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Emergency communications: Leading communities through an unforeseen crisis

It is not about your reputation - but get the communications wrong and you won’t have one. Simon Enright, Director of Communications at NHS England, explains.

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Key points

  • In a world of social media speculation, rapid rebuttal of fake news is as important as telling people about what’s going on.
  • Individual organisations want to show 'grip', but if they don’t coordinate their communications then conflicting or overlapping messages are almost inevitable.
  • You will make mistakes, so don’t be afraid to keep checking your communications and using evaluation to adjust them.

A PRIMER for local government leaders

In the same week as taking charge of Wiltshire Police, the force’s new Chief Constable was at the centre of international media attention. He was dealing with an attempted murder, suspected espionage, a public health risk, and the potential collapse in confidence from a local community besieged by the world’s press.

Whether it is a poisoning in Salisbury, a terrorist attack in the Manchester Arena or the fire in Grenfell, dealing with and responding to an emergency, particularly those in which people tragically lose their lives, is one of the most important things public servants do. Big or small, there are few leaders in public service who will escape managing an unforeseen emergency.

The right communications are a critical part of the response: helping people to know what to do; providing confidence that someone is in charge; and putting a community back together when the danger has passed.

In response this summer sees the publication of new guidance from the Government Communication Service, a PRIMER, for handling communications during an emergency.

So what is the role of communications to help in an unforeseen crisis and what should you do to make sure that you and your teams are ready to respond?

This is not about your reputation, but get the communications wrong and you won’t have one. Agencies have a legal duty to warn, inform and advise during an incident and these can be broken down further into three key objectives to communications in an emergency.

Information for action

First, it is providing those affected with the information they need to keep themselves and others safe. That could mean asking for help in finding a perpetrator or signposting people to a recovery centre; it is information about places to avoid because of contamination, or the advice to help people get back to normal.

In a world of social media speculation, rapid rebuttal of false rumour and fake news is as important as informing people about what is going on. Above all the public will expect information from the authorities to be clear, timely, as simple as possible and truthful.  They want information they can use to take action if necessary.

A co-ordinated response

If those leading the emergency response are to achieve that first objective then they can only do this if they follow this second one. Communications must be co-ordinated across all those involved in the incident; including staff, stakeholders and partners.

It is too easy for the messaging to diverge and damage confidence. All organisations working on an incident want to show 'grip' but if they don’t coordinate their communication then conflicting or overlapping messages are almost inevitable. One organisation’s message can detract or distract from a more critical message from another emergency service.

From as simple as coordinating numbers affected, to an agreed position on what has gone wrong, it is essential that those dealing with an incident agree message and sequence: who says what and when.


Finally, we need to recognise that unforeseen and frightening events damage public confidence and trust. Our final aim in communications is to maintain and if necessary rebuild that confidence. There are many external factors that communications cannot control but clear, honest communications is a key component of counteracting the uncertainty emergencies cause.  It reassures that someone is in charge.

The PRIMER model

For the first half of 2018, a group of communication professionals from across government and the emergency services have worked to gather best practice. The aim is to provide those who work in communications, and those who lead emergency response, a guide to handling emergency communications to be used both in planning for and during a crisis scenario. The product is a PRIMER, the essential tools we think you need to get ready for, cope with and recover from an emergency. The core activities are explained by the mnemonic:

Plan – It is essential to have a major incident/emergency communications plan, regularly update it and know where it is when you need it.

Rehearse – And that plan only works if people know about it by rehearsing. You should do this with partners to ensure you have built relationships in the calm times that will be tested in any emergency.       

Implement – Getting it right from the start can be critical. This includes correction of false information but also choosing the right messengers, messages and methods of delivery.

Maintain – Once begun it is really important to make sure that you can keep going. It is foolish to underestimate what a strain coping with an emergency can put on your people, including your communication and senior staff. There is nothing wrong with asking for help and this is best done early.

Evaluate – You will make mistakes, so don’t be afraid to keep checking your communications and using evaluation to adjust them. Reviews can be as simple as asking each other how it is going but they need to be as regular as the emergency is fast moving.

Recover – This is about rebuilding communities, both physically but also psychologically. Communications has an important role to play in ensuring that trust and confidence is restored.

The full PRIMER will be published on the Government website and will also be on the emergency communications platform ResilienceDirect in summer 2018.

Our aim is that all public servants involved in emergency response, both in communications and not, will familiarise themselves with the material available; to plan beforehand and guide when one begins.

Further reading

The PRIMER guidance will be published on ResilienceDirect and the Government website in the summer.