Keeping calm in a crisis, without the carry-on

Was it reassuringly inevitable to see #keepcalmandcarryon trending on social media as the impact of coronavirus dawned on us some weeks ago? In a time of crisis, that bold, strident encapsulation of bulldog, wartime spirit, so familiar from countless posters, mugs, last-minute Secret Santa gifts, office notice boards, and occasional PowerPoint slides, it was bound to become a slogan of the moment.

In her address to an anxious nation last weekend, the Queen’s assertion that we would, as a famous wartime Briton once said, ‘meet again’, was typical of our tendency to hark back to the spirit of ‘keeping calm and carrying on.’

Problem was, it became soberly apparent that we wouldn’t be ‘carrying on.’

Schools, hospitals, charities, businesses, let alone parents, carers, and families – none of us are simply carrying on. However, the best communicators throughout the public and private sectors have been the ones which – yes, calmly – have quickly assessed and acknowledged the scale of the situation, demonstrated how they’re responding, and they’ve successfully relayed those messages to their key audiences sensitively.

When running crisis preparedness training sessions and simulation exercises, there is definitely that point when participants really ‘get it.’ Conversely, we’ve all seen the interviews where spokespeople have tried to maintain business-as-usual External-link when the stark reality is apparently very different.

Especially in the modern media world, it isn’t simply a case of worrying that you didn’t write a global pandemic section in your contingency plan. Don’t be afraid to accept that what’s happening at the moment is unprecedented.

After all, when it comes to crisis response, the key part really is the response – it’s about demonstrating that you’re reacting, and adapting, and not simply continuing regardless. Whether it’s a manufacturer transforming its production line to make ventilators, a church serving its community online, Joe Wicks becoming the nation’s PE teacher, or even the local café that’s embraced online delivery, we’ve already seen a range of inspirational stories.

So, you probably haven’t rehearsed this particular scenario before. Few truly have – okay so maybe Bill  Gates knew External-link – but it doesn’t necessarily matter. Crisis training isn’t as simple as predicting the future. For many organisations, however, the skills they’ve learnt and honed are absolutely coming to the fore now, and it shows in their public communications. Those crisis processes that were put in place and are regularly reviewed; even the decision to put more spokespeople than you ever thought would be required for interview through training, at a time when unfortunately many more are going to fall ill, looks like a smart move currently.

So, back to the wartime theme, without coming over too Donald Trump. Of course, the truth is ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ was barely used all those decades ago. The powers that be at the time mothballed most of the posters, probably rightly worried they could appear tone deaf. Makes for a decent tea towel, mind.

Ben Frankel_3

Written by Ben Frankel

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