Wiltshire Council communication chief Laurie Bell told the story of the unfolding Novichok crisis in Salisbury at the CIPR Northern Conference in Newcastle.
In March the UK government reported that Novichok, a Russian nerve agent, had been used in a poisoning attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, Wiltshire.
Skripal is a former Russian military intelligence officer who acted as a double agent for the UK’s intelligence services.
The father and daughter were found on a bench in the Maltings Shopping Centre, in the centre of Salisbury with symptoms that appeared to be a drug overdose. It transpired that they had been poisoned by the deadly Russian nerve agent.
Prime Minister Theresa May made a statement to the UK Parliament on 12 March.
“Either this was a direct action by the Russian state against our country, or the Russian government lost control of its potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.”
The UK expelled 23 Russian diplomats after the Russian government refused to meet the UK’s deadline of midnight on 13 March 2018 to give an explanation for the use of the substance.
Wiltshire Council crisis communications team
Laurie Bell and her communication team at Wiltshire Council became the centre of the communication response effort, working with Downing Street, the military, police, NHS and local stakeholders.
“You cannot work alone, relationship building will make or break the communication delivered. The worst thing you can have in a crisis is a conflict of information,” said Bell.
Managing multiple stakeholders is important not just in a crisis but as a fundamental part of any communication strategy.
The Wiltshire team worked quickly to create a plan and ensure that communications was part of the response team.
“PR must assert itself to be part of response team. Start with a plan, and engage all agencies,” said Bell.
Bell described the work of her team to communicate with international, national and local media, and engage directly with the local community.
Second nerve agent attack
Sergei and Yulia Skripal survived the poisoning thanks to the incredible effort of the local NHS service, and by late June the crisis effort started to wind down.
That was until a second incident on 30 June when Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley were found unconscious at house in Amesbury.
Sturgess and Rowley were poisoned by the same nerve agent as Sergei and Yulia Skripal. It’s believed the pair handled a container that housed the nerve agent.
Wiltshire Police has launched a murder investigation. Public Health England said the overall risk to the public from the nerve agent is low.
“We’ve advised people not to pick up objects. It’s an example of an unintended consequence of managing communication. We’re actively discouraging community litter picks,” said Bell.
Mental health impact of crisis communications
The ongoing impact of a crisis situation on professional communicators is an issue that is often overlooked said Bell.
“We’ve been working flat out for four months. There’s been very limited personal time for any of the team involved. We’re working at pace every moment of the day.”
Bell’s phone went off during her keynote.
“That’ll be an update. We’ve come up here by car so that we can work on the way back down to Wiltshire,” she said.
“I become cranky and bad tempered when I’m tired. You have to look out for each other. The fundamentals of human empathy and support are critical.”
Rebuilding Wiltshire’s reputation
The communication team at Wiltshire Council expected to be working of rebuilding the brand of the county by now rather than in the midst of a second wave of an ongoing crisis.
“That work will come in time. There’s an opportunity to build on the attention that the area has received,” said Bell.
Image courtesy of flickr user Tony Webster