons, and I don’t really know what to say about what happened today.

We all have stories about people who are being told they must go into work even when it is not a critical or essential business. It is the actions of those companies that will be remembered long after this emergency has disappeared.

This is not about anyone building the business or trying to enhance their reputation. What matters is where people can contribute to the national effort whether that is to boost people’s spirits, provide ways to support those educating at home, or redesign their services. It is a fine line between what is seen as a service change to help and what may be seen to be ‘cashing in’. For me there is one simple test: does it help people in this moment of crisis? If it doesn’t then why is it taking place now? Overnight, so much of what we thought was critical, essential and urgent within work or our daily lives has been shown to be irrelevant.

This is an international crisis, a national crisis and a local tragedy. Getting through this needs us all to come together no matter who we are, where we are or what we do. Difficult days are ahead, with difficult decisions that must be made. If we keep focused on what matters – saving lives – we will do the right thing and be able to walk positively into the future.

 

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Getting through this together

I imagine like me you have lost count of the amount of times you have heard someone says these are unprecedented times. We all know, they are. Communicators are under significant pressure and we have only made it through week one. It is important that we try to use the time now to prepare for the long haul. This means looking after ourselves and those around us, getting in extra help when needed, and ensuring we have some time away from the work demands.

After a period when I have been dealing with my own mental health issues, I am feeling a new sense of purpose being able to step up and offer some support. I have offered to support both the PRCA and the CIPR with their Covid-19 teams and will look at ways to support people within the industry. Dealing with emergencies and crises is something I have done for a long time and I just hope that the knowledge and experience I have can now be of use.

Over some time I have been writing a crisis communication book as I am passionate about ensuring that learning and experiences are used to help others. This is due to be published in about six weeks’ time. I hope to be able to share some sections from it in the coming days and weeks as they may be able to help communicators who have had to go from promotion to crisis management overnight.

One part of the book that keeps coming to mind is under the subheading “When there is no return to normal” and it says that some events that happen are just so huge that there is no return to normal because there becomes a new normal. At the heart of this is the need to take things a day at a time and not to put expectations on the future.

What matters now is that we take stock of where we are and what it means, gather all the latest advice and information and then work out a plan to take us through the coming weeks. A plan that will consider the people affected by Covid-19, the employees whoever and wherever they are, and will understand the consequences of decisions that are being made. Your plan must understand the people implications first and foremost. Getting through the weeks ahead is only possible if we unite together and focus on helping people no matter who or where they are.

Please get in touch if I can help or follow this blog as I will be posting advice and guidance when I can. Look after yourselves.

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The full facts

I had another trip to Accident and Emergency at the weekend. It was Friday night and as busy as you would expect. They have a lot to do and I understood that the doctor was rushing between patients. The experience was a reminder of some vital aspects of working in the public sector.

First we have to remember that people are individuals. Whatever their issues are they are personal to them. It is a service business and we have to remember that in everything we do.

The busy A&E doctor lost sight of that when he was giving me and my father the worst case scenario. He didn’t see me sobbing as a person just a job to be done, a box to be ticked. It wasn’t good but I do understand why it happens. It happens because people are under pressure and they lose the connection to people.

The information he gave us was also a victim of his rush to get things done. It was given when only half of the pieces of the jigsaw were in his possession. It lacked the full facts. It is something I think we can be guilty of in PR and communication. We rush to solution without making sure we fully understand the issue.

We do stuff. We write articles. We develop campaigns. We post messages on social media. We hold events. We talk about the issue. But how much of it actually deals with the issue at hand? How much of it actually does what it set out to? How much cloves problems? And how much just looks nice?

If we are going to make an impact through communication then we have to have a focus on the whole situation and ensuring we understand everything that is going on. If we do that then we can really make a difference. I remain incredibly grateful to the medical profession I would just like them to remember they are dealing with people.

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Who really matters?

It is easy to sit in a communication ivory tower where you decide what to do and then do it. You can be creative and have ideas that will be award-winning. And you can carry on like this for years and years but who really matters to your communication activity?

From my work position there are people that often get forgotten and that is the victims of crime.

I have long said that when we put information out about a crime in an attempt to get people to come forward with information that may help the investigation we are doing it as the temporary custodians of that story. It is not our story and we don’t own the information. We are just looking after it so that we can use our skills to help the victim and their family.

A few years ago I heard Baroness Newlove talk at a conference about her experience and it was incredibly moving. As Victims Commissioner she is trying to use her terrible experiences to help others. What was clear was that anything done from a communication perspective would have significant impact. She and her family needed to be aware of what was happening and know where they could go if they needed support or advice.

It is too easy to say we are the communication professionals and know what is best. It is too easy to become caught up in the investigation and to forget the people going through the traumatic event. It is too easy to think let’s get this appeal out and make it sound a particular way so that we can get maximum coverage.

We may have to do all these things but we must do them with the support of the victim at the forefront of our minds.

You may wonder what this means for those working in communication outside the emergency services. The key is to think of your customers or service users. We lump them together as one amorphous group when there is a lot to be gained by remembering they are individuals.

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My beautiful laundrette

We take a lot of things for granted in this life and I started to realise how much I valued my washing machine when it broke. It meant I had to do something I have never tried before – visiting a laundrette.

It was an eye opening experience. People came and went. They did their own washing or they picked up washing that had been done for them.

In good Northern tradition everyone was talking to everyone else. Lives crossing for the briefest of moments. For me it involved talking about the joys of having a house rabbit, the state of the weather and being given a very detailed run down of the owners family situation. I am not complaining about it because this helped me to feel connected to the world.

I was given the opportunity this week to talk at the GCS Northern Conference about police communication and how it works both at strategic and tactical level. I explained how for me communication and PR has to support the frontline delivery and if it doesn’t then we need to ask why we are doing it. Understanding the organisation and what it does, how it works and what the processes are is also essential.

Communication is all about people. Understanding what people think of you and your organisation is essential. It will help you know what to do. One of the most valuable things I have done in 20 years of police communication was spending time sitting in public meetings and residents groups and listening to what was said. It was a way of feeling first hand the problems people face, what they needed, what frustrated them and what they valued.

I know for many brands and businesses this might not be as easy to achieve as going out and sitting in a meeting and listening but there is a lot of data and insight that exists. We need to use this and any other opportunities to support our communication work.

My trip to the laundrette will not have been time wasted. I had time to chat about life and to understand a little bit about the priorities of the people that came and went. It connected me to a different part of daily life and that is also critical to bringing the strategic and the tactical together. It is a phrase I have used a number of times this week ‘keep it real’ that has to be at the heart of what we do.

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