How to keep calm and carry on communicating during a crisis

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We all experience a crisis or two in our lives. But what doesn’t kill us will make us stronger, right?

What happens, though, when it’s our organisation that is facing a crisis?

Suddenly, we need to work with five, ten, or maybe 1,000 colleagues to respond to an unexpected, growing disaster.  How do we, as communicators, make sure our organisations swim rather than sink?

In our latest News and Booze event for NGO communicators, speakers Amadeu Altafaj and Jo Sullivan, explained how to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ during – and beyond – a crisis.

If you couldn’t make it to the event, here are the key takeaways.

1. Make sure you have a crisis communications plan and update it every year

Seems basic, but not all organisations have one. Your Crisis Management and Business Continuity Plan should make clear who takes on which role from the beginning. Make sure your internal as well as external communications are in order. ‘Get the people who panic out of the room,’ was a strong piece of advice from both experts! Amadeu added: “Crisis management is not very democratic. It’s a form of enlightened despotism.” So get ready to take decisions quickly and firmly.

2. Accept there is a problem and talk about the solution

As European Commission spokesperson on Economic Affairs, Amadeu was at the centre of a maelstrom during the European financial crisis, as several member states fell deeper and deeper into sovereign debt crises.  He said: “It took many months for EU member states to accept the crisis went further than Greece. In fact, it was then Ireland, Spain, Cyprus…” His advice? “A state of denial is an obstacle to communication and not recommended.”

Jo worked for the UK Food and Drink Federation when the BSE crisis – known as ‘mad cow disease’ – struck. As company executives wondered how to respond to the mounting disaster, which saw photos of dying cows plastered all over tabloid front pages, Jo answered the phones. She told journalists that Federation members accepted there was a serious problem and would work together with the government for reforms to the food chain. This bought member organisations the time to get their own crisis communications plans in order and get ready to respond. “You need to be at the front of the crisis with a solution,” said Jo. “From every crisis comes an opportunity. You can get a win out of a crisis.”

3. Get your facts straight

When working on the EU’s development portfolio, Amadeu was spokesperson responsible for reacting to the humanitarian crisis caused by the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004. He said: “We had to monitor the situation and stay in touch with people who knew the facts.” Amadeu was on the ground within days, with his Commissioner, high profile EU representatives and journalists. He underlined the need to keep in contact with the right people, such as experts, in circumstances of extreme stress to ensure the messaging is right.

4. When it comes to the media – keep it simple

The media might be a small part of the Brussels bubble fishbowl. “But have you heard of piranhas?” Amadeu quipped. “They may be small but their bites can be very painful.”

Keep your message simple and straightforward. The first line might be to say “we are shocked and are assessing the situation” – and that is fine.

“In a crisis, you don’t have the normal balance between facts and emotions,” said Amadeu. “You must carefully consider not only what and how you say it, but also your chosen communication channels.”

Jo stressed the need to monitor the press and social media but avoid being sidetracked responding to ‘fake news’.

And remember, off-the-record chats do not mean the same to all journalists from all countries.

5. Adapt to developments, but stick to your narrative

Jo and Amadeu stressed the need to stick to your story. “Changing your story makes you look out of control,” said Amadeu, whose latest crisis was as Head of the Catalan government office in Brussels during the region’s recent spat with Madrid.

6. Finally, don’t mess with your principles

News and Booze co-founder Jo Sullivan said: “What is your red line? If you convey reliable information and show commitment to your principles, that will stand you in good stead.”


To read Jo and Amadeu’s crisis comms checklist and accompanying slides from their presentation, click here. News and Booze is co-organised by Jo Sullivan, Julia Ravenscroft and Clear Europe. Join our Facebook group to be the first to know about upcoming events.


About the speakers:

Amadeu Altafaj is a former journalist who worked as a spokesperson and deputy Head of Cabinet for the European Commission. He was later the Representative of the Catalan Government to the European Union.

Jo Sullivan is the founder of Conscience Consulting. She is also the author of the book ‘Creating Employee Champions’ and is a lecturer and coach.

About Julia Ravenscroft

Julia Ravenscroft is the Communications Manager of the European Network on Debt and Development (Eurodad) and co-founder of News and Booze.

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