When it comes to emergency situations, strong leadership is crucial, says Sid Dajani.

Last year we witnessed the most polarised, poisonous American election in my lifetime. We are having similiar tensions here at home over Brexit. We have cynics and enthusiasts, pessimists, optimists and every shade of opinion in between. However no amount of soliloquy or blitz of explanations, reasons, facts or figures in infographics seems to help us understand where we might actually be going.

Indeed, whatever your politics, the fact is we’re stuck in the middle of a political and economic dilemma we’ve not faced since the last world war.

And who could’ve predicted that sleepy Salisbury – a city only 20 miles from where I live now and where I used to live, where I have many friends and where I still shop and have a gunsmith to service my 12-bores – would be at the centre of sinister goings-on?

Watching events unfold in Salisbury has been quite a master-class for anyone interested in how organisations should react. If you wanted to know the likely name of the nerve agent, its effects, where it was made and the likely perpetrators... look no further than the internet. It’s all there...

In the week following the attack the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) was on the telly saying there was zero risk and we should get on with our lives. A few days later the army turned up in Mars-landing kit and the CMO was telling us to burn our knickers, double- bag our trousers and put our mobiles in the washing machine!

How did that happen? Why was everyone caught unaware? Perhaps they weren’t. Perhaps the communications strategy was a mess and the CMO was out on a limb?

First rule: if there is nothing to say, say there is nothing to say. Second rule: if you don’t have enough facts, say you don’t have the facts.

Communcation breakdown

As a result, hundreds of people in a restaurant, a pub and walking the streets were left wondering what’s what. Staff were told to burn their clothes and visit their GP for a check-up... let’s hope they could get an appointment.

Aside from the confusion, leaders of the multi-agency, emergency response organisations, were paraded on the telly. They were lined up, at a press conference, telling us how well their people had done their jobs... For heaven’s sake, we know!

Of course, everyone has done the best job they could but that was not the time for them to pat themselves on the back. When it’s all over, that’s when we should laud their efforts.

In crisis situations the lack of single leadership and the absence of a red-hot external communications strategy leads to organisational-interface breakdown. That results in no one knowing what is really happening and they say confusing or meaningless things.

The public will view the likes of the CMO as inept. Reputation damage will start to creep in. ‘Why were the police so slow to act?’ There’ll be an erosion of confidence: ‘Why can’t the government tell me if I’m safe?’

Salisbury residents, interviewed on TV, made it very clear what they thought... not much!

How we perceive risk is a personal thing; statements to the public have to be carefully crafted and delivered, reassuringly and with authority.

Food for thought

Salisbury gives communication professionals seven things to think about:

  • Preparation - all comms teams need to practice for emergencies. A scenario like this can easily be imagined because it is not the first time it has happened. Do other partners join in?
  • Who is in the team and who manages it? Emergencies demand a multi- agency response. Which comms team takes the lead? It was hopelessly unclear in Salisbury. 
  • Who does the talking? There were umpteen agencies all saying different things in Salisbury when only one voice was needed.
  • A single point of contact for the public - Where is the help line for the Salisbury residents, their relatives, local businesses and suppliers? Where is the medical support? There have to be dedicated lines.
  • Prepared holding statements - These need to be templated and ready: ‘We are prepared... we are placing the highest priority on... we will be posting additional information as it becomes available...’
  • Develop and stick to key messages - It’s OK to say: ‘We don’t yet know enough to be able to make a more detailed statement but we will talk again at xx o’clock.’
  • Proper assessment - Salisbury looked like; ‘say something, say anything, look busy, look like we know what’s happening....’ When it was clear the opposite is true.
  • Get all healthcare professionals prepped and involved - Pharmacists have already been at the centre of treatment and first aid during terror attacks.
  • Practice, rehearse and do it again - When it’s over, evaluate, analyse and figure out what you can share and do better next time. Because one thing is certain, the world is no longer at ease with itself and, sadly, there will be a next time.

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