Crisis comms guru takes charge of emergency response in Surrey

Chris Webb, one of Britain’s top crisis comms experts, has been brought in as a strategic communications advisor at Surrey’s Local Resilience Forum (LRF), PRWeek has learned.

Chris Webb, strategic communications advisor to Surrey’s Local Resilience Forum

The role, which is on a part-time basis and runs until the end of next March, comes after a three-month contract earlier this year during which Webb overhauled strategic comms for the London LRF’s Covid-19 Communication Group.

Webb, a former head of news at the Metropolitan Police, started his new role last week. He reports directly to Steve Owen-Hughes, chair of the Surrey LRF and the county's chief fire officer.

Partnership working

Surrey’s LRF is a multi-agency partnership including representatives from the emergency services, local authorities, NHS England and the Environment Agency.

Webb's key responsibilities are to lead and co-ordinate the comms response across Surrey to Covid-19 and other threats, set the overall comms strategy for the county, and provide comms advice to Surrey's LRF.

Each organisation that sits on the LRF leads on comms for its own operational area of responsibility.

Comms will be co-ordinated through a Multi-Agency Information Group that is responsible for setting the overall strategic direction for all media relations and comms across Surrey.

Multiple threats

Webb's remit is similar to the work he did in London, working with partners to co-ordinate and direct the comms response to emergencies, but here he has a far broader challenge.

Speaking to PRWeek, he explained that Surrey has a plan, called Operation Tarragon, for dealing with “the response to major incidents, risks and threats that could occur across the county”.

The threats are not confined to Covid-19, and include seasonal flu, adverse weather, flooding and Brexit, he added.

The priority is to “ensure that we have communication plans in place that support the operational response but also where we can effectively engage with the public and stakeholders”.

Not an optional extra

Webb's role is not a new one, but the previous incumbent had been “doing [the work] as part of their day job and it’s really hard to do that.”

Surrey LRF has “recognised that you cannot do this as part of your normal day job,” he added. “It frustrates me that this is not necessarily recognised in other parts of the country.”

There is a “national problem” of the remit being given to people who are “already overwhelmed and overloaded with work,” he said – and there needs to be “a radical look at how crisis communication is delivered in these situations at a national level”.

Track record

Webb has more than 30 years experience in comms, in a career that began at the London Ambulance Service – where he had to deal with the 1988 Clapham rail disaster. He went on to spend more than two decades at the Metropolitan Police, where he was head of news as well as acting director of media and comms, and co-ordinated the force's media response to the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales.

After 9/11, he led a government working group to look at how London would handle media and communications in the event of a terror attack. He was strategic comms lead for the emergency services in the wake of the 7/7 bombings in 2005. 

Since leaving the Met in 2013, Webb has advised police forces dealing with G8 and NATO Summits, been associate director of contingency planning at Crest Advisory, and advised the Cabinet Office and the Police Federation on strategic comms. He also has his own crisis comms agency, CriComm, and in 2018 founded the not-for-profit organisation Emergency Practitioners in Crisis Communication.

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