I came to the conclusion today that I quite like a good crisis. I suppose that doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me and knows that I have been working in police communication for around 16 years. Crises come in all shapes and sizes from terrorist emergencies through to reputational nightmares but when they happen the adrenalin definitely kicks in.
Today (Thursday 18 June) I had the pleasure of being asked to chair the afternoon session of the PR Week Crisis Communication conference. There was a huge amount of knowledge and experience in the room and some fascinating subjects that were discussed including dealing with the Ebola crisis, how to get ahead of any crisis, legal issues, how to work with the media and how to rebuild after a crisis.
I loved the phrase from Jonathan Hemus from Insignia who was referring to things that mean crisis communication goes wrong. He said ‘denial is the enemy of crisis communication’ which I think is something all senior leaders would do well to remember. Jonathan is, of course, right that you have to see there is a crisis in front of you before you can be effective with your communication and handling of it. An interesting concept for FIFA recently.
Dealing with a crisis is becoming ever more complex with everyone able to do live reporting and the growth of eye-witness reporting. An interesting thought for all communication professionals came from Simon Bucks, associate editor at Sky News, who added ‘the concept of deadlines is gone’. All the media want to get the breaking news first for their website and social media. I wonder whether communication teams are set up to be able to provide such a speedy response around the clock?
The importance of planning, preparation and exercising always comes through at such conferences and it did again. I will take away the concept provided by Markus Leutert, from Walgreens Boots Alliance, who calls is ‘crisis fitness’. The fact that you are ready and able to respond to a crisis well before it happens is essential. A crucial part of this response has to be the communication with employees. They are the people in the frontline and at the sharp end dealing with the day-to-day comments. It is vital that they are given support and information that they can make good use of. An interesting thought from Heather Wagoner, from London Underground, was to consider putting more junior staff into the media. I am not sure how many chief executives would be happy for that to happen but I can definitely see occasions when it would work.
Key threads during the day were the importance of honesty, transparency and integrity in the communication and alongside this was ensuring you say sorry if it is appropriate. People are at the heart of every crisis and the response has to be focused on people not profits or organisational reputations. Being sympathetic, listening and understanding the public viewpoint is never more important than during a crisis.
My three key learning points from the day were:
1. A crisis can be a huge opportunity and it can really sharpen and put a focus on your skills
2. Before a crisis, think the unthinkable and prepare for the unexpected
3. Dealing with crisis communication has to start today
And I might allow myself to have a fourth which is that crisis communication can be an adrenalin fuelled opportunity for communicators to prove their worth.