The dreadful accident in Glasgow last Friday in which a police helicopter has crashed into a crowded pub reminded me of the importance of contingency planning and the vital role PR has in the actual management of a situation.

An incident like this illustrates the pressure the media can bring to bear on the emergency services with on scene live coverage continuing more than three days after the accident happened and reminded me of a key lesson I learnt when I was the PR Manager at Rampton Hospital which was you can’t have too many trained spokespeople. Crisis PR is often overlooked by organisations because “It will never happen to us” yet even when it is recognised as a key element of the reputation management of an organisation it is often under-resourced.

In particular this incident shows that you need cover in depth for crisis media management – both to handle the volume of interest, and to deal with a protracted incident. One PRO couldn’t possibly handle the media interest an incident like this generates for an extended period of time, which is why for instance I suspect we saw a spokesperson for the Fire Brigades Union explaining what fire-fighters would be doing on the news last night rather than an official spokesperson for the Glasgow Fire Brigade.

The second issue is in the training spokespeople have. No-one can see into the future, so it’s impossible to foresee every single crisis we may encounter. Certainly I doubt whether anyone trained for a scenario involving a helicopter crashing onto the roof of a crowded city pub (though I have I admit used some pretty outrageous scenarios in my time!). Training needs to be able to take this into account and avoid corralling the spokespeople’s thinking too much in advance.

Flexibility therefore is essential in developing training scenarios. The aim should be to give spokespeople a clear understanding of the questions the media will want to ask in a time of crisis (seeing the world through a journalist’s eyes) and a set of skills which will allow them to develop a clear narrative that meets those needs, provides a truthful picture of what has, is and will happen, and finally that ensures the reputation of the organisation is protected and if possible enhanced by the way it is seen to respond.

Finally, what few looking in from the outside will realise is that PR in a crisis is as much a part of the management of the situation as any of the more obvious operational responses of an organisation. The media are hungry beasts with constant and voracious appetites. Left without guidance they are quite capable of getting in the way of the operational handling of a crisis, so it’s important to develop a way of working which recognises that the PR function has a huge practical impact on operations during the immediate aftermath of an incident when space, people and resources will be required for the handling of the incident.

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