The three 'must-dos' for crisis communicators

A council's reputation can be destroyed in a few hours if you aren't prepared and fail to move fast during a crisis.

David Holdstock: director of comms, Local Government Association
David Holdstock: director of comms, Local Government Association

As we reach the final of the World Cup, the words of Germany’s first ever World Cup winning  manager, Sepp Herberger, who led his team to victory in 1954, should be on the lips of communicators and not just commentators: "Nach dem spiel ist vor dem spiel" – "After the game is before the game". 

The truth is there are still too many media teams who are happy to sit back and let it happen around them. Crisis comms is about being prepared and having the basics in place. Ask yourself the crucial questions well before the day you have to respond. Do we have a strategy? What is that strategy? Who will deliver it? What tactics will work best? Who will talk about our strategy? How will we measure whether this strategy has failed or succeeded?

Councils, often working with central government, the  emergency services and health, are increasingly dealing with reputational issues – everything from child protection and alleged school takeover plots, to floods. So here are three ‘must-dos’ for crisis communicators.

Preparation

Sepp Herberger knew that if you were still worrying about football when you turned up to a match, you hadn’t prepared enough. Likewise, if you’re still worrying about comms when something goes wrong, you haven’t prepared. If you don’t have a plan, you’re not doing crisis comms, you’re doing damage limitation.

Decisiveness

Preparation is just a means to an end to help you make the best decision on the day. When it comes to crisis comms, taking the lead and making clear decisions often means taking a risk. But let’s not forget that not making a decision is, itself, a decision – and perhaps the riskiest one. In today’s environment of 24/7 media, communicators need to make fast decisions and they need to make the right ones. A good strategy will ensure you do this.

Reputation

Why do we need to move fast? Because crisis comms is about reputation and trust. At a time when trust in councils is at an all-time high, reputations built up over years can be damaged in hours. Businesses link crisis comms to brand confidence but in the public sector we often still see events as standalone, with no bearing on reputation. Whether public or private sectors, crisis communication is about trust and reputation.  

And what about social media? During the floods, it was an absolute game-changer. Many councils not only used social media to share information but also as a way to connect residents together to offer help, share resources and provide updates. In some places, those without a clear plan found themselves in the position of being replaced by their residents as voices of authority. Whatever the issue, a plan is essential: be prepared, make clear decisions and protect your reputation.  

David Holdstock is director of comms at the Local Government Association

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