The first rule of crisis comms is don't panic

Richard Warburton is the director of media for Save The Children and a speaker at PRWeek's Crisis Comms conference, which begins on 18 June. The comms chief speaks to PRWeek about his early experience in journalism, media handling for the Home Office of the 7/7 bombing in London and the reason he now works for a major charity.

The first rule of crisis comms is: Don't panic!
The first rule of crisis comms is: Don't panic!
Warburton spent the first nine years of his career as a journalist, working for Caters News Agency and later the Birmingham Post, as well as shifts on various national titles.

He says: "Journalism gave me the two vital ingredients of good comms: knowing what a story is and knowing what journalists need."

Warburton’s role as Home Affairs correspondent at the Birmingham Post sparked an interest in issues around crime, policing and security and it was this that drew him to work for the Home Office as one of its press officers.

But, shortly after joining the press team, one of Warburton’s first tasks was media handling in the aftermath of the terrorist atrocity of 7 July 2005 when extremists bombed three London Underground trains and a bus, killing 52 people and injuring more than 700 others.

It was, perhaps, the ultimate test of crisis comms and Warburton took his lead from senior colleagues as to how to react.

He says: "More than anything I learned not to panic under the most intense media pressure – when journalists are, understandably, desperate for information. Even at the most demanding of times it’s far more important to get all your facts right than rushing to get statements out that are inaccurate or misleading. But obviously you can’t be too slow, allowing gaps in the media cycle to be filled by others who may not know what they are talking about."

Warburton thinks anyone who wants to work in comms should consider a stint at the Home Office because of what it can teach professionals about handling the difficult issues of the day.

From here, Warburton came to the Downing Street press office, via a behind-the-scenes stint at the Ministry of Defence.

He says the experience taught him how a crisis, such as the horse meat scandal of recent years, plays out across several government departments at once and how some departments have competing angles on the same story.

Warburton says Downing Street’s reputation among journalists as one of the more aggressive comms teams in Government is undeserved.

He adds: "Working at the centre of Government means any comms job in Downing Street is more strategic than at other departments as you’re trying to deliver the big picture and bring the Government's narrative together. That’s not easy as individual departments, spads and ministers have their own plans. From a crisis comms point of view, sitting in Downing Street you can see how an issue affects so many departments and, ultimately, so many sections of the public and you’re trying to pull together a comms strategy that holds all that together."

After a decade working in government departments, Warburton was looking for a fresh challenge and he joined Save the Children as its head of news in July 2013, rising to director of media after only a few months.

He says: "I’d considered working in the charity sector for some time and I still wanted to work for an organisation with a huge profile that really delivers. Save the Children was a perfect fit. Its global reach is extraordinary and I knew I wanted to work for a charity that prides itself on doing whatever it takes. There can be no doubt that Save the Children makes a huge impact for children in the most innovative ways."

The main difference between working in a government press office and a major charity is that of a reactive versus a proactive approach to comms.

Warburton says: "Working in the charity sector means you have to be a lot more proactive in your approach to earning media coverage, and that means being a lot more creative in the stories you are trying to tell and the issues you’re trying to raise. The phone doesn’t ring in the press office of Save the Children in the same way as it does in the Home Office or Downing Street, so our PR and news teams work incredibly hard to produce really strong stories, content and ideas that spark the imagination of all media."

Warburton will be part of a panel discussion on Thursday 18 June. He will be discussing the comms issues around the recent outbreak of Ebola in West Africa and, ahead of this, he offers a few golden rules that comms professionals can apply to any crisis.

He says: "By far the most important thing is to take control of your own situation and that means getting your facts right. During a crisis there’s always a lot of rumour and hearsay, both internally and within the media. Making sure you are speaking to the right people quickly within your own organisation is vital. Any organisation, however big or small, should get the right people round the table as fast as possible to find out the truth before any comms plan can be put in place and any statement agreed. And don’t panic."

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