Crisis communications: what health and safety teams need to know

Dawn McGuigan, Head of Brand and Communications at Gentoo talks through how health and safety teams can work with communications teams in a crisis.

I recently spoke at Northern Housing Consortium’s Health and Safety 2019 conference about how communications and health and safety teams can work together to protect the reputation of their organisation during a crisis.

Here’s a summary of the points discussed.

Managing a crisis in your organisation

The first step of crisis management is to identify your risks. Communications professionals consider incident-led and issue-led risks. Incident-led risks are the things that health and safety teams are most familiar with – fire, gas, risks to life and property. Issue-led risks are caused by the performance of the organisation, behaviour of its colleagues or by the social housing sector as a whole. Both incidents and issues can be generated by internal or external factors over which your organisation has varying degrees of control.

Once the risks have been identified, we prepare for them. Your communications team should have a crisis communications protocol that outlines how they would respond to the most likely risks. The protocol would specify things like who your spokesperson is, include sample media statements that can be easily adapted under pressure, and outline how key messages will be shared during a live crisis.

Your organisation will have an incident management group that includes the strategic, tactical and operational leads that will make decisions about how you’ll respond to and manage a crisis. Communications and health and safety sit at the tactical level, with both teams advising strategic leaders on the appropriate response to the crisis at hand.

The crisis communications process

There are hundreds of theories on how the crisis communications process works but I find that it can be distilled into four phases:

  1. Warn and inform – when we have advanced warning of a crisis (such as extreme weather events or service outages) and focus on giving our tenants the information they need to prepare and stay safe.
  2. Initial response – the ‘golden hour’ (or less now that social media breaks news immediately) from a crisis starting to confirming what is happening to the media and our stakeholders.
  3. Ongoing incident – this is the period during which the incident is active and it can last for hours, days, weeks or even longer. The communications response will include a wide range of tactics to ensure our stakeholders are updated with progress and our tenants have the information they need to stay safe.
  4. Recovery – this is often overlooked but it’s vital that the recovery phase of an incident is handled as strategically and as sensitively as the incident itself.

Throughout every stage of a crisis, the communications priorities are to give our tenants the information they need to stay safe and to protect the reputation of our organisation.

We do that with empathy; showing that we care about the colleagues and communities affected by a crisis. We do it in a transparent way; not shying away from tough decisions or messages (particularly if we are at fault) and being open and honest with our tenants. We do it in context; if we’re working with the emergency services, we follow their lead and ensure we provide consistent information to our tenants. And, we focus on the actions we are taking; reputation is about what we do not what we say so the best way to build and protect that reputation is to do the right thing at the right time.

Working with the media

The media want two things from a crisis event: facts and stories. They want to know the practical details of an incident – What happened? When? How? What is the impact? – but they also want to know about the people affected. It is those human interest stories that will keep the incident in the news long after it has been resolved on the ground.

Dealing with the media on site during a live incident can be challenging. Here are some things to remember:

  • Refer to your communications team – there should be a member of the team at the scene or at least at the end of the phone so refer queries and issues to them.
  • Repeat approved key messages – make sure you know how to get them and that you repeat them if asked.
  • Be aware your comments and actions can be used in a story – journalists will write about the scene of the incident and that might include commenting on the behaviour of the response team or using overheard comments to shape their news coverage.

You should not:

  • Speculate – we need to give confirmed and accurate information and not speculate about the causes or resolution of an incident. That can create panic and confusion.
  • Share information that isn’t public – make sure your conversations about the incident response can’t be overheard by journalists or watching crowds.
  • Be offensive or obstructive – journalists might get in your way or try to get to parts of the site that aren’t safe. Please try to be courteous in moving them along (or get your communications team to do this) as being defensive can make the relationship with the journalist more difficult in the long run.
  • Give official comments – these come from your approved spokespeople only so that information is consistent and authoritative. Journalists will be using social media to find people involved in the incident so please don’t share your experiences online – they can be quoted by a journalist if your profile is public.

Where health and safety teams can add value

Health and safety teams can add real value to the crisis communications response.

During an incident, there will be a lot of attention on the scene from both the local community and the media. We must talk about the physical changes on the site as part of our updates and this where input from health and safety team is invaluable.

If large vehicles are arriving on site, debris is being cleared, tests are being carried out, any noises, smells or disruption is occurring, we need to know so we can tell people in advance. This avoids communities speculating about what is happening and maintains our control of the incident.

It’s also important to remember that when you’re on site and in uniform, you’re representing your brand and need to behave in a manner that befits its corporate values. You need to be mindful of not only how you behave but how that behaviour could be interpreted by the public.

Blocking someone’s driveway, parking on grassed areas, damaging plants or shrubs – these all pale in comparison to the seriousness of the incident at hand but do matter to our communities. If complaints are played out in the media or on social media, they can create an unnecessary distraction from the vital work being carried out on site to keep our tenants safe.

Communications and health and safety teams can make a huge difference to protecting your tenants and your organisation’s reputation during a crisis. If I can offer one piece of advice, it’s to get to know your communications team and understand your organisation’s crisis management protocols now. The scene of an incident is not the place to make introductions.