Keep calm and communicate: five keys to good government comms in a crisis

By on 04/04/2022 | Updated on 04/04/2022
A woman shouting through a megaphone in a park
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Crisis in government require clear communication, and clear communication requires a clear plan of what to do when challenges strike. James Humphreys sets out the rules to follow

Those who manage crises for a living are usually great on tactics. With events moving quickly and an organisation’s reputation on the line, they have to be. But there’s a vital strategic dimension to crisis communications, from planning and resilience to staying aware of the big picture, however difficult the day-to-day becomes. So here are five keys to a strategic approach to managing crises.

The first rule can be incredibly annoying for anyone in the middle of one: don’t get into a crisis in the first place. This is where a risk register can help in identifying the potential causes of crises, their probability and impact, and ways they can be mitigated, including contingency. Of course, a risk register is only as good as the information entered onto it, and there are plenty of crises that come from a blue sky. They also depend on senior management taking them seriously – for example by investing in mitigation measures. But they are a governance tool that reaches the board, and also one that every part of the organisation can contribute to. So they  should be seen as an opportunity to flag up known risks and secure funding for the tools to manage crises.

The most important tools are the ones that provide information, because the second key is knowledge is your strongest defence. Tools such as stakeholder mapping, employee surveys and tracking data on awareness and perceptions of your organisation allow you to prepare and respond. For example, all else being equal, familiarity with an organisation breeds favourability. Also, familiarity forms a perception bedrock, shaping all later information received. The more familiar the public are with you, the more likely they are to give you the benefit of the doubt when they hear you have done something that sounds wrong. But if the first thing they ever hear of you is negative, that will colour everything else they hear from then on. It may not make sense to invest in public awareness, as this is a very expensive game. But if you have low awareness amongst key audiences – journalists, MPs, regulators – this is definitely a risk to flag on the register and to tackle through more effective stakeholder engagement. Similarly, tracking how you are perceived by key stakeholders, including your own employees, will allow you to predict how likely they are to rally to your side in a crisis, and whether your enhanced efforts to engage stakeholders are working.

Knowing your operating environment is vital, but one of the greatest challenges for communications professionals is knowing what is going on within their own organisation – hence rule 3: know yourself. This is particularly true in government, where the media may seize on any issue at any time, from an insensitive tweet from an official account to neglect of a war grave in a far-off country. Often, the crisis is not the original issue, but the inability of the organisation to respond rapidly enough. That is why many crisis communications professionals stress rapid reaction. As Bill Clinton’s rebuttal unit used to say in regards bad stories (and boy did they have plenty of those) Speed Kills.

But here is a dilemma. A lot of crises are generated because the first response an organisation gives is wrong. This can be a matter of tone, or even of facts. Human nature being what it is, people struggle to admit they have said or done something stupid. Both for the individual and the organisation, the instinct can be to deny, lie and cover up. If and when the truth emerges, you will look incompetent, dishonest, or both. Communications professionals need to know their organisation – and that is everything from having up-to-date contact lists, so you can find the person who actually knows what’s going on, 24/7, to building relations of trust, particularly with senior leaders – so if you have unwelcome news for them, they are more likely to listen.

One of the defining features of a full-blown crisis is it brings in new audiences – particularly the public. This makes it vital to remember rule 4: speak like a human. Every organisation gets bogged down in jargon and management-speak, but in a crisis, plain speaking is vital. This isn’t just about being easy to understand for non-specialists. It is also about reflecting their values and priorities. If people have suffered as a result of your actions, you need to say so, and express both your emotional and practical response. This is a fast-moving area and the techniques of a few years ago – such as the “thoughts with the families” response – can now seem formulaic and insincere to the public. The heart of this is not a stock phrase but thinking about what feelings are genuinely shared by you as an organisation and by your audience. Saying these out loud establishes an emotional connection between you and the outside world. Once you have that, other conversations open up.

Whatever the nature of a crisis, gaining and maintaining an element of trust amongst your audiences depends on being seen to behave reasonably, and maintaining this means remembering rule 5: don’t get into arguments. This may seem counter-intuitive when you are being subject to criticism, much of which may feel – even be – overdone or unfair. But at a strategic level, crisis communications is not about winning over or crushing your enemies. It is about convincing the neutrals and undecideds to give you a hearing, and then shifting them in your direction. Vaccine hesitancy illustrates this. A small number of people are anti-vax and highly critical of the medical establishment. The temptation is to lash out with facts and status. But this ignores the genuine concerns of those who are undecided – concerns which have a strong emotional component. Talk of facts can be alienating, while empathy – acknowledging, for example, the deep responsibility parents have for deciding whether to vaccinate a child – draws people in. 

Crisis communications professionals, and anyone who has lived through a crisis of their own, will have lots of valuable tactical advice. These five keys are strictly strategic, about preparing for a crisis and positioning the organisation once you are in one. One thing links them all: corporate culture. The organisations that fold in a crisis and suffer the greatest damage are those whose instincts are to deny, deceive, blame others and duck their responsibilities to staff, customers or the public. If your organisation has clear values, and lives up to them, then chances are, you’ll make it to the other side of the crisis intact.

James Humphreys worked for five years as the Head of Corporate Communications in the UK Prime Minister’s Office. He delivers training courses for Global Government Forum on The Five Principles of Strategic Communication and Modifying Behaviour through Policy

About James Humphreys

James Humphreys worked for five years as the Head of Corporate Communications in the UK Prime Minister’s Office. He delivers training courses for Global Government Forum on The Five Principles of Strategic Communication and Modifying Behaviour through Policy

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