The current terror threat level in the UK is severe. It has remained that way, or higher, since August 2014. To that end, it is essential that organisations consider the potential threat of terror-related attacks and have a crisis communications strategy in place.
This is particularly true for those working in the built environment as physical assets are often the target. Owners and managers of spaces where large numbers of the public gather are at risk, including shopping malls, stadia and venues, hospitals, schools and universities, and cultural buildings.
The same is true of infrastructure providers, such as communications, energy and transport hubs.
On the cyber side, organisations are increasingly finding themselves under attack. Recent high-profile breaches have occurred in travel, hospitality and telecoms, and hackers are getting more sophisticated all the time.
Brand new crisis comms planning guidance
Since late 2018 I’ve been working with the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI) and researchers at Agfora on a new piece of guidance to help organisations develop crisis communications plans related to this area.
It is the first of its kind, based on qualitative interviews with police, communications and security professionals. Between them, they have worked through most of the serious incidents that have occurred in the UK over the last decade.
The guidance covers what to do before, during and after an incident occurs. Even for experts in crisis communications it is an important resource. A terror or cyber-attack differs from ‘normal’ crises in a variety of ways, including the scale and speed things happen, its lifespan, and the impact it has on the organisation and its stakeholders.
Getting the communications right in these situations is essential, with safety and welfare of staff and the public a key priority. It is important not to create additional fear and panic.
There has to be careful management of messaging, ensuring that the facts of the incident are focused on, particularly when it comes to social media. Never repost or share unverified information. It is also important to ensure that the right tonal balance is struck. The organisation needs to demonstrate control but also show a human, empathetic side. For those that get it wrong there is the risk of significant reputational damage.
One of the essential elements of the guidance is the insight behind deterrence communications. It involves the security and communications teams working together to promote security assets and make the organisation seem like a harder target. This is sometimes enough to discourage an attack.
Crisis communications plan template
A simple flow chart (below) is included as a checklist for developing a crisis plan. Each area is then explored in more detail within the guidance. It is something I would recommend all in-house communicators and agency staff read.
Planning often takes lower priority when the focus is on day to day activity. However, the importance and benefits of doing this properly cannot be stressed enough. The more that can be anticipated and prepared for in advance, the easier it will be for the organisation to respond if the worst happens.
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