Ten years on from 7/7, what have we learned about crisis communications?

Helen Dunne reviews a lively morning discussion

ROB MCTAGGART, SENIOR COMMUNICATIONS OFFICER, LONDON FIRE BRIGADE 

I want to take nothing away from the fantastic work that was done that day, by firefighters attending those scenes and the people in the communications office who worked exceptionally hard, but it’s undoubtedly true that ten years on, we’re light years away from the ways in which the media and communications team work in delivering, receiving, sharing and reporting the news.

I want to set the scene about what it was like in the office in those days. You’ve seen the teleprinters, they have them in Fireman Sam, that print out incidents that people are going to. We had exactly the same in the office. Smoke issuing out of a Tube tunnel in London would be a common occurrence, whether it be brakes overheating or whatever. It wouldn’t necessarily be anything out of the ordinary. We had a small screen where we could monitor the news. Underneath that, were six or seven video recorders – one of my jobs back then was to record the news onto different video recorders or tape off the radio onto cassettes. The London Fire Brigade received about 3,000 calls into the press office during that time.

Basically if you were a journalist wanting the current line and that line changed within one second, you had to ring 15 minutes later to get the update. We had the website and we put information there, but like lots of different websites, people won’t necessarily go there for their news.

The first information that came out about 7/7, in terms of what the incident was, was an electrical surge on the London underground. And that was a truly held belief. If we fast-forward to today, there’s no doubt in my mind that that line, although wholeheartedly believed, wouldn’t have remained the same for as long as it did. With smartphones and technology, the information about exactly what was occurring that day would have come out straight away. People move at a much faster pace now and they expect up-to-the-minute information.

We’re now working far more like a newsroom. If an incident comes in, we’ll see what pictures are coming out and ask permission to use them along with our lines. We see six times higher engagement with tweets that have pictures and links on them. We use that newsroom approach to tell the story, keep it updated, warn and inform.

It’s really important that we get good information from the scene. We’re regularly speaking to media-trained station managers, who are our point-of-contact, our eyes and ears on the ground.

That content is really king. Can we get pictures back? Can we show what is happening? How we’re dealing with it? The situation will change. Once our firefighters are on the scene and managing the situation, it’s then about bringing the human element to it. How many people have we rescued? Are they being treated?

The [collapse of the ceiling at] Apollo Theatre was a case of a live incident that was happening to a lot of people and to a lot of people who weren’t there. It had a huge effect on family and friends wanting to know where their relatives were. And that’s our responsibility. Before social media, a duty press officer would have been paged. We would have put information on our website and said to journalists This is where it is and this is the updated information.

Those days are long gone. London Fire Brigade can now scope the story. We can get people coming back to our website, where we have the up-to-date information and other links to fire safety information or whatever. We’re getting 40 per cent referrals through social media to our website, where we were getting single figures before.

[We started using social media after a fire in a Burger King in Liverpool Street in 2010, which lots of people were saying was a terrorist attack.] We didn’t have a voice on social media. We didn’t have a role we could play. By the time the journalists rang and we were saying No it’s not, this is what it is, they didn’t believe us.

Stories now, if one person says it, it’s used. One person’s tweeted, it’s used. If ten or 20 people are using it, and you’ve not got information out to diffuse it, then it’s difficult to rein it back.

Internal communications is absolutely vital [during a crisis]. A member of London Fire Brigade died at 7/7, so we had that as well as having our firefighters there. There were firefighters who were at other incidents. Obviously they’ve got family and friends who want to know what’s going on with them. We have to communicate to the wider world, but it’s important that we don’t forget our own staff. We know that our staff are interested in the incident and want to know what’s going on because they have people who want to communicate with them and find out Are they at the scene? Are they in peril? That is something that we’ve taken on since 7/7 and realised that, when we’re having our meetings, when we’re thinking about the gold command structure, what are we doing with internal communications?

MARY WALSH, DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATIONS, EUROSTAR

I joined Eurostar in October 2009. In the December, there was that legendary major disruption where a number of trains were stuck in the tunnel as a result of snow getting into the electronic components. The service didn’t run for three to four days, which, Christmas week, when you’re absolutely rammed, is a highly emotional time. There was no news and it was a very high profile event.

It was the first time we’d really seen social media in, I think, any crisis, but particularly in a transport crisis. People had started using Twitter and Facebook. Eurostar as a business had embraced social media, but very much from a marketing perspective, rather than a customer service and disruption point of view. So it was one of the things we had to get onto very quickly and learn very quickly and start to use the channels in a different way. It’s, of course, not ideal when you’re in a scenario to be grappling with that, but we did.

Many people in communications of ten talk about the pressures [social media] puts on you and the speed and the availability of information, but I’ve always been of the view that it’s hugely helpful, because it gives you information. You have to make sure it is robust, you’re not going to use second-hand information and mislead, but it does give you first-hand information in a way that wasn’t available ten years ago.

[Social media] also enables you to have a direct dialogue with the customer, rather than the customer having to navigate to find out the information. It does put a lot of pressure on. As a business, having a contact centre that’s running for big chunks of the day is very helpful; we’ve managed to embed the social media facility in that but they work very closely with corporate communications.

If [the trains got stuck today], we’d have two flows of information: our internal flow of information, but also a lot of visual information. You can’t underestimate the value and the impact of the visual; the help it can give you in those scenarios is profound.

We certainly do [crisis] exercises on a regular basis, both with partners and internal teams together. Every time you do an exercise you learn something, and you review your procedures and your preparation. We now have a dark site. If any major scenario occurs, we can take down our website and replace it with the dark site so that you don’t have inappropriate marketing materials on the website.

We have actually had conversations with our lawyers in our respective markets, saying [In this event], this is how we plan to respond. You have that conversation in advance, rather than in the heat of the moment, and set some ground rules. You always have to revisit them, because the particular dynamics of a situation have to come into play, but I think it’s an important thing to do for a business that has that dimension of risk to its operations.

On 7/7 ten years ago, I was at Lloyds Bank and we had 48 branches in central London, a number of which were near the scenarios that had happened. It’s easy to forget this, but all channels of communication went down for about an hour and three quarters, which is a very, very long time. No email, no Internet, no mobile phones, no landline, nothing. That wasn’t anything that I had ever experienced before. Suddenly that has a very profound effect on what you can do. It was interesting because, for our 500 or so colleagues in the head office, we very quickly had to appoint people to walk around to give information to everyone. The tannoy came back into play. Posters. All this very basic stuff that actually none of us had used in a very long time.

You absolutely can’t underestimate the impact on your staff. It’s something we’re very conscious of because if there were to be any scenario on our trains, of course our staff will be involved, they’re on board. Instantly, that would have a very profound effect on our colleagues. You need to be prepared for that, you need to have instant management teams. You need to make sure you’ve got enough resource. I think practically all the airlines, and certainly we and some of the other train companies, have a surge facility, which is an organisation called Kenyon [International Emergency Services].

We recognise in the end that we are quite a small company. You’ve got limited resources and your resources will be even more limited in a situation where your colleagues are impacted, because of the effect it will have on others. You need to think about that in advance and make sure you’ve got the ability to surge and to amplify your resources with external resources to help in that situation. And then of course, rehearse and discuss with them in advance.

ANDREW GRIFFIN, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, REGESTER LARKIN

The advice we give companies today is not markedly different from the advice we were giving companies ten years ago. Social media and other developments have obviously changed the context in which crises are managed but I’m not sure it has significantly changed what crisis management is. Crisis management, for me, is making, implementing and communicating big decisions under intense scrutiny and intense pressure, when the whole organisation or many organisations are at risk. That hasn’t really changed.

Social media is about a conversation, and that’s how it’s different from other channels of communication. Crisis management doesn’t easily lend itself to conversations. Crisis management is about doing the right thing, getting those actions done and making sure people know what you are doing. We tend to advise companies to not engage too much in the conversation that is social media when they’re managing a crisis. To a certain extent, that’s unavoidable, but it’s a great listening tool and another channel to get information out.

If you look, for example, at the way Germanwings and Lufthansa managed their crisis recently, they used social media to amplify the messages they were putting out. They didn’t use it to start conversations. So in that respect, the way in which we go into a crisis today hasn’t markedly changed from the way we advised on a crisis some years ago, although, of course, some things around the edges change.

Social media is a huge amount of noise; you have to listen to that and [extract] what is important in the noise. But if you jump too far into it, you’re likely to distract yourself from what you really need to do, which is show the world what you are doing and getting that information out there.

Crises can come from absolutely anywhere. When I first started in crisis management about 15 years ago, all the exercises we did were about fires and explosions, oil spills and air crashes. But if you look back over the last ten years, I would say some of the biggest, most memorable crises are things like Barclays and Libor, News International, GSK, HSBC, Toyota, General Motors in the States. Today, people actually want to exercise how they would manage a scandal, a performance issue or a product recall, much more so than they did ten years ago.

In a crisis, you’re never alone. If something is so important, so significant that you as an organisation are calling it a crisis, the chances are that someone else is calling it a crisis as well. The classic example here is BP. The Gulf of Mexico oil spill five years ago was also Halliburton’s crisis, Transocean’s crisis, the Coastguard’s crisis et cetera.

A lot of organisations are now practising how you manage a crisis through the value chain, through the supply chain, which is a really, really hard thing to do, because companies like pretending the world happens in their own vacuum. They think If we set up our crisis team and our crisis comms team and our operational management team, then we’ll be fine. But as 7/7 showed, along with many crises since then, lots of people are involved when a true major crisis happens.

I often ask people What do you remember about BP and Deep Water Horizon?, and even the most hardened oil engineers say I want my life back [the unfortunate quote by former chief executive Tony Hayward]. Crisis management happens in the margins. A few misplaced words, a bad decision here and there, and you turn what could be a good response into quite a bad response and that’s why crisis communications is so important. You look back on these things and you remember how you felt, what you heard and how that made you feel about that company; communications has got such a role in shaping that narrative for years to come.

The job of a senior comms person in a crisis is to bring the outside in and the inside out. Make sure that the crisis management team, who may be in a bit of a bunker, know how this is playing in the real world. Spot some of those potential cues and those memorable moments, creating heroes rather than creating villains.

The core crisis team has to be the crisis management team lead, a co-ordinator or chief of staff, a communications person, and a lawyer. I wouldn’t want the lawyer not to be there. There are still conflicts between communications professionals and lawyers, but you can sort things out in advance. Get together with your legal people and say If this sort of thing happens, would we say sorry? Would we admit liability? How does that work? Have a workshop on it for a few hours. You don’t want to be having that conversation when the big crisis has happened. It’s fine to say sorry, but lawyers need to have that session with you to really understand why it is so important to say those emotional words.

Communications also needs to work closely with HR [in a crisis]. A crisis is where you have to have multiple cross-functional, cross-business, cross-geography co-operation. In the last few years, we’ve seen examples where comms and HR have got it really right in terms of not only getting the comms right internally, but helping colleagues with grieving or helping colleagues with very difficult situations as happened post the Algerian terrorist attacks with BP and Statoil. Whenever you see a crisis now, you see how an organisation is helping colleagues to grieve with condolence books and flags at half-mast and providing proper counsellors. Comms has to have a role in that. It can’t just let HR get on with it.

If you don’t have a great social media presence for whatever reason in peacetime, don’t try it out when the chips are down in a big crisis. And certainly don’t try out a new tone for your company. It has to be in keeping with your corporate character.

All crises are essentially people crises. Even in some of the driest corporate scandal type-crises, the media will find a human interest story because we want to feel the pain of other people and see how other people are experiencing the crisis. What you’re trying to do as an adviser is to make sure that the company doesn’t get into that bunker mentality. As long as they do the right thing by the victims of the circumstance, then they are on the right track.

Do the right thing, be heard to be saying the right things, and expressing the right emotions, and understand who the victims are. You as an organisation are not the victim. Even I think in a terror attack, when you kind of are the victim, you cannot ever play the victim card. You have to behave in a certain way and understand that these are people crises. People’s lives have been affected and our job is to make sure people defending the corporation understand that.

TIM FALLON, MANAGING PARTNER, CAPITAL MARKETS AND CORPORATE AFFAIRS, INSTINCTIF PARTNERS

Over the past ten years or so, there are probably two areas for me that have really changed. The first area is technical capability. In this day and age, to have a strong a technical capability as you possibly can is absolutely paramount.

A colleague of mine has a favourite saying Shit really does happen. It’s true. You cannot predict the future in this modern age and the ability for anything to happen at any one time and have a significant impact on your business is very real and live.

Therefore, [it is vital to have] a really strong technical capability, understanding your procedures, understanding your communications protocols, your monitoring of the digital and social world, understanding that your technical infrastructure works, your IT or whatever it is. Having absolutely top technical capability, consistently working, consistently checked and as prepared as possible.

It’s also increasingly necessary for organisations to have very strong emotional judgment because this can be the real difference in whether you handle crises successfully or not. The need for emotional judgment is driven by this new conversation through these different channels because they actually bring a much stronger sense of perspective and humanity to what can be very difficult situations. If you compare the situation with Thomas Cook and the deaths abroad with the situation that happened at Alton Towers not so long ago, the emotional judgement in both those cases were very different. I would suggest, and I don’t know the details so I may be wrong, the Thomas Cook situation was driven by a very legal, corporate-led point of view. In the Alton Towers’ situation, the chief executive immediately came out, he wrote to every single member of those families, he was in direct contact with them and he said We take responsibility. We’re sorry. We’ll sort this out for you. And that makes a hell of a difference.

When you’re in the midst of a crisis, it’s very easy to feel that you’re within this sort of bunker-like mentality because just so much stuff is happening.

Having a capability where you have some part of the organisation helping you sense check what is actually really happening is important.

As an external adviser, there are times where you have to have a slightly hard conversation to say There are other people involved here, it’s not just all about you. That’s the benefit of having that external reality check, because I’m sure we’re all aware, when you’re in that bunker, it does feel as though the whole world is looking at you. The reality is, it really isn’t. Unless it’s absolutely mega, but often, it’s just your world that’s in crisis, it’s not someone else’s world. It comes back also having emotional judgment as well, in terms of really understanding where this takes you to and how to respond to that. That’s driven as much by external stimulus as the knowledge of what’s happening at that time.

It was clear with the Lufthansa/Germanwings situation that a really tragic event had happened. One of things they did was use social media to set up a dedicated site, not just in recognition of the victims themselves, but for all those who were dealing with mental health problems at that time. It was recognition that this isn’t just a situation for Germanwings, this is actually a societal issue. I thought that was a really powerful in terms of dealing with that situation and was very telling. It wasn’t necessarily about credibility but it did pay off very well for them.