Supporting each other in the eye of the storm

All public sector communicators can find themselves dealing with a crisis or emergency situation.

Not only is it a result of the sort of work we do, it is also what attracts many of us to our roles. The desire to help others; the willingness to go that extra mile; the challenge of being tested in high pressure situations.

It is also something that none of us can tackle alone. Over the last 18 months, the capacity of local authorities to major incidents – and deal with the recovery or fallout – has been severely tested.

Grenfell, terrorist attacks, the Salisbury poisonings – and also high profile events such as the Royal Wedding in Windsor – have starkly illustrated both the need for public service communicators to support each other when they are in the eye of the storm.

In some parts of the country, mutual aid arrangements exist which allow councils to call on their colleagues from neighbouring authorities in the event of a crisis. However, these are not replicated everywhere.

To create a more coordinated system for supporting councils in high profile situations – and indeed to harness the desire of communicators to support their peers – the LGA is establishing a crisis communications cohort.

We are inviting councils to sign up to be part of the cohort, which will essentially be a group of communicators who are willing to be contacted if a local authority needs support at short notice.

Signing up does not mean there is a requirement to make a certain commitment – we recognise people are busy and it is not always feasible to help at short notice. But the cohort will provide us with a contact list of people who understand the importance of mutual aid in local government communications, and are therefore more likely to offer support if they can.

Budgets are tight, and for that reason the LGA will cover all travel costs and reasonable expenses for members of the cohort who go to support another authority.

Over time, we are keen to develop the cohort into more than a ‘coalition of the willing’ and to explore training opportunities and ways of better sharing best practice. We also want to ensure our work is integrated with colleagues in central government who have compiled a best practice guide to crisis communications.

Even well-resourced teams with lots of experienced communicators will find that a crisis situation can still throw up challenges they had not faced before. How many of us had experience dealing with the fallout from the poisoning of a former Russian spy, for example?

Supporting your peers in a crisis is also a great development opportunity. When I spent a day helping Camden Council after they had to evacuate a housing estate in June 2017, I can honestly say it was one of the best learning opportunities I have personally benefited from.

Uncertain times call for us to pool our knowledge, experience and capacity in the most difficult situations. If you are interested in joining the cohort or would like more information, email matt.nicholls@local.gov.uk

Matt Nicholls is Head of Communications Support and Improvement at the Local Government Association

Posted on 16th October 2018