Here is a summary of the round table organised by the National Preparedness Commission (NPC) to discuss the the literature review “Communicating Effectively with the Public During a Crisis” which was chaired by  Lord Harris, Chair of the NPC. The report was commissioned by the NPC and published on 25 November 2022. The round table discussion focussed on three core areas, including evidence gaps that can help with a crisis response, the importance of trust and key roles and responsibilities, highlighted by participant’s own experience of crisis communications.

EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION WITH THE PUBLIC DURING A CRISIS

Meeting Chair: Lord Toby Harris, Chair of the National Preparedness Commission

Discussants:      Councillor Georgia Gould, Chair of London Councils and Leader of Camden Council

Professor Brooke Rogers, Professor of Behavioural Science and Security, Kings College London

In April 2023, NPC organised a roundtable to discuss the literature review “Communicating Effectively with the Public During a Crisis” prepared for the Commission by Dr Judy Scully and Professor Duncan Shaw (Alliance Manchester Business School).  The literature review is part of a programme of work for NPC on Societal Resilience, generously funded by the JRSST Charitable Trust.

The authors had reviewed over 100 articles and papers and highlighted a set of requirements for effective crisis communication:

  • Honest, open and straightforward communication
  • Distinctive and motivational language
  • Empathy with the audience
  • Good coordination of messaging based on verified information
  • Well-trained and prepared spokespeople
  • Leadership to build and sustain public trust in democratic institutions
  • Social media embraced as an integral part of communications
  • Include ways to reach marginalised groups

After opening remarks from the Chair, the two discussants were invited to reflect on the findings, as they shared their own experience of crisis communications.

Councillor Georgia Gould was newly appointed to her role as Council Leader in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, when it was ascertained that some tower blocks in her borough had the same type of cladding and were deemed a risk to human life.  A full evacuation needed to be organised within hours, precipitating her and her team into a period of intense crisis communications.  She was also Chair of the London Councils group, which coordinated responses and communications across the boroughs during Covid-19.

Georgia highlighted the importance of honest, open and straightforward communication, particularly during the early hours of the crisis, when the situation unfolded rapidly.  Following an initial assessment that the cladding on the Camden tower blocks needed to be removed, but that a ‘waking watch’ mitigation measure could avoid evacuation, the residents raised other concerns about the buildings.  Adding those concerns to the cladding issue, meant that the Fire Service carried out an inspection and ordered a full and immediate evacuation.  The Council had no choice but to follow the orders of those in charge of the incident – the Fire Service – so, with no contingency plans in place, a statement to the press was needed.  Georgia related the evolving challenge of being the spokesperson for the crisis response, highlighting the importance of:

  • Turning up, filling the information vacuum which would otherwise provide a foothold for misinformation and rumour, being honest about what was known and not known, and listening deeply to the community.
  • Being there to absorb anger – even during live press interviews – and to give the organisation the space it needed to agree and implement the emergency plan.
  • Being human and empathising with what mattered to the community – the example of an elderly, vulnerable resident who was distraught because none of the evacuation hotels would accept her dog illustrated this point. Finding somewhere where that lady could find safety for her and her dog was an important task.
  • Not paying heed to the media and social media commentary of the emergency and the response being taken. The spokesperson’s role is separate from the organisational one, though there has to be constant communication between them. Georgia’s key accountability as spokesperson was to the residents and wider community and the press office were there to handle the media.
  • Listening carefully to the public during meetings and other interactions, so that situational intelligence and concerns could be fed directly into the response teams. A salutary lesson was the additional safety concerns that, in combination with the cladding, rendered the tower blocks unsafe, had been raised by residents previously.  New mechanisms are now in place to ensure that ‘deep listening’ happens before an emergency arises.

Other emergencies in the borough echoed these findings, especially those relating to empathy and ensuring that there is consistency and clarity over who is operating in which role.  After two members of the Somali community were fatally stabbed on the same night, the initial plan was for police-led communications.  The community was, however, deeply mistrustful of the police and it was better in that situation to channel communications through the Council and faith leaders.

The Somali community also demonstrated the power of social media and community-level intelligence about a situation.  The community raised concerns that they were being disproportionately affected during Covid-19. The biggest channel for this community was WhatsApp and residents wanted to hear from public health experts and health professionals during Covid.  The Council role was to give these experts a bigger platform so they got doctors and Imams to talk directly with the community on that channel. By listening to what the community was telling them about their experiences, the Council was able to change their response – flexibly and without having to wait for data to show what was happening.

Professor Brooke Rogers has chaired the Cabinet Office Behavioural Science Expert Group since 2013, the Home Office Science Advisory Council since 2019, and was a regular participant at SAGE and co-chair of SPI-B during Covid-19. In her opening remarks, Brooke reflected on the role of social and behavioural science in helping to improve emergency responses.  She particularly noted from Georgia’s experience the importance of transparency and honesty about how much is known – emphasising that the public understand uncertainty and are open to hearing about it.  Politicians, however, can struggle with communicanicating uncertainty and potential changes in approaches as evidence builds, as this approach is fundamentally different to the vision and direction that they hope to set in normal political cycles.

Brooke also recognised the growing recognition and framing of groups referred to previously as ‘hard to reach’.  She identified other framings such as ‘seldom heard’, and praised the authors of the literature review for their use of the term ‘hardly-reached groups’ – this demonstrating that there is work to be done by those with messages to be heard, and that such groups should not be simply labelled as a problem to be solved (as implied by the much more common term ‘hard to reach’). By thinking about capabilities rather than challenges, more can be achieved, particularly by leveraging existing networks such as the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) Health Protection Research Unity (HPRU) work being undertaken in the King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neuroscience.  For example, research is being undertaken around registers such as local authority registers, GP registers, and Priority Service Registers to ascertain the extent to which people know about them and, where possible, know that they can sign up to them.

Brooke continued to empahsise the importance of communities as she described her work with SPI-B (the Independent Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours) advising SAGE during the Covid-19 response.  SPI-B provided guidance founded on evidence-based principles including transparency, rationale, and feedback, and emphasised the importance of engaging all sectors of society. She highlighted the SPI-B publication on co-design and discussed the importance of trialling changing restrictions with communities involved in an intervention with a focus on how to support and enable the type of behavioural change required.  She argued that much can be gained by working with sectors and communities in advance of an emergency situation – for example, planning with schools for school closures.  This is particularly relevant during a pandemic when non-medical interventions are required, such as social distancing and mask-wearing. Brooke discussed the important role of local leaders, and recognised the diversity of leaders across communities.  She noted the effectiveness of the Community Champions Programme where it was noted that bus passengers could be reminded of the need to wear masks during Covid-19, for example, if the bus drivers themselves were wearing one.  Social media can perform a similar function, but there is a concern that this excludes those who do not have access to social media channels – or to the internet itself (a problem we also face in the design of essential service provision), as well as concerns around misinformation.  A multi-channel, multi-layered approach to community engagement is needed.

Whilst the wider literature places an emphasis on reassurance during a crisis, Brooke agreed with the literature review findings that honesty and pragmatism are more important.  Her work and the work of colleagues around the globe warn against over-reassuring members of the public about extreme events.  Reassurance has a role to play, but their collective work makes the case for understanding public responses to extreme events on a scale ranging from under-response to over-response, where too much activity at either end of the scale can have potentially detrimental impacts on our ability to respond effectively.  Evidence-based, transparent, honest communication, and credible communication is key.  It is also important to respond to what the audience needs as the crisis evolves, and to recognise that these needs may change over time.  In the early days of the pandemic, for example, behavioural science expertise was used to help make the case for a capable, rational public desiring clear communication and clearly explained rationale for the guidance and restrictions being implemented, as well as clear explanations of changes on these fronts.  Brooke reflected upon a  frequent challenge in bringing behavioural and social science evidence to emergency response:  government solutions tend to focus on physical solutions and technologies to help them respond to risks and threats effectively, but involving behavioural and social scientists in solution design can help to get the public understanding, messaging, and support right and increase the likelihood of bringing about the desired behavioural change.

Discussion

The discussion focussed on three core areas.

1. Evidence gaps that can help with crisis response:

  • As a crisis evolves communications often shift from a focus on ‘what’ needs to be done to answering public questions surrounding ‘why’ that is so. There is an ongoing choice about which type of evidence is helpful at which point. Jargon can be problematic, especially when working cross-organisation.
  • Collecting data from training exercises and research projects helps in this – showing that what can be a rational response by the individual (for example to anticipated shortages of critical goods), can be mis-characterised by the media or the authorities as ‘panic’ response.
  • There is a clear evaluation gap in terms of debriefing post-incident. Communications need to be appropriate for the type of incident concerned – whether crisis or stress- and co-design is helpful to build up a toolkit of mechanisms to choose from.

2.  The importance of trust:

  • A critical role of a spokesperson during a crisis is to absorb anger and visibly listen. Until you’ve done that it’s difficult to move beyond that point and genuinely inspire trust leading to open communications – without which the response from operations centre could end up being very different from what the community is living through.
  • Trust is important, and some groups will have a natural or learned mistrust of formal structures. Building a list or network map of trusted voices before a disaster happens is invaluable, especially in countering rumours and addressing the small and pragmatic concerns that enable people to do what is required (for example, noticing that some people had no money for Oyster cards).
  • Formal structures and relationships are important, but informal interactions and building on those relationships outside of a crisis helps to make crisis interactions flow smoothly.

3. Roles and responsibilities:

  • The role of political leaders can be difficult. They both expect and are expected to be visible during a crisis, but will not necessarily be closely involved with the operational command.  Ensuring they are constantly updated with the latest information is important.
  • It was suggested that the refreshed Civil Contingencies Act should include guidance on the role of civic leadership.
  • Thought needs to be given to roles and responsibilities in response to crises that demand a joint public-private approach (eg, cyber attacks on energy supplies).
  • Those with formal roles during a crisis need to be prepared to communicate not just with those affected, but also with those who want to help for example, making sure that volunteers and donors know what help is needed and protecting them from fraudulent actions such as hoax social media appeals. This may be helped by identifying a central hub where information and support can be found and by disseminating information in multiple languages and across multiple channels (online, posters, door-knocking, etc).

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