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Some advice for communicators working through the Covid-19 crisis, from Matt Young who advised Santander and Lloyds through the financial crisis

“With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.” In my experience, if you want to grab the attention of an audience, it’s good to start with a quote from Oscar Wilde. 

Experience of past things can be helpful in a crisis. It can also be a pitfall. For the last few days, I have been supporting clients with their crisis communications. 

Having run crisis playbooks through Y2K (remember that?), 9/11, SARs and the financial crisis, I like to think I can bring some sage-like thinking to discussions. What I’ve found is that experience of past crises, whilst helpful, only gets you so far. 

For the many who are currently participating in crisis and business continuity calls, I’ve drafted some (not too serious) observations:

1. Communications’ time to shine. I know that communications professionals will say they are important all the time, but let’s face it, we get to feel the heat of the spotlight in a crisis. We can dust off our playbooks, convene meetings, and get to rub shoulders with those operational and techy people as peers.

2. Every crisis is the same, every crisis is different. There are communication principles that apply in all crises, and for those of us who have previously been in the trenches applying those principles can sound like real insight, especially for those who never been through it. However, every new crisis will throw up new challenges, so think beyond what worked last time. Also, make sure you’re on top of the multitude of communications channels and which are vital to the client. You can go from wise counsel to ill-informed fool very quickly.

3. “This playbook’s usefulness ran out two weeks ago.” Covid-19 has already tested most playbooks to destruction and beyond. As one communications colleague told me: “We’re now making most of this stuff up”. Remember a playbook is only ever a guide. It’s the application in different situations that is critical.

4. Trust your gut (just back it up). Speed of thought and action is a vital part of communicating in a crisis. For communications professionals that often means trusting your instincts, going with your gut. It’s not a bad thing, but just be prepared to back it up with evidence (where you can).

5. There’s no hiding in this crisis. In the past, business continuity discussions were primarily via telephone conference calls but this is a crisis being defined through Teams, Skype, Facebook and Zoom. I have tried to avoid mirrors during my life (for good reason) but now you get to see your every wrinkle, furrow and grey hair in technicolour glory.

6. Tidy up your background. As most participants are working from home, the video call crisis agenda is often preceded with a conversation about someone’s wallpaper, family photos or the pet that occasionally wanders into shot. My favourite discovery of the last three weeks was the button to blur my background.

7. Adrenaline pumping. These are desperate and unprecedented times, it can be tiring and will often feel like everything is out of control. However, a crisis can show people at their very best. Decisions are being made at pace, employees and customers are hungry for information, and you get to be at the centre of it all.

8. Next time you’ll be the wise counsel. The experience gained in this crisis will build the knowledge and skills you can apply to the next one. Great crisis communications draws on the lessons from the past. As Santayana wrote, ‘those who ignore history are destined to relive it.’

Written by Matt Young, founder of PR firm Apella Advisors. Matt held senior in-house communications roles at Santander and Lloyds Banking Group from 1999 to 2017, so he was at the sharp end of communications during the financial crisis.

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