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12 Feb 2016

Effective crisis communications takes more than preparation and process, it takes practice.

Posted on February 12, 2016 by

Sir Philip Dilley, formerly of the Environment Agency. Picture from the Environment Agency

Sir Philip Dilley, formerly of the Environment Agency. Picture from the Environment Agency

As storms Desmond, Eva, and Frank tore through England and Scotland over Christmas, it wasn’t just the physical infrastructure and architecture that took a battering.

Some of the communication structures set up to help deal with the effects of the storms also fell victim to the weather.

What the Christmas period demonstrated was that far too many organisations believed that the crisis communications procedures they had in place were ‘enough’, when in reality it seemed to be a press officer on call and a process document that had left been gathering dust for far too long.

What should have been a well-practised, slick exercise that escalated at the same pace as events, turned into a case study of what not to do, and the worst offenders were at the highest levels. While it might not be possible to predict the severity of flooding, the response by the government, its agencies, big businesses and organisations to the communications challenges that events like this bring with them should have been entirely predictable.

There were clear examples of communication failures regionally and nationally, but when the worst culprit was the body charged with responding to the floods, the Environment Agency, then questions should be asked. After all, it wasn’t a failure in the Environment Agency’s physical response to the floods that led to the resignation of its chairman Sir Phillip Dilly, it was the failure of its communications.

Crisis communications demands constant review and regular practice in order to be effective and needs to be able to flex and respond proportionately to events.

It also needs to remain empathetic but be dispassionate. It cannot afford to become personal as this is where poor judgement will creep in.

Whatever the size of your organisation, if you have employees, customers or deal with the public, you need a crisis communications plan and you need to keep it up to date.

We have some top tips for dealing with a crisis here, but for anyone starting to look at planning for the worst, there are some simple steps to remember.




Preparation is critical in crisis communications, from running through the scenarios that could develop to identifying your stakeholders and assessing what presents your greatest risks. Any time spent here will never be wasted and will help prevent you from losing valuable time in the event of a crisis.

Process is about ensuring that whoever you involve in your crisis communications knows exactly who to speak to, when and who has final sign off before any information is communicated internally or externally. For instance there should always more than one pair of eyes that look over any communications before it leaves a building, in order to ensure a measured response.

Practice is the area that I suspect was sadly lacking in some of the examples over Christmas. Just having the necessary forms and processes in place only goes part way to dealing with a crisis. The only way it can work properly is try it out and that means practicing your responses in real time. It’s only by doing this that you can learn where your preparation and process is lacking and needs work.

Effective crisis communications is not just about protecting you reputation but about ensuring that those affected have the information they require in a timely fashion. It’s about avoiding communications vacuums, removing confusion and providing clear direction and leadership, even in the most difficult circumstances.

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