A less polite man might be tempted to respond to PRWeek’s remarks that this latest news may not rank up there with the national crises he handles on a regular basis. But ever cautious and media-savvy, Webb does not take the bait, simply raising one eyebrow and changing the subject. The truth is that as deputy director of public affairs for the Metropolitan Police, the soft-spoken South Londoner has been involved with responding to almost every major national incident since the Clapham rail crash in 1988, when he was a press officer for the London Ambulance Service.
Now, from his office high up on the 13th floor of New Scotland Yard, Webb is responsible for day-to-day communications across the Met, from routine internal comms to counter-terrorism strategy. With a staff of 72 and a budget of £6.3m, he is far removed from his days in the ambulance control room at Waterloo.
‘It was an exciting time, the late 80s,’ says Webb of his first few years in crisis comms, when he dealt with press enquiries on behalf of the London Ambulance Service. He landed the job as a fluke when out-of-hours media requests were diverted to the ambulance control room, where he answered 999 calls. He soon developed a taste for working with the media, and, crucially, seemed able to remain calm during emergencies.
‘There were major incidents year on year on year,’ says Webb in a characteristically deadpan voice, reeling off a laundry list of accidents in a tone others reserve for discussing the weather. ‘In 1988 there was the Clapham rail crash, and in ’89 there was the sinking of the Marchioness. Who’d have thought a pleasure boat would have sunk on the river Thames?’
Webb, now 43, was a senior press officer with the North London Police when he was appointed to head up the comms team ahead of one of the most headline-stealing events in recent memory, the funeral of Princess Diana. True to form, Webb seems unfazed when asked to recount the experience. ‘We had the world media focused on us around the clock. I dealt with comms from the Sunday morning, through to the actual Westminster Abbey service the following Saturday. Great working relationships were developed in that time, both with Buckingham Palace and a number of the Government departments.’
These relationships have been tested ever since, with Webb relying on his comms counterparts at all London’s emergency service divisions, the Mayor’s office, Transport for London and government departments to come together under his chairmanship in emergency situations like this month’s foiled West End car bombing. Leading this so-called Gold Group of comms heads is part of Webb’s job description, and one that has become increasingly crucial in the post-9/11 era of constant terror threats.
Glenn Sebright, head of media and internal comms at the London Fire Brigade, was one of the Gold Group representatives following the Haymarket scare. ‘It’s vital to have confidence in your colleagues in these situations,’ said Sebright. ‘Chris chaired the Gold meetings through the period of time the security threat was raised to critical, and played a key role in coordinating communications between the emergency services.’
For Webb, the first hour after a terror attack is the most important, both in terms of setting out a proactive comms strategy and in reacting to media speculation. ‘It’s about reassuring the public that you’re in control,’ Webb says. ‘We have what we call a golden hour. It’s an hour to get a grip, to get control of the situation, or others will do it on our behalf.’
These ‘others’ are, of course, the 24-hour news channels, the online media and the citizen journalists blogging in real time. Webb insists he harbours no ill will towards the TV stations that broadcast mobile phone video clips of terrorist attacks before the Met has sanctioned a response. ‘There is a growth in stills and video footage from mobile telephones, and that’s fine – we understand why the media wants it, and I haven’t got a problem with it,’ he says, sounding earnest.
While journalists have criticised the Met’s slow response to 7/7, Webb himself emerged unscathed. ‘The news community sees him as a guy who understands the needs of various different media,’ says Simon Bucks, associate editor of Sky News and, like Webb, a member of the National Media Emergency Forum responsible for rethinking the media’s crisis strategy after the 9/11 attacks left London feeling vulnerable. ‘I think 7/7 was his biggest test.’
While Bucks has seen Webb during his most stressful times, he maintains that the man is unfailingly calm and on-message.
When Webb feels the need to unwind, he volunteers as an organist at his local church. ‘You just sit there and all your cares disappear . It’s a bit like driving a sports car –you just give it a good old flogging.’
The only time Webb seems flustered is when he recounts a murder investigation from years ago – the only case that ever affected him emotionally, he says. A seven-year-old schoolboy was murdered in Hendon, his body wrapped in bin liners and dumped in a lift. ‘Sean Williams, his name was,’ says Webb, his voice cracking slightly. ‘I had just had my first son and I felt I could associate the grief that his parents were going through. I found it difficult to handle.’
Webb may not be quite as unflappable as meets the eye, but don’t try telling that to the journalists he works with. ‘He’s a journalist’s friend,’ says Bucks. ‘But there’s no doubt whose side he’s on.’
What was your biggest career break?
Being promoted to deputy director of public affairs at the Met at the age of 36 and being in a position to make a real difference to crisis communication structures at a national and international level.
What advice would you give to someone climbing the career ladder?
Nothing is impossible. Yes, you will hit obstacles along the way, but don’t give up. If you want something badly enough and you are prepared to put in the effort, you will get there in the end. Learn from your mistakes and have the confidence to take risks.
Who was your most notable mentor?
I have learnt a great deal from the Met’s director of public affairs, Dick Fedorcio. I also gained considerable experience working with Mike Granatt, the former director-general of the Government Information and Communication Service (now a partner at Luther Pendragon).
What characteristics do you prize in new recruits?
A ‘can do’ attitude with a passion for the job. Someone who will come to me with solutions, not problems, and who has the confidence to stand their ground, act on their own initiative and get results.
Deputy director of public affairs, Directorate of Public Affairs & Internal Communication, Metropolitan Police Service
Head of news, Metropolitan Police Service
Head of press officers, Princess of Wales Funeral
Information officer, Metropolitan Police Service