When I worked at West Yorkshire PTE, someone decided that we needed to set up an Incident Management Team with all the department heads. This included Public Relations and, as all the heads had to nominate deputies I got roped in as well.

This will be something similar to most organisations, especially over the last month as people try to get to grips with accessing data or updating websites while working from home. As we discovered, it wasn’t always easy or obvious.

Our mock exercises tended to involve short-term incidents such as the basement flooding. But we also regularly had to cope with adverse weather situations, so we were actually quite hot on what needed to be done and prioritised. Plus, we’d generally have a day or two notice of snow, ice or floods which gave us time to prepare, set up communications messages, put people (okay, Martin) on standby for radio interviews (at 7am, in his shorts) and point people to the special web page we’d created.

With two months’ notice we could work wonders…

Back to basics

You might think that two months is plenty of time to prepare messages, devise a strategy, secure your supply lines and be on top of things so that people don’t think you’re reacting to a situation on the hoof.

You might think that, I couldn’t possibly comment.

But there are some basic communication needs to consider; and as the situation unfolds you need to go back to make sure you’re still taking them into account.

What does it mean for me?

Have you considered how your messages will be interpreted? Have you been clear enough? Do you need to give guidance, or examples?

What does the word ‘essential’ mean to you, for example? And what does it mean to other people? Being clear from the start that ‘essential travel’ means ‘travel in your own locality only’ it becomes much easier to crack down on people who are travelling more than, say, 10 miles to go surfing, shopping or sunbathing.

‘Lockdown’ is another word that means different things to different people. Our movements and habits may be restricted but we are allowed out. There’s no curfew. So ‘restrictions’ then?

Nudge nudge…

… doesn’t work in a crisis or other major incident. Behavioural nudges need time to work whereas, certainly in this instance, there was an immediate need for people to change their behaviour.

We are a nation of people who park in disabled persons parking spots. We are a nation of people who panic buy toilet paper and tinned tomatoes at the first sign of trouble. We can’t be suggested to – we need to be ordered.

If you want people to stop congregating or travelling, for fear that it will spread the virus, then you have to intervene – and then make clear why you’re intervening. And you have to be consistent. It’s no use closing pubs but then allowing people to travel from, say, London to Leeds. Or from London to Birmingham, Cardiff, Manchester, Glasgow. No-one needs to make those trips, and if they do they don’t need an hourly service all day, every day.

Intervening in this way also stops people thinking you’re still interested in ‘herd immunity’.

Repetition doesn’t always work.

Whatever the political optics you use to view it, “Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.” is a clear message. But repetition doesn’t always work.

Take the word ‘unprecedented’. Literally, it means without precedent. We’ve had Spanish Flu, SARS, MERS, swine flu, Ebola, even foot & mouth… there have been precedents. It might not be something you or I have ever had to deal with but it isn’t unprecedented.

The longer you use that word the more it sounds like an excuse for being unprepared. It will soon have the same value as “the dog ate my homework.” Find another for of words for what you’re trying to say.

Don’t mention the war

Draw up a list of words or phrases to be avoided, and then avoid using them.

When the PM was described as being ‘a fighter’, consider what an insult that was to the 6,000 people (at the time) who had died. Or, consider that they too had been fighters but had still died. In the end, all you can do as a patient is lay there and hope that the treatment works. Reading up on what people with cancer say might have been useful here.

Oh; and if you’ve publicly said that anyone of any age or fitness could contract coronavirus, don’t allow people to go on national TV and say that they’re sure the PM will recover because he’s fit and healthy. It does rather undermine your overall message.

Agree the policy before announcing it

There’s no point in making a policy announcement at 5pm if you then have to clarify it the following morning. Think about what your policy is, and how it needs to be communicated to create the least amount of confusion.

Also: why are the updates being held at 5pm? It’s not often I have any sympathy with HR, but certainly in the early days it was difficult for internal communicators to get the message out quickly, when it only got handed down to them at the end of the working day. They’re then relying on staff to check emails at home, whereas an update around 2pm gives everyone a chance to prepare not to come in the next day.

Don’t try and sound clever

The Prime Minister is taking “positive steps forwards”. Huh? How does one take positive steps backwards, or negative steps forwards? If you mean he’s improving, say so. Nice and simple. Don’t overcomplicate your message because you think you ought to.

Bonus points if you know enough about Easter not to describe it as a fixed date, it being the very definition of a moveable feast (day).

And on no account should you ever, ever use the word sedulously. I’ve provided a link so you can look it up. I had to, and so did everyone else who heard the PM use it.

And finally

There’s a lot going on and you do need to be on top of it. Hopefully you’re working in a good team with competent colleagues and you’re spreading the load.

These are the events when the adrenaline starts pumping. They’re also the events where you’re mostly like to make a huge mistake, in public.

So look after yourself, pace yourself and keep focused on the tasks in hand. For once we really are all in it together.