A next time


It can happen to any organisation… out of the blue… disaster strikes.  Are you on the back foot or the front foot?

The pressure’s on; the people in the front-line are coping, best they can, with ‘whatever it is’, but along with the 24hrs news-cycle and social media, new pressures build for communication professionals.

Gone are the days when a press release would do the job.

Watching events unfold in Salisbury has been a master-class for anyone interested in how organisations should react.

If you wanted to know the likely name of the nerve agent, its effects, where it was made and the likely perpetrators… look no further than the Internet.  It’s all there…

Only a week ago Dame Sally Davies, CMO, was on the telly saying there was zilcho risk and we should get on with our lives.  

A few days later the army turned up in mars-landing kit and Dame Sal’ was telling us to burn our knickers, double-bag our trousers and put our mobiles in the washing machine.

How did that happen?  Why was everyone caught unawares?  Perhaps they weren’t.  Perhaps the communications strategy was a mess and Dame Sal’ was out on a limb?

First rule; if there is nothing to say, say there is nothing to say.

Second rule; if you don’t

 have enough facts, say you don’t have the facts.

Now, hundreds of people in a restaurant, a pub and walking the streets are left wondering what’s what.  Staff told to burn their clothes and visit their GP for a check-up… let’s hope they can get an appointment. 

Aside from the confusion, on Sunday, the leaders of the multi-agency, emergency response organisations, were paraded on the telly.  They were lined up, at a press conference, telling us how well their people had done their jobs… for heaven’s sake, we know!  

A policeman stumbled into a contagion and he’s still in hospital.  How did that happen?  He can’t have been alone?

Dame Sally, the CMO, was curiously absent from the gathering?

All the coppers, firemen and ambulance staff… yes, of course, everyone has done the best job they could but now is not the time for them to pat themselves on the back.  

When it’s all over, we should all pat them on the back.

This was a PR stunt.  It looked awkward, inauthentic, confusing,  No one in charge.  Just mumbo-jumbo about committees and teams.

In crisis situations the lack of single leadership and the absence of a red-hot external communications strategy leads to organisational-interface breakdown.  That results in no one knowing what is really happening and they say confusing things or meaningless things.

The public will view the likes of Dame Sally as inept.  Reputation damage will start to creep in; ‘Why were the police so slow to act?’  Erosion of confidence; ‘Why can’t the government tell me if I’m safe?’  

Salisbury residents, interviewed on Sky made it very clear what they thought… not much!

How we perceive risk is a personal thing, statements to the public have to be carefully crafted and delivered, reassuringly and with authority.  We can’t please everyone but we have to go for the greatest number.

Salisbury gives communication professionals seven things to think about.

Preparation.  How often does the comm’s team practice for an emergency.  A scenario like this can be imagined because it is not the first time it has happened.  Do other partners join in?

Who is in the team, who manages it?  Emergencies demand a multi-agency response.  Whose comm’s takes the lead.  It’s hopelessly unclear in Salisbury.

Who does the talking?  There are umpteen agencies all saying different things in Salisbury.  One voice is needed.  Trained, reassuring, experienced, informed, authoritative and trustworthy.

A single point of contact for the public.  Where is the help-line for the Salisbury residents, their relatives, local businesses and suppliers?  Where is the medical support…  999, NHS111, they’re busy enough.  Plan for dedicated lines, giving authorities a chance to capture data and look for trends. 

Prepared holding statements.  Templated and ready; ‘we are prepared… we are placing the highest priority on… we will be posting additional information as it becomes available...’  

Develop and stick to key messages and until more is known, it’s OK to say; ‘we don’t yet know enough to be able to make a more detailed statement but we will talk again at Xo’clock.’

Proper assessment.  Salisbury looks like; ‘say something, say anything, look busy, look like we know what’s happening….’ When it’s clear that might not be true. 

Practice, rehearse and do it again.  When it’s over, evaluate, analyse and figure out what you can share and do better next time… 

because one thing is certain, there will be a next time.


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Reproduced at TrainingPrimaryCare.com by kind permission of Roy Lilley.