Crisis Management

An issue not of your making

The novichok attack in Salisbury left Greene King pub, the Mill, behind a secure cordon

Sunday, 4 March 2018 had been a normal trading day for the staff at The Mill, a traditional British pub based in Salisbury. Nobody really paid much attention to the father and daughter enjoying a quiet drink.

Less than 24 hours later, the pub was cordoned off and the live-in manager was forced to find new accommodation and former Russian military officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were in hospital in critical conditions having been poisoned by a Novichok nerve agent at some point the day before.

While staff had already notified Greene King, which owns The Mill, of the situation communications director Greg Sage recalls that local press reports started to emerge on 5 March, by which time Wiltshire Police had already cordoned off the pub and the surrounding area.

He adds: ‘The site was on lockdown. It an extraordinary event, but information was pretty limited from Wiltshire Police. We relied on the Public Health England site for advice so that we could reassure staff and our regulars. We also tried to put it in context. The risk to them was low, but the advice was that they should wash the clothes they had been wearing the night before and, if necessary, visit the hospital for reassurance. We also sought advice from our own experts.’

But while The Mill was front and centre of the news coverage about the attack on the Skripals, and was dominant in all imagery, Greene King’s name barely featured. ‘We tried to keep the brand name out of it, and to be honest, people did refer to the pub as The Mill,’ says Sage. ‘But we were pretty successful. Nobody really made the association.’

We relied on the Public Health England site for advice so that we could reassure staff and our regulars. We also tried to put it in context.

For The Mill’s landlord Greg Townsend, however, the situation was rather more complex. His two pet rabbits, whom he monitored via CCTV footage, were in his flat above the pub, but he was neither allowed to remove them nor to enter to feed them.

Townsend posted his plight on Facebook, stating how he was escorted from his flat by Wiltshire Police at 23.50 on 5 March and, while he had given the rabbits ‘loads of food and water’ before leaving, the promised access to his flat on Tuesday evening had failed to materialise.

‘They are still alive!!! but I think we’re on borrowed time,’ he posted on 10 March. ‘Please help me save these rabbits. #rabbitrescue.’

Salisbury’s local radio station Spire picked up the story, which soon reached the Daily Mail. Salisbury residents started to tweet Wiltshire Police and the RSPCA demanding action. ‘We started receiving calls from the media,’ says Sage. ‘This was a human-interest angle to the story. There was genuine concern about the rabbits.’

Interventions by Greene King and the RSPCA had previously failed, leaving the pub’s communications team to contact the press office of the Metropolitan Police for assistance, who had taken over the investigation.

‘We needed a way in,’ he explains. ‘It would not be good for anybody if the rabbits died.’ Hours later Salisbury Police issued an update on Facebook, stating that the rabbits had been fed and watered and were ‘OK’. ‘It became a positive story to tell,’ says Sage.

‘The story was that the rabbits had been saved and had been fed by a friendly policeman.’

Aside from #rabbitrescue, there was little for Greene King’s communications team to communicate. Official information was minimal. ‘There was not much we could do. We couldn’t access the building,’ he explains. ‘Overnight, it was closed down.’

And despite being at the heart of an international incident, that provoked outcry from politicians across the world, there was also little news for the local media to report. ‘The local media was very keen to keep updating the story, so there were two things that they were interested in.

They wanted to know when were we going to reopen, and secondly about our people,’ says Sage. ‘The media was quite keen to write a story to say that people wouldn’t be paid. They had picked up some misinformation. Attention started to focus on the team who had worked at The Mill. Was the company looking after them? Were they being paid? It wasn’t just about us. They contacted lots of companies.’

In the immediate aftermath, Greene King had offered financial support, particularly for Townsend, who needed alternative accommodation and also funds to replace his clothing and other personal items that he had been forced to leave behind. ‘We had already made the decision that we would continue to pay them for their normal rota-ed hours. We also offered them the chance to redeploy to other Greene King pubs in the neighbourhood.’

Inevitably though, some staff, including the manager, ultimately felt it was time to move on. ‘It was closed for six months. It was a long period.’ He adds: ‘It was tough for the local media. This was a significant event for local people. The centre of Salisbury was affected, as tourists stayed away. It was really suffering. We kept assuring them that we were committed long-term, and planned to re-open The Mill, but it was six months before we were allowed access. They wanted to tell the story about investment in Salisbury and the rejuvenation of the city centre.

’Internally, after an initial period involving daily conference calls with senior executives, the day-to-day responsibility was assigned to the operations team. There was a core project group, including representatives from Greene King’s property team, who held regular calls, meetings and site visits. These were attended by communications officer Chris Shimwell, who maintained close contact with Defra and also local media.

Every Greene King pub has its own Facebook account, and updates were also issued on The Mill’s page. ‘But we didn’t have a lot to say for a long time,’ says Sage. ‘It is usually a very active page, with the pub’s team posting regular updates. But we certainly used it to tell our regulars and the local community that we were committed to reopening, and then that we were open and back in business. We also had two other pubs in the local area, and invited The Mill’s regulars to try them out in the meantime.’ While Greene King did not believe that it would need to demolish The Mill – it is a listed building – it remained a  remote risk as Defra sought to decontaminate the buildings that the Skripals had visited, which included a local Zizzi restaurant.

We also had two other pubs in the local area, and invited The Mill’s regulars to try them out in the meantime

Consequently, it scenario planned for such an event. ‘Greene King has 3,000 pubs and we do a lot of crisis scenario planning. There are local issues all the time. We scenario plan for fires and rebuilding pubs, for example, but this was on a different level,’ explains Sage. When the keys to The Mill were finally handed back, six months after its enforced closure, Greene King’s main focus switched to re-opening the pub. The local media wanted to tell the story of the rejuvenation of Salisbury, and were keen for all updates as Greene King assessed the situation.

‘We couldn’t do any pre-work because we didn’t know what we would walk into once we opened the doors. We had our contractors in, but in terms of surveying and getting approvals, these things take time. But the local authority was good at keeping the planning permission process moving.’

When the keys to The Mill were finally handed back, six months after its enforced closure, Greene King’s main focus switched to re-opening the pub

Greene King spent three months completely renovating and refurbishing the pub. All fixtures and fittings were removed, and the bar has been completely reconfigured with a new entrance. ‘We virtually gutted it and started again, within the context of what is possible in a listed building,’ he adds. ‘It looks very different inside. Partly, we wanted to demonstrate to customers that we had invested heavily in refurbishment.’ Each step was reported on by the local media.

One day before The Mill – now rechristened Bishop’s Mill – formally reopened on 5 April 2019, Greene King held a soft opening for regulars and key local stakeholders, such as people who had been involved in the decontamination.

Many of the pub’s staff returned while its former assistant manager has been promoted to bar manager. ‘We had a proper grand re-opening but it was nice to have a moment with our regulars,’ says Sage. It demonstrated that the Bishop’s Mill is now back at the heart of the local community.