Whether during the planning, response or recovery phase of an incident, certain common principles underpin all good crisis communications practice.
Clear roles and responsibilities
The identity of the lead responding organisation should be agreed where possible in advance of a particular type of incident, and if not then as quickly as possible after a situation develops.
The communications team of the organisation leading the operational response will normally take the lead on most communications. This will avoid more than one organisation independently warning the public about the same risk at the same time, which could cause confusion.
However, it is important to note that the lead responder is not expected to carry out their duty to warn and inform in isolation. Agreeing a lead responder should be seen as part of a collective arrangement which allows for effective partnership working and mutual aid, in particular in helping to boost and promote the lead responder’s messaging.
Specific elements of the communications response may be allocated to the respective agency - for instance, utility companies will issue advice on the recovery of services, and transport operators on delays and cancellations. This should all be shared with the PCG members but may be issued without agreement by the group.
However, any message which provides an update on the incident, public safety advice, an analysis of risk, or other critical aspects of the response fall to the lead agency only. Other agencies should simply echo or point to the lead responder’s statements.
Provision of communications advice at every level of decision making
Communications should be seen not simply as the public description of events or decisions, but as a critical operational asset which plays a vital role at all levels of the response and recovery, and in maintaining public confidence in the organisations involved.
As with any other technical specialists, communications advisors should be employed to give strategic advice from the earliest stage. This advice may also have an impact on the development of the wider response strategy.
Clear communication objectives
The communications strategy which is developed by the lead agency should be used to set clear objectives, provide direction and inform the choice of appropriate tactics.
Example objectives could include:
- raise awareness of risks
- alert people to immediate danger
- provide information for avoiding harm and obtaining assistance
- advise on steps being taken by authorities/responders
- explain steps taken to enable recovery and return to normality
An audience-based approach
The response and recovery strategy will likely call for particular behaviours from a number of different groups, and may involve direct support to victims.
This guidance therefore recommends an approach that focuses on the audience, not simply the means of the communication.
It is important not to consider the public as a single group, but to segment it into a number of appropriate groups wherever possible dependent on their needs. One way to segment is to look at how the public can be linked by a number of factors. For example:
- proximity to the emergency (physical and/or emotional)
- age, and other factors of vulnerability
- access to communication channels.
It is important to consider what information each of these audiences will require. Certain communities may require specific engagement work to offer reassurance or calm tensions.
For example, in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist incident, a simple objective might be to avoid a specific area. In this case, the public needs to understand the nature of the risk, the reasons for the warning and clear, unambiguous steps to take. By communicating in this way, we are raising awareness of the issue and recommending achievable actions, and by doing so should effectively encourage the responses we are seeking.
In a different type of emergency, such as an influenza pandemic, there may be a requirement for those who fall ill to stay at home and not come into work. Once again, there is a clear objective that will, in turn, support the strategy for managing the disease. Communication plays a key role in meeting this objective.
It is important to note that simply informing the public of issues does not always guarantee that action is taken. Effectively influencing behaviour and encouraging positive actions which might mitigate harm remains a complex challenge. PCGs should ensure that the appropriate agency and spokesperson leads on the messaging, and that advice is kept specific, relevant and achievable.
An understanding of channels, and adaption to new opportunities
The public's ability to communicate quickly has never been greater, and continues to evolve year-on-year. The widespread use of smartphones and social networks mean that many people are able to access and share images and information almost instantly, and expect information from responders with equal immediacy.
Media organisations have already adapted the service they provide to this way of communicating, adopting social media feeds with 24 hour reporting, and will similarly expect immediate confirmation and information of events and incidents.
Misinformation can also spread quickly, and incorrect social media speculation may reach mainstream media if it is not corrected.
There are many possible channels to provide information to the public, including social media, and these should be identified in local communications plans and regularly reviewed. PCG members should be familiar with the media organisations and outlets in their own areas, and should aim to develop good relations with them.
The mass media will be an important channel of communication. In particular radio and television provide an effective way of delivering simple information quickly to a large section of the public.
There is also an important role for local media, who can provide a community with information about local plans, as well as sharing local information and advice during a period of recovery.
Investing time to develop a strong and effective working relationships with the media will result in a better understanding of each other's perspectives and needs when an emergency occurs.
In developing a communications plan it is important to consider how these different channels could be used to ensure information reaches the appropriate audiences.
It is also important to remember that a significant portion of the population (over 20% in 2017) do not use the internet “on the go” either on smartphones or other portable devices, and over 30% do not use social media – figures which rise significantly in older people3.
Those looking to communicate with the public therefore need to utilise a range of communication channels, and must have in place systems and structures that allow for swift and accurate communication at any time.
Use of dedicated spokespeople
During major incidents, strategic commanders and advisors will be extremely busy managing the operational response. Wherever possible, a senior official who carries sufficient subject knowledge but is not in direct command responsibility should be identified as a dedicated spokesperson.
Specific messaging will continue to be agreed with those involved in the incident through established approval processes. However, the delivery of that messaging, through press conferences, regular interviews, and other engagement can be undertaken by the dedicated spokesperson.
Wherever possible a pool of such individuals should be identified and trained in advance, and their role made clear to operational colleagues.
It is important to consider communication across all phases of an emergency, and in particular to begin thinking about and preparing for the recovery, as well as the response, as soon as an incident occurs.
The three key phases of crisis communications – planning, response and recovery - are examined in more detail in the sections below.
3 Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS)