There was an air solidarity at the PR Week Crisis Communications Summit 2022 last week (Tuesday 28th June) as corporate comms professionals came together for the first time since the pandemic hit to share their experiences of supporting businesses and organisations through what for many has felt like a period of ‘permacrisis’.

Whilst the event chair joked that we would all welcome some ‘precedented times’, there was a common sentiment felt that the crises endured in recent years had given rise to some career defining moments and a re-awakening of the importance of our roles as communicators, particularly when the going gets tough.  

We heard from some inspiring leaders, including James Lyons, Director of Communications at NHS England, who took us behind the scenes of his team’s response to the pandemic and Louisa Fyans, Director of Communications at the Football Association who gave as a nail-biting account of the day that the postponed Euro 2020 final turned into a riot.

There was a fantastic session on mental health from Gill Munro, who worked in the Corporate Communications team at the BBC during the Jimmy Saville crisis, a harrowing and unrelenting issue that went on for months on end. Gill shared the importance of looking after the mental health of yourself and your teams whilst working on a crisis, so you don’t end up ‘packing it all in, moving to the seaside and taking up pottery.’

Overall it was a good reminder of the key things to remember about good crisis communications.

Don’t use the ‘c’ word too often – not everything is a crisis

It is the job of communications professionals to determine whether something is an issue or a crisis and to control the reaction both externally and internally. Often the most senior people within a business will have the most disproportionate reaction to what might end up being a storm in a teacup.

Communications should always have a seat at the top table when dealing with any sort of issue to help ensure the response is proportionate and hits the right notes tonally.  

A real crisis is the only true test of how a communications function is working

A genuine reputational crisis that triggers a high volume of media enquiries, a social media storm and a barrage of customer complaints will be the ultimate test of a communications function and whether it is working properly. Perhaps the escalation process isn’t as seamless as it could be, or there simply aren’t enough arms and legs in the press office – these weaknesses will be revealed by the stress test that is a genuine crisis. Following a crisis there should always be a review of what happened and change implemented where necessary.

Apologies without action don’t fly  

“People love to forgive but they also want an acknowledgement and an apology” is one of the defining principles of crisis comms, however an apology isn’t enough without some sort of reparative action. It is important that businesses are seen not only to be ‘saying’ the right thing but to be ‘doing’ the right thing.

Employees can be a business’s greatest ally in a crisis

Internal communications and employee engagement is critical to protecting the reputation of a business, not only during time of active crisis but on a continuous basis. Ensuring that employees are engaged, empowered, and aligned with the business purpose means that they will be the biggest ally in difficult times.

Build media relationships

Maintaining a good reputation that is strong enough to sustain crisis, means putting in the effort to build relationships in ‘peacetime’ too. For example, take journalists out for coffee and run roundtables with industry stakeholders to talk about the company’s mission, values, and passion projects. Good media and stakeholder relationships will help to build trust and ensure a willingness to listen to a business’s point of view during a crisis.

Don’t let a crisis become a personal crisis

It is difficult to think clearly and continue responding well to a crisis if mental health is suffering. Leaders should ensure that their people are looked after properly, particularly during an intense crisis. This means making space for people’s personal resilience levels, putting in place shift patterns so people have time to sleep, eat and switch off, encouraging the team to set boundaries and leading by example by doing so themselves.