Seven crisis communications lessons from across Europe

By Tim Toulmin, managing director, Alder.

I recently had the privilege of listening to a range of senior communications leaders from across Europe. My agency Alder is the UK affiliate of the Crisis Communications Network Europe, and our inaugural conference was a chance to share lessons and reflect on best practice.

Here are seven things I picked up:

1 There are crises – and then there are crises:

Hearing speakers from across the continent, it became clear that organisations will often be well prepared to deal with the predictable crises that happen every few months or years, but much less prepared for the far more dangerous ones. These can include so-called ‘grey rhino’ events which, like the Covid-19 pandemic, are predictable and high-impact, but often neglected – and so-called ‘black swan’ events which are also high-impact, but are improbable and unforeseen.

Good crisis communications can react appropriately to the full range of crises, and while all should be taken seriously, each crisis should be dealt with on its individual characteristics. Even when a crisis has been experienced in a similar form previously, an off-the-peg response is never the right answer.

2 You can’t predict the future, but you should try (a little bit):

A session led by Julien Draillard Losada, an advisor at CCNE’s Belgian affiliate PM • Risk Crisis Change, encouraged us to invest time in creating foresight. Secretly, many people in all lines of work probably share what Julien described as “this feeling as if we are always one step behind”. He also suggested that crisis teams traditionally haven’t the time and mental space to look far ahead enough into the future.

This doesn’t mean you need to aspire to clairvoyance, he made clear: “Foresight is not about predicting the future, it is about asking questions about what could happen and how the future could be.” Losada suggests using a PESTLE analysis to look at likely, possible and improbable developments of Political, Economic, Sociological, Technological, Legal and Environmental trends. You might find another framework or analytical process that works for you – whichever you choose, if it helps you as a crisis specialist to get even slightly ahead of the curve, it could be highly valuable.

3 Don’t overplan for scenarios, it’s a waste of time:

This might seem paradoxical when considering the previous point, but one of the key conclusions from Bert Brugghemans, the Chief Fire Officer in Antwerp Fire Service in Belgium, is that overplanning future scenarios is a waste of time. He said it was a certainly good idea to have a broad brush idea of things which could go wrong, and have some set protocols for dealing with them, it’s a waste of time to get into too much detail.

This certainly rings true – although it can be difficult to reassure people that they don’t need to spend too much time thinking through every implication of everything which could go wrong. Brugghemans also suggested that “in the future, crisis will not be an outlier it will be your normal”.

4 We say we’ll learn lessons from crises, but we never do:

There is a structural resistance to learning lessons in most organisations, systems and societies – much as we say we’ll ‘learn lessons’ from the COVID-19 pandemic, that won’t actually happen for many. How do we know this? Because we simply haven’t learnt from previous crises, and it shows. For example, we can already predict and see the impact of climate change on migration, and have been able to for quite some time, and yet Governments aren’t engaged in any strategic or communications planning to prepare populations for what is coming.

This was a key takeout from a session with CCNE’s member in The Netherlands, Van Hulzen Communicatie, in conversation with Professor Dejan Verčič of the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia. It was a sobering session in some ways, but also a valuable reminder that if you do make the effort to properly learn lessons, you will reap rewards.

5 National borders mean a lot:

While some principles of crisis communications are global, it would be wrong to assume that the same approach works well in every country. The session with Vanhulzen and Prof Verčič revealed for example that Governments in eastern/south eastern Europe aren’t trusted on health communications. People are more likely to trust their neighbours, so if a neighbour had a vaccine or wore a mask then others are more likely to follow. This contrasts very clearly with the high levels of trust in government messaging in Northern Europe – particularly Scandinavia but also the UK.

Our Portugese partner Dalila Antunes of Factor Social also presented some findings from the Europe-wide Covinform project looking at pandemic responses – for example, the UK and Sweden have done more to target minorities with their communications programmes while Spain invested in targeting at-risk groups, and Germany was particularly good at engaging with healthcare professionals.

The project has also recently written that across the continent, communications strategies often fell short because they were based on “traditional” ideas of nuclear, middle-class, non-minority families – and will publish more key findings in due course.

6 Don’t dismiss Twitter as ‘just marketers talking to marketers’:

One of the afternoon’s presenters, NATO principal spokesperson Oana Lungescu, made a number of references to the importance of leaders from its member nations sharing timely updates on Twitter. This is after all is the platform which, for better or worse, is the primary news feed for many journalists, opinion-formers and decision-makers.

We have always been clear with clients that timely updates on social media, Twitter in particular, can be vital when a sudden incident occurs. The fact that the same is true of huge, significant multinational organisation like NATO just emphasises the power of a well-worded, short statement. While it has become somewhat trendy to dismiss social media platforms as irrelevant because their audiences aren’t representative of the wider population, they absolutely have their place – particularly since your message will be repeated quickly by professional journalists to audiences across all channels.

Lungescu also highlighted the need for communications to be based on concrete actions – just because you’re able to issue a rapid response, that’s not ‘situation sorted’. Part of the skill of crisis communication is ensuring an organisation is neither seen to be avoiding its responsibilities nor overly committing to unrealistic promises.

7 There are antidotes to fake news:

While there is a lot of panic around the impact of fake news, misinformation and disinformation (three distinct issues which shouldn’t always be lumped together), PRWeek editor-in-chief Danny Rogers says that mainstream media can be the antidote to them. If legacy media and new media outlets can find the right business models – and there is already evidence of this happening – they will be able to invest in journalism and combat the risks posed by those three issues. Does this mean things can only get better? Here’s hoping.

Speaking on the same panel, UNESCO director for freedom of expression and media development Guy Berger warned that some responses to disinformation can backfire by shutting off or removing accurate information, and gaslighting quality journalism. As is the case across crisis communications, sometimes refraining from making an intervention can be less harmful than the possible interventions.

It was a great pleasure – and a sadly rare one, in this time of social distancing – to be able to hear from these speakers. CCNE will be producing a report on the event which I’d be delighted to discuss with anyone who wants to know more – find me on LinkedIn.

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