Crisis communications – lessons for us all

9th June 2018

By Claire Hastings

We may be science communicators, but in any press office, preparing for and reacting in a crisis is our responsibility. Whether you’re the one fielding calls, writing statements or calling the shots – we all have to know what to do when disaster strikes.

But how can we prepare for something we hope will never happen, and that we (hopefully) have very little expertise in?

We invited Jamie Brown, Media Relations Manager at the University of Manchester, down to London to share his experiences and lessons learned from the two major events that affected the University in 2017 – a huge fire that devastated their cancer research building and the terrorist attack at the Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena.

Jamie started by telling us about the terrible fire in the University’s Patterson building, which houses the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute and is next door to The Christie NHS Foundation Trust, a tertiary cancer hospital. The fire ravaged the top floors of the building and more than a year later it’s still closed. They first heard about the fire at 10:45, they had their first call at 11 am, and they had 15 media enquiries about the fire within an hour of the fire starting. It was also all over social media.

How did the Manchester press office respond?

  • Called the Fire Service press office and partners
  • Agreed initial statement
  • Started a call log
  • Convened a small group in Comms worked closely with key partners
  • Make friends with the Fire Service press office
  • Agreed initial statement
  • Started a call log
  • Convened a small group in Comms

One month after the fire, Manchester faced one of the biggest tragedies in their history when a bomb killed 22 people at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester Arena. The world’s media descended on the city, desperate for leads or new angles to keep the story going. Their student halls were evacuated and used as an emergency shelter. There were also raids on campus in the days and weeks followling the attack.

What happened in the Manchester press office?

  • Initially they suspended all social media and other media activity
  • Published a statement quickly
  • Communicated to staff and students – there were many worried parents
  • They had dozens of calls, many for experts – Islamic terror, ethnic makeup of the city, and others trying to find out if our students or staff were affected

We are really grateful to Jamie for coming down to London to share his experiences from what was a pretty difficult year for the Manchester press office, and indeed the entire city. For those who made it, I hope you all found something useful. For those who couldn’t make it, at the end of the talk, Jamie rounded up his lessons learned from the experience so that we might learn from them too.

  • Get a statement out quickly – even if it’s basic
  • Use the expertise and capacity of partners and emergency services
  • Correct errors in the media or on social
  • Ascertain facts, prepare a Q&A quickly
  • Know what to talk about and what not to pre-empt what questions you might be asked and try to anticipate every possible turn the story might take (inside and outside the box)
  • Don’t get overwhelmed – give people specific roles
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