In Scotland, the public communications response to any major incident or emergency will primarily be co-ordinated through one or more of the regional Public Communication Groups (PCGs).
These three groups, based in the North, East and West of Scotland, meet throughout the year and bring together a wide range of communication practitioners from key responder agencies and private sector partners, often mirroring the operational makeup of their associated RRP.
These groups regularly discuss, assess and test their readiness and capability to respond to emergencies. This aspect of the PCG’s role is explored further in the “Planning” section on page 12.
The key roles of a PCG are outlined below.
Activation and composition
During a major incident, the PCG will be “activated”, and those members who are required to play a role in the communications response will be called on to take appropriate steps to be able to do so. Other members will be kept updated, usually by email updates, and should be encouraged to monitor the situation closely in case they are required to play a more involved role as the situation develops.
The membership of the activated PCG will not necessarily include all regular members, but will be specific to each incident and tailored to local requirements. Only those organisations directly involved in or affected by the response will be required to participate – in effect, the membership will be largely mapped to the operational Resilience Partnership (RP) which will have been activated to co- ordinate the wider response.
The PCG should be activated as swiftly as possible following an incident, to ensure that all communications are informed by a shared understanding of the facts, to agree the relevant lead agency or agencies, to promote accuracy and consistency, and to avoid unilateral decision-making.
Having a clear lead in the early stages of an emergency is an important factor in the success of warning and informing the public and the speed at which the multi-agency communications response is activated. Some responsibilities of the lead agency include:
- contacting other responders
- delivering urgent warnings to the public
- co-ordinating the communication activity
- assisting other responders in communicating
- providing strategic communication advice
More detail on the role of a PCG following activation can be found on Page 15.
This activation of a PCG can be called by any agency involved, but it will be chaired by the lead agency unless exceptional circumstances demand otherwise. PCGs may operate virtually, involving rolling email chains and teleconferences. It should not be necessary for all partners to co-locate other than in circumstances which directly impact on the ability to communicate, for instance during widespread power outages.
All members should have the necessary knowledge and skills to collectively provide advice in any emergency, and the authority to make decisions on behalf of their organisation, including both issues of communication planning (e.g. message development) and allocation of resource.
Early consideration should be given to the sustainability of the team, and the potential for a move to co-ordinated shift work to meet the requirement for round-the- clock capability. Essential to this is the agreement that RP member organisations will release individuals to undertake work as part of the PCG for as long as is needed.
In certain circumstances this activation process may include bringing in organisations who do not normally play a role in national emergency planning, for instance the communications teams for major events, organisations or industries immediately impacted by an incident.2 These groups may be much less familiar with the response structures in place than regular members, and the PCG should take its lead from the strategic group and link with other organisations accordingly.
Continuous, effective networking by PCG members can also build resilience and further enable the potential for non-effected communication teams to play a key mutual aid role.
Engagement with a Resilience Partnership
The chair of the PCG should be included as a member of a RP, active in response mode, and as with other technical experts should be called on to provide strategic advice to inform the decision-making processes from the outset of a response. This will also allow the chair to present the most up-to-date operational information back to the PCG.
Wherever practical the chair of the PCG should remain in this strategic role and should delegate the hands-on tasks of dealing with media enquiries or social media to others in their organisation or the wider PCG.
The PCG in response to an emergency should be able to carry out the following tasks as required on behalf of the RP:
- prepare strategic advice on public communications
- identify key groups and individuals affected by emergency, response and recovery
- identify the lead agency responsible for communicating each aspect of the emergency
- develop and deliver a co-ordinated communication plan
- arrange mutual aid across communications teams
- prepare joint messages/statements
- establish communication facilities
- manage the media relations process
- manage online/social media communication channels
- manage internal and stakeholder communication
Out of hours
Emergencies are not confined to the working day. A system of activation must be adopted by all Category 1 responders which involves a round-the-clock response. It is important that a process is in place to identify an emergency, to activate the joint arrangements and to quickly put in place the human resources and strategic approach required to handle the pressures and requirements of effective public communication.
Where an event has impacted on more than one area, sub-groups from two or more areas may need to work closely together, quickly establishing effective methods of working and sharing information.
There may also be events which impact with approximately equal severity across the country. This could include a pandemic flu, major weather event or cyber incident.
In these cases it may be necessary to co-ordinate the communications strategy at a national level, to ensure consistency and a direct link to national policy experts and decision-making processes. In this event, the Scottish Government or Police Scotland will convene a focused national public comms group, including the chairs of each PCG and other key national bodies, to discuss and agree overall strategy and
to provide a link where required to planning occurring at a UK level.
This group will not replace the PCGs, but will allow a forum for PCG chairs to discuss and agree national messaging with other key national partner organisations, and to develop a consistent strategy with their respective groups.
The Scottish Government
The Scottish Government is not classified as a Category 1 or 2 responder. However, Scottish Ministers have a role in providing national leadership during emergencies in or affecting Scotland.
The key principle is that of “subsidiarity”: operational control at the lowest practical level required, and co-ordination and support at the highest level required.
While emergency response is led at the front line, the Scottish Government can therefore play a key role supporting and co-ordinating that response, and addressing its wider consequences. In the event of an emergency, the public will often turn to
the Scottish Government and to responders for information and reassurance about the emergency and the response to it. All those involved should engage early and effectively to ensure that messages are consistent and of maximum value to the public.