10 Things a Chief Executive Needs to Know About Crisis Communications


Tuesday, March 29th 2016
Author: Cormac Smith

Every local authority will face a crisis of some type sooner or later. Most will face multiple crises over time.

This may involve dealing with anything from the forced clearance of Europe’s largest illegal traveller settlement, the uncovering of an epidemic of Child Sexual Exploitation in the local authority area to the discovery of non-halal meat in school meals among a multicultural population.

Any of these occurrences have the ability to damage the reputation of the authority and in so doing undermine the trust and confidence of residents and key stakeholders including staff that is so essential if the council is to do its work effectively.

With The Westco Commission considering the biggest challenges facing public service communication, how a local authority, or any organisation, deals with a crisis can not only protect its reputation – reacting correctly and in a timely and caring manner can actually enhance the reputation of the authority at the very time when it is ‘enjoying’ the glare of the media spotlight.

If you are a chief executive who has not experienced a major crisis yet it is not a matter of if you ever will experience one - rather it is a matter of when you will have to deal with one. Here then are ten things every chief executive should to take note of ahead of the next inevitable crisis.

1. Be prepared – as far as possible!

You should have a crisis plan in place complete with clear protocols about who speaks on behalf of the council, what to do before agreeing any statement and clear guidelines for all staff and members on what to do when approached unexpectedly by the media; or simply when they become aware of the crisis. There are two types of crisis.

2. Anticipated crisis

This might be a bad report when you know the contents ahead of the publication date or something of your own creation such as the announcement of a council action which it is anticipated will have negative repercussions. Staff redundancies or service cuts for example.

3. Unanticipated crisis

This might be a structural failing in a building under council control which causes injury to the public, or an incident involving inappropriate or criminal behaviour by a member of council staff or an elected member.

It is obviously easier to prepare for the former but you should have processes in place that will give you the best chance of dealing effectively with the latter also.

Your crisis plan should be tested in scenario exercises and revised accordingly.

4. Establish a crisis team

Establish your first choice crisis team with back up members as appropriate. This typically will involve chief executive, leader along with key leading members and senior officers. Among officers should be the communications manager and head of legal services. If you do not have sufficient capacity or experience in your communications team need to consider engaging specialists. In a crisis you need good communications counsel.

5. Identify and train spokespeople

When a crisis hits, especially if it is unanticipated it is too late to select and train your spokespeople. Typically these will be drawn from the ranks of the cabinet and senior management team with Leader and Chief Executive to the fore but much will depend on who is most capable.

Remember a major crisis will almost certainly require you to deploy more than one spokesperson. In this case you need to establish a clear ‘pecking order’ with the object being not to pander to egos but for the authority to put its best performers forward and those most suited for different subject matter; and crucially those who will best represent the authority and defend its reputation.

Senior teams should complete media training which will always include an element of handling difficult interviews. If this is carried out before a crisis occurs it will both hone skills and allow you to identify the most able performers.

Two things we frequently hear from senior officer and leading members underline why specialist media training is necessary:

I’m a very good public speaker and I do it off the cuff more often than not – I don’t need media training

I spoke to the reporter for over 30 minutes and they did not report any of the relevant stuff I told them

Dealing with skilled and sometimes hostile reporters and managing to get your message across is a skill that requires practice – few if any have it naturally.

6. Know your stakeholders and speak to them as soon as you can

In any crisis it will be best if your key partners and stakeholders can hear news first from you rather than the media. If the crisis is unanticipated this may not be possible but these key stakeholders, including your staff should receive clarification and reassurance from the organisation as soon as possible.

Therefor as part of your crisis plan make sure you have lists of key stakeholders in place and systems in place by which you can issue n notifications and updates in a timely fashion.

7. Identify your key media contacts and be proactive

Fundamental to effective crisis management is a thorough knowledge of and good relationship with the media. If the crisis can be anticipated then you might want to identify those media who are likely to be most sympathetic or at least give you a fair hearing. Remember how a story is first reported does much to determine how it will go forward. Aim to get your early coverage as balanced and even sympathetic as possible.

Also if a crisis is anticipated don’t bury your head ion the sand and hope the media won’t notice – they will. Much better if you tell them it is coming first, engage with them early and help them to report even though embargo dates still have to be honoured. This approach allows you to get on the front foot and it builds trust and rapport.

8. Reacting to a crisis – because sometimes you have no choice

ABC: Assess - Brief - Consider.

When a crisis is unanticipated you need to move fast and sure to regain the initiative. Contact crisis team, gather as much information as possible and quickly assess the situation.Media and stakeholders should be briefed as quickly as possible with a largely pre prepared holding statement which may say something like the following depending on scenario:

“Council officers are already on site and we are working closely with the police and other emergency services. It is too early to say what caused this incident but as soon as we know more we will be updating you. In the meantime the chief executive / leader is returning from xxxx and will be making a statement tomorrow morning”

Note: the first statement to be issued in the case of a major unanticipated incident will not always be from one of the primary spokespeople. An agreed holding statement from a council spokesperson or another member of the crisis team may be advisable until such time as a more senior spokesperson can become properly briefed so as to represent the organisation with maximum credibility.

Having issued a holding statement and bought some time a more detailed consideration of the situation at hand needs to be undertaken by the crisis team and any external consultants.

9. Agree key messages and prepare primary spokespeople

The time available to do this will vary between anticipated and unanticipated crisis but it must be done and it must be done accurately. When something bad happens senior members of the crisis team crisis must drop what they are doing and give the matter in hand their full attention. This may involve cancelling meetings, coming to office on weekends or out of hours or even returning from trips and holidays. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression – when the chips are down, senior people must turn up.

A clear narrative must be formulated and key messages, based on the facts, agreed. It is preferable to rehearse the delivery in a variety of interview scenarios ranging from mild open questioning to hostile interrogation.

If possible bring back in specialist media trainers ahead of interviews or press briefings. Always try and ensure spokespersons are accompanied to interviews by communications professional so each performance can be monitored and key learning taken forward to the next interview.

10. What was learned?

When the incident is over make time to gather your crisis team and other key players to review how matters were handled. Identify mistakes, learn valuable lessons, set out how things could be done better next time and amend crisis plan accordingly.


The Westco Commission is establishing a series of reccommendations for best pactice around public service communications. If you'd like to find out more, drop us a line through the following link.