A game of phones: taking the drama out of a crisis

28 December 2017
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Disaster strikes and it’s your phone ringing… If only crises themselves would go on strike – walk out over a pay dispute or better still, not show up at all!

My phone has rung on many occasions: aid workers killed in Afghanistan… marines and boats seized by Iran… seven detained by Sudanese faction… aircraft down…

Whilst every crisis is shared, there’s little about crisis communications that seems fair.

Some crises are accidents waiting to happen (those that tire of waiting) – though we strive to prevent them. The high impact or visibility, death-toll, environmental damage, the images immediately available – all are factors that focus a news editor.

The Stella Daisy sinking, London Bridge attack, seaside towns smashed by a flood, a typhoon or a tower block fire – all are devastating, high drama news events. Other disasters are slower, or too complex to grasp in a two-minute news report; the economic collapse of a failed state, a hunger gap or a protracted civil war we struggle to understand.

So much bad news comes at us daily. It horrifies us, angers and scares us – before it numbs and conditions us and we swipe to the next story. You can’t blame people for switching off. It’s what charities call donor fatigue, and picture editors know as desensitisation.

It is only the most dramatic stories that break through and spark politized angst, grief and blame. Costa Concordia is a case in point: the outrage to match the scale of the cruise liner herself that would cost a fortune in civil claims and reputation. The Kensington tower block a charred monolith in London’s skyline; lost lives, former homes, a community disenfranchised, warnings disregarded, people disrespected. Tired of waiting.

Some disasters are less toxic, socially, politically – corporately. But human error and neglect are right up there and humans are accountable – or should be. The witch hunt in the banking crisis still simmers.

The public has its own way of making its mind up about something, but it sure gets a helping hand from the media. Our readers deserve answers, trumpets a brass section of leader writers.

The public mood is hard to predict, just as public anger is hard to placate.

But you must engage: presence, visibility, tone – and actions – are all party to the narrative as it’s written; ensure you have the right team in place as practitioners of factual public info, forthcoming and not withheld.

Media need images and stories – sleeves rolled up in high viz, a purposeful presence – a hands-on approach is the order of battle for any leader, be that shipmanager or prime minister.

Preparedness is the plan at the outset, but you’ll still reach unchartered waters as each calamity has its unknowns. Here be dragons… So, experience is what counts in a crisis, along with sound advice and team resources. A team needs to go the distance. CEOs need a day off, just never say it on camera. That genie doesn’t go back in the bottle.

The narrative – public information and the comment that sticks to it – together with your back-of-an-envelope-plan – is within your control at the start and in your gift to explain, if not always in your grasp, throughout a crisis.

You are measured by what you say you will do and what you do. What you say to your staff internally one day, or on day one, may be very different but you could hear yourself saying it to an inquiry months later.

I was in Carlisle with a brigadier who had command of the operation to grip a major UK outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease. His crisis plan scribbled on the back of a cigarette pack; his HQ the back of a Land Rover; and his principle weapon a mobile phone with the PM in his ear piece. I can tell you, that was a fractious social and local agency coalition – to satisfy rural angst and dissent. But grip it he did. The loneliness of command, but never alone.

A partner, an on-point advisor, someone you trust – so you have their back. When the genie disembarks you’re not left with the bottle.


Jonathan Spencer


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