GUEST POST: Reflections from a comms professional after a terror incident

A hospital saw a terror attack. Andrew Duggan, Head of Communications, Marketing & Engagement at Liverpool Women’s NHS Foundation Trust has reflected on the learning.

by Andrew Duggan

Just before 11am on Sunday 14th November 2021, a car explosion occurred outside the main entrance of Liverpool Women’s Hospital. It was later confirmed that this explosion was an act of terror.

The incident was extremely traumatic and upsetting for everyone, in particular our patients, families and members of staff at the hospital.

It feels flippant to say that ‘it could have been worse’ but there is no escaping the fact that as we now know the intention of the attack was to cause much more harm than it did, we are at least fortunate that the outcome was not more severe.

If you followed the news at the time of the incident you will probably know what happened and if you don’t there are plenty of news articles online to find out (like this one: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-59287001). So for the purpose of this blog I will assume you know about the incident.

A little bit about me first. My name is Andrew Duggan and I am the Head of Communications, Marketing & Engagement at Liverpool Women’s NHS Foundation Trust. I lead a small comms team and we were responsible for leading the communications response to the incident on behalf of the Trust.

Firstly, this blog is merely a product of my own personal reflections on the challenges of leading the communications response during and following the incident, what I experienced and what I would advise others to consider as a result. It isn’t intended to be a list of best practice actions or a lecture on how YOU should do things. It’s just a few pointers that may or may not work for you.

I hope this is of some use to anyone who may be thinking ‘how would we have dealt with that incident?’. The truth is we will all deal with things differently. This is my take on it all, summarised in 20 short points.

#1 When you get the call, remember your essentials and prepare for the long haul
After the initial shock of whatever news you receive, at some point you’ll need to do things. Resist the urge to speed into work unprepared. Remember your ID badge, laptop, phone charger and whatever else you normally take into work. It might delay you by a few minutes but you need to be well prepared because you’ll potentially be in this for the long haul. It’s an unnecessary inconvenience to yourself having to let someone buzz you through doors or on printers because you dashed in without your essentials – it’s an honourable move but ultimately hampers you in the long run.

#2 Keep your own log as early and as accurately as possible
This will be a combination of a to-do list, diary, journal – basically your go-to resource for actions and reflections during and after the event. You will also use this information for reviewing your work after the event as evidence. So keep a note of calls, conversations, actions, and a log of your comms output throughout the event with times and dates. It will save a lot of retrospective searching and collating later on.

#3 Action cards do not prepare you for real life
You will most likely have some form of major incident comms action cards in your organisation. This is valuable information to have on file and will be of use to many in the organisation other than comms. The reality however is that they are of limited use to you and your team during a live incident. You will most likely call on the resources that naturally work most effectively to meet your needs. You know the tools that work, you know the people, and you have the What’s App groups. You will always need the formal action cards but you will do a lot of things naturally via your most effective routes.

#4 Share the load
The most senior comms person will understandably be the individual who will be called upon initially and a lot of the responsibility will fall to you. But call on your team early and don’t try to do it all alone. You will need rest and recuperation at some point so you need to make sure you are all close to the workload and can share responsibilities.

#5 Collaboration and support provides a boost
You will be blown away by the offers of support and mutual aid that will come your way through your social media networks from peers and colleagues far and wide. You will be full on and it will be difficult to digest those offers straight away, or even find the time to say thank you. But knowing your peers and colleagues are there for you is a huge boost. So even though you might not get a reply, don’t underestimate how far a friendly text goes to show your support – it means a lot.

#6 Limit your signposting to a dedicated resource for updates
When you start your comms journey in response to a significant event or incident there will be a never-ending flurry of essential messages to distribute to various audiences. It’s essential that you establish ONE clear and simple signposting resource that ideally all of your updates can lead to. A prime example would be a live news page on your website. All roads should lead to one live location which can be updated easily. It will make your life easier and will keep the messaging clear and easily accessible for key stakeholders.

#7 You’ll need a tone and style so try and decide what it is early on
This will depend on the event you are experiencing but aside from the essential ‘need to know’ messages, the longer an incident unfolds the more you will need to think about a tone or style to adopt with your comms output. You will need to use your creativity and instincts for this but the most important thing is to keep your audience engaged and reassured. Focussing on positivity, kindness, and togetherness is likely to work well.

#8 Is that list of key spokespeople up to date?
We all have an idea in our heads about who we should ask to front up public speaking requirements whether it be staff briefings or media interviews. But how up to date is your go-to list? With personnel in most organisations occasionally or regularly changing, it’s important to make sure that you have a suitable bank of people who you can call upon in a crisis and more importantly that they know they are on your list. It doesn’t always have to be your CEO. For the purpose of planning for a crisis try to have at least three primary spokespeople who are good under pressure.

#9 Stepdown BAU tasks and don’t forget things that might fall through the net
You will inevitably be swamped, and all focus will be on the incident you are dealing with, so it is sensible to stepdown anything that is non-essential. But when doing this don’t forget certain things that may not be in your line of sight to pull. For example, did you remember to cancel that scheduled Tweet that will be going out about something trivial in a few hours’ time? Be careful to not unintentionally appear insensitive due to something automated not being pulled down.

#10 Don’t get frustrated if people are asking you for BAU support
Point #9 above is an important one but don’t be surprised if during the chaos you still come across random requests for help with seemingly un-important tasks. If people do this, although you will politely ignore the requests for now, try to take the positives that it’s likely to be a good sign that your comms approach is working and you are keeping people calm and reassured enough that allows them to get on with their job.

#11 Make social do the media hard work for you
The social media noise will be big and the media enquiries will be consistent. It will take you a little while to get to grips with both but if you can make them complement each other and allow your social media approach to manage some of the message it will help all parties who are seeking regular updates. Where possible, broadcast via your own social media honestly, emotionally and regularly to keep people informed but to also help shape your media coverage. You won’t be able to accommodate all the media requests but they will appreciate notifications in advance about any content you have planned for online.

#12 Have you got a resilient set up?
Unless you have tested this you won’t know until you encounter an event. But a good place to start is to ask, ‘What if?’. What if your Head of Comms was on holiday? What if a couple of members of your team were poorly and unavailable? Some of these things are outside of your control but a reliable resilience plan to call on in the form of paid support at short notice or a mutual aid agreement with partner organisations may give that added assurance to your organisation.  

#13 It is strangely calm in the eye of the storm
From the outside we see incidents occurring and it looks chaotic and impossible to deal with. In reality it’s relatively calm. There is lots of waiting for information, thinking, reflecting and preparation. However, the calmness is often the most exhausting part if you are caught up in it and the adrenaline comes and goes. Don’t feel guilty about using the quieter periods to take stock and re-charge.

#14 Move on and move forward as soon as you can
No matter what the incident is it will be time limited. Whilst you have to respect sensitivities it is also important to focus on optimism and what the longer-term plans are. How are you going to keep people reassured and feeling safe one week, two weeks, six months from now? When it’s possible to do so, start planning your comms beyond the here and now.

#15 Don’t under-estimate the aftermath
The impact of an incident doesn’t end when a situation is declared safe and things get back to normal. There will be de-briefs, reflections, reviews and workstreams with multiple actions for a long time after any significant incident. It’s time consuming and can be just as challenging as the incident itself, especially when most of the organisation is in a back to normal mindset and the day job requirements resume.

#16 Nobody is perfect – accept and address the gaps
A significant event can really expose areas for improvement both personally and operationally. If your comms resilience is not good enough or your team/function needs investment, do not let a crisis go to waste – it is the best form of evidence to justify any changes or improvements you might need. 

#17 Find the positives
These events are probably going to be a once in a lifetime thing so try to appreciate the valuable experience you’ll take from it, and the small part you are playing in responding to a challenging situation. This will keep you focussed and motivated during your toughest moments.  

#18 Do this
Don’t be shy. Share your experiences with people. You will be asked to share your learning and this is a good way to showcase what you did well and what you could have done better. It’s important to help each other.

#19 It is true that people come together
As comms people we can all get down on modern life sometimes and shake our heads at how people talk to each other or interact face to face and online but these events do often bring out the best in people. Whether it’s offers of help or just kind words, people generally show each other the love in times of a crisis… even on Twitter.  

#20 If you haven’t already got a good contact network, build one now
Like many things in life today, when you are dealing with an unexpected incident you’ll do a lot of your good work via various What’s App conversations. Being in pre-existing groups with colleagues, partner organisations, and other sector comms leads is a big help. Having established contact groups (on whatever platform) is invaluable when you need to dialogue with certain people regularly and quickly in times of a crisis. It saves time and duplication. So if you aren’t well networked already, work on doing so now. You never know when you might need it.

Andrew Duggan is Head of Communications, Marketing & Engagement at Liverpool Women’s NHS Foundation Trust.

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