Crisis Communications: being ready for the job no one wants to do

In my 15 years on lifeboats, one of the stand-out rescue calls was one where I was not onboard. I had arrived too late and instead, I sat in our radio room with a woman whose husband and two young sons were on a sinking yacht.

The North Sea is a forbidding place, and even more unsettling in the dead calm of a winter’s fog. Search operations take a long time. Tow operations take a long time. Waiting, takes a long time.

Throughout the night I silently absorbed all the fear of the woman sat in front of me as best I could.

The radio chattered in the formal, briefing room way of rescue procedure, calling for sitreps and ETAs. I translated what it all meant to her, explained what the coast would be like, how the search would be conducted, how the pump brought onboard would be used, what they (the lifeboat crew) could do for hypothermia if necessary, detailed how long the tow would take, which way the tide was running and how that would affect the sea conditions. I would have explained how jet engines are different to outboards if that was what she needed to know.

 I answered what I was asked, honestly, without embellishment.

I knew how many other times the crew had been out on a night like this and, unless they were sinking extremely fast, it would a long night – but it would probably end with the safe return of her family.

Janet, the wife and mother, did not. She looked out of our windows into the black cold, at the fog swirling around us and, I’ve no doubt, fought constantly to not let her mind disappear into it.

The yacht reached harbour very slowly. The family were hungry and cold but safe after a long, slow tow.

Let’s be honest: the fear that most of us have about crisis communications is that one day we may have to do it for real. None of us know how we will be in the moment. My father, coxswain of the lifeboat for this, and many other rescues, has always told me that when things get really, very bad, it is as if all the stories you have ever heard told come and sit on your shoulders, and whisper in your ears what to do.

He meant all the stories of storms and waves he had heard from fishermen growing up.  What it means for crisis communications is preparation, case studies and testing.

Crises, by definition, go beyond major incidents. They are uncontrolled, unpredictable, boundary spanning, chaotic, and none of us can predict how we will perform. I have heard of Emergency Room nurses crumbling in a lifeboat rescue because their knowledge and skills are out of context.

We all know successfully navigating a crisis is about a leadership and communication style that directs, echoes and responds to the audience. There are endless courses available about the procedure of crisis communications. In its planning phase, it is protocol driven, much like emergency radio chatter. That’s not the scary part. The scary part is translating that to those impacted.

How do you talk to the woman in the room waiting for her family? How do you talk to all the people sitting behind their televisions watching your press conference, scrutinising your words and actions, determining your leadership?

The truth is, you will not know until you are there. All you can do is collect as many stories and experiences and knowledge as you can, and hope that they come and sit on your shoulders, whisper in your ear, and tell you what to do. Do your reading, scenario planning, and listening, and hope you never need to use it.

Related Information:

If this blog has been of interest then you may also like to read our Crisis Communications Planning page. If you would like to discuss training packages for your or your staff with us, you can find out more on our contact page here.


joanna head and shoulders .jpg


Associate Consultant, specialising in Crisis Communications

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