The PCG must be activated as early as possible following a major incident or emergency. The communication of alerts and public information is a critical element of the initial response, and RPs should ensure that their wider activation processes include the communications function at the earliest opportunity.
A first alert system for PCG members can be agreed to facilitate early communication.
First hour public communications
The first hour of public communications is vital in order to provide swift advice and reassurance to the public; to set the tone of the public communications as the response and recovery progress; and to ensure that communications adopts a proactive, strategic stance as quickly as possible. However, accuracy is paramount and where facts are not known, this should be made clear and appropriate caveats used.
Immediately following an incident, the lead responder should aim to issue a statement as soon as possible confirming awareness of the incident and where and when further updates will be provided. Other responding agencies should also confirm early awareness and attendance to prevent a vacuum of information and to reassure the public. Where appropriate, images can demonstrate and contextualise the extent of the issue. All agencies have responsibility to warn the public if they believe that there is imminent danger, or to protect human life, property and the environment.
While some basic information and advice can be released by individual agencies, any critical information such as confirmation of casualties or health/risk assessments should be agreed and issued by the appropriate lead agency and co-ordinated by the PCG.
Immediately following an emergency, and during the first hour, the public needs:
- basic details of the incident - what, where, when (and who, why and how, if possible)
- to know the implications for health and welfare
- advice and guidance (eg stay indoors, symptoms, preparing for evacuation) and reassurance (if necessary)
The public also wants to know:
- other practical implications such as the effect on traffic, power supplies, telephones, water supplies, etc
- a helpline number
- what is being done to resolve the situation
A failure to deliver sufficient public communications during this time period can result in lasting damage to public confidence.
Other practical steps can also be taken as soon as possible.
For instance, one of the first tasks of the PCG will be the development of a staffing plan that includes details of the allocation of responsibilities and management of resources. The level of resource needed to sustain activity in a prolonged set of circumstances should not be underestimated.
This may include sending some staff home to allow them to rest before taking up a shift pattern, or the deprioritisation of other, non-essential work. These arrangements should be regularly reviewed and will likely continue to be required for the duration of the emergency and into the recovery phase.
The monitoring of social media activity should also be initiated immediately after an event occurs, and can be used to identify emerging narratives and concerns, as well as popular hashtags. How an organisation uses these insights to inform their communication is a matter for their judgement. Depending on staffing and expertise, this role could be delegated to an agency other than the lead responder.
Communications even at an early stage should not be entirely focused on the response and any investigation - from the outset, detailed thought should be given to supporting individuals and communities affected, and to enabling the potentially long-term recovery that will follow.
Beyond the first hour
Once the PCG is activated and initial statements made, simple steps can be taken to ensure that all members are kept up to date with developing issues and are clear on areas which they can comment on, and how else they can support the lead responder.
A simple way of doing this can be the establishment of a “rolling chain” of emails, where all members are encouraged to “reply all” and update members with key lines, developments or queries they are dealing with regarding their own sector. Teleconferences should be scheduled to allow more in depth discussion, update on operational developments, agree strategic communications objectives, and to enable mutual aid if required.
Sensitive areas, such as the identification of deceased or the provision of critical health advice, should be flagged by the PCG chair and the strict rules around communications of these issues explained to all parties. The need to defer communications responsibility to the lead agency should be emphasised.