What I learned from managing comms around the Salisbury nerve agent attack

I consider myself an experienced, mature and capable communications professional adept at reputation management and brand positioning. Yet, just over two months ago, I realised that no amount of experience can help you truly prepare for the totally unexpected.

In a crisis comms situation as big as the Salisbury, remember that partnerships with other agencies will be key, advises Laurie Bell
In a crisis comms situation as big as the Salisbury, remember that partnerships with other agencies will be key, advises Laurie Bell

How do you manage the impact of a nerve-agent attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter when it takes place in a beautiful, medieval city that relies on tourism and visitors from across the globe to support its economic wellbeing?

I’m not sure, prior to Sunday 4 March 2018, how many people had heard of Salisbury; yet this extraordinary situation propelled the city into the worldwide media and made it a focus for central Government.

The attack could have potentially affected hundreds of people and Salisbury was news. 

This unique incident had an impact at local, national and international levels and every media channel ran the story – and not just for a day, or a week, but for months. More than two months since it happened, the city continues to be featured in the news.

The media images portrayed a poisoned, toxic place that was not safe. Consequently, visitors and tour operators stayed away. 

And yet, the reality is that Salisbury is safe and very much open and getting on with its business as usual – the areas potentially affected by the nerve agent are a small, cordoned area in the city centre.

From a communication perspective the challenge was huge, as is the learning. 

  1. Never assume you have all the experience and expertise to deal with a situation such as Salisbury. Embrace the learning and stick to the fundamentals for good communication. Have the confidence to influence and shape the communications and messages and to focus on reputation management and brand positioning.
  2. Remember that partnership working is key. You cannot work alone and relationship-building will make or break the communication delivery. Information needs to be shared and respected and the goals and outcomes agreed. Communication professionals that work together can be a very powerful and dynamic force. 
  3. Always have a clear plan. Focus on what you know, what’s happening, what’s coming up and the potential hot spots. Map all activity and information and plan ahead. Even in an incident you must be proactive and drive the news and the messages.
  4. Focus on pace and outcomes – never leave a void of information. Step into the shoes of the media, the stakeholders and the communities and provide what’s needed. It works – 95 per cent of people polled in Salisbury believe the city to be safe and visitors are returning.
  5. Keep focused on what’s needed. Stick to the plan and adjust the communication and messages based on information and reputation management. 
  6. Recognise that you need high energy, lots of coffee, less sleep and a great team to work with. Embrace the relationships, as many will be new and relish the learning.

At time of writing, the Salisbury story is still running and so are the communications. The message is that Salisbury is safe, the clean-up is well underway and the city is getting back to being a beautiful, historic place that welcomes visitors – so please come and see us!

PS: On a recent trip to the US, whenever I was asked where I was from in England and I said Wiltshire, the response was always the same: "Isn’t that where Salisbury is?" Now there’s an opportunity to increase brand awareness…

Laurie Bell is lead for comms on Salisbury Recovery and director of communications and communities for Wiltshire Council

Thumbnail image ©GettyImages

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