How to communicate well in a crisis | Christine Townsend

Christine Townsend

Christine Townsend, former volunteer police officer and founder of MusterPoint, which helps public sector organisations manage crisis and emergency communications, blogs on why preparation is key when it comes to managing communications during emergencies.

The best lessons that are learnt are usually those that were tough at the time. I don’t believe that there is any shame in admitting you have made mistakes because that’s the first step in being able to make sure they don’t happen again.

In communications it’s often easy, looking outside in, to criticise or lay blame after the event.

As with anything that has a major impact on public trust, everyone has an opinion and there are many who say how they would have done it differently. What very few have, however, is the benefit of context. Thankfully, those who know, do understand that crisis and emergency communications is a hugely complicated area with more twists and turns than an episode of Murder, She Wrote (which is quite often what I found myself dealing with in police communications).

I’ve had the fortunate experience of handling high profile and wide impact events and whilst it didn’t seem it at the time, it was a fortunate experience and I really do consider myself lucky to have gone through the process of being faced with unpredictable challenges both as an individual and as a team.

Managing emergencies

The learning curve in the first few years of my career managing emergencies was steep and littered with head-in-hands moments, but I’m one for looking back and realising where key learning took place so I can attempt to do it differently, if not better, next time.

I’m often asked for one piece of key advice by colleagues and clients alike on how to manage an emergency as a comms professional in a small team. It comes up time again because there are, by and large, significantly more smaller comms teams in the public sector than there are large and whilst things often work well on a day to day basis, it’s the inevitable emergency that stretches resources, resilience and patience to the limits.

I usually answer simply - prepare.

Prepare well

Prepare as if the very worst that could happen is going to happen to you at any minute. Don’t be complacent about it and never, ever assume that because nothing much happens where you are that it won’t.

I’ve found that at the very least, letting your imagination run wild could help you make reasonable preparations to be ready. Think about a completely outrageous incident that could happen. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been surprised about the type of things that have happened because life is so very unpredictable, but your response doesn’t have to be.

If it doesn’t happen, it’s still a fun exercise to work as a team to see how you would respond. It’s worth asking if there is anything you can do that will save time and circumnavigate the inevitable politics of multi-agency working. Things like:

  • preparing holding lines that are already approved to be released
  • ensuring everyone has hard copies of comms strategies and operational responses (not just at the office!)
  • checking the connectivity of your network, apps and tools
  • training other resources in the organisation to triage media calls
  • ensuring everyone in the team has the basic skills of everyone else so they can manage an urgent response

Work hard behind the scenes

I liken it to preparing for the Olympics. Many, many years go into a sprinter training to win gold. No one sees the hard work but you can be sure that sprinter will be judged on their performance in just a handful of seconds. What they do behind the scenes is what makes them perform to the best of their ability when it counts.

Take the time out to work on your comms team winning gold - it’s worth it and you know you’ve done your job properly if it feels like nothing really happened.

Christine spoke at NHS Confederation’s Communications Conference in June 2018.

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