Crisis teams are often the invisible heroes

Success in crisis communications often means your work goes unsung as potential crises are averted.

Planning for potential crises can sometimes feel like the Cinderella service of government communications. Not that it is neglected in Whitehall – far from it in terms of the planning, testing exercises and press office resource – but it involves a hidden graft without the gloss and glamour of big budget, public-facing campaigns. One mark of success could be that half the work never becomes operational. Staff can proudly reflect on what might have been, but it comes with the frustration that the true value of their work is hard to capture.

Take London 2012. Two years ago a team at the Department of Health was involved in planning a programme to pre-empt potential issues linked to the Olympics – from increased pressure on NHS services and blue-light routes to food poisoning outbreaks. The strategies, involving LOCOG, NHS London, the Health Protection Agency and others, ran to hundreds of pages, but most of the issues people trialled never came to pass.

It was a successful programme, but not one to get communications garlands alongside the lauded Olympic big beasts: blockbuster branding, torchbearer relays, the opening ceremony, the GREAT Britain campaign and the deft handling of the world’s media. Such is the nature of crisis communications when the crisis is either averted or doesn’t come to pass.

Health gets its share of the spotlight (it’s Whitehall’s largest spender on behaviour change campaigns), but many health communicators are engaged in the quiet graft of crisis planning. The discipline carries great reputational responsibility, demanding that we think through the handling of situations with significant potential impact on people’s lives and the services they rely on. If things go well, the success is banked and the world moves on; fail and the questions go far further than channel use or audience segmentation.

Last year some predicted a winter A&E crisis of almost government-toppling proportions. For a newly structured health and care system and its communications teams, the prospect was daunting. Operational planning started in May, with public updates from the PM, the Health Secretary, NHS England and the Chief Medical Officer by early autumn. Shared communications plans were agreed between six organisations (the department, the key NHS agencies and Public Health England, of which four had only been established a few months earlier). Context, immediate actions and long-term solutions were set out, with weekly updates on the challenges the NHS was managing, and information for staff and the public. 

Importantly, strong relationships were formed early. People knew colleagues across the system who could get things done as pressure mounted and the NHS performed well, despite the naysayers. Communications plans came and went, issues were attended to and potential crises handled. With an ageing population and a general election months away, we know the stakes will be even higher next year and the hard graft of the quiet communicators has already begun.

Sam Lister is director of communications at the Department of Health

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