Most governments are brilliantly equipped to handle a crisis, especially to communicate in one.
Their response and reaction strategies are built on multiple scenarios that have been tested over time and constantly readjusted as the circumstances demanded it.
But what many non-governmental organisations do not understand yet, is that the governments’ brilliant crisis communication response does not completely rely on holding statements, talking heads nor in dormant web pages. It relies on the governments’ departments ability to come together and provide all the necessary information and recommend actions that are needed to tackle that crisis.
For democratic governments, the types of crisis communication situations they face are rather straight forward:
In democracies, all government heads are political appointees – most crisis in the political parties whose representatives they are, reverberate in the government’s activities. Generally, the best cures are either for that minister to resign so the department’s activity is not taken up with political sagas, or to simply plough through it – putting the job before the party.
Generally, political crisis make good entertainment and, sadly, lower the public’s trust in that party’s ability to handle its own internal politics. After all, a political crisis can often be subsumed to internal organisational engagement going wrong.
The 2008 banking crisis shook the world’s stock markets, especially the US and UK economies. It was a particularly difficult time for these two countries’ governments because they had to ensure their treasuries’ coffers could cope with the countries’ financial needs, keep the budget deficit as low as possible and maintain trust in their economies’ ability to recover.
This type of crisis is far more complex than a political one because communicating with and reassuring the public in a financial crisis requires skill, exceptionally good technocrats and a real plan to stop that country’s economy from collapsing.
Where international politics is involved, matters become complex. On the one hand, the national government needs to stand tall and demonstrate to its taxpayers that it will not give in to “foreign interests”. On the other hand, since no country is a political island (although many are from a geographical standpoint), geopolitical trade and security should be more important for the country’s long-term prosperity than pleasing the noisy detractors at home.
However, playing the geopolitics game does not bring voters on one’s side, on the contrary. Brexit is a perfect example of a geopolitical crisis, one that was fuelled by national political interests and an extensive disinformation campaign.
How a country responds and reacts to threats from within, particularly to foreign ones, tells of that country’s ability to protect itself against all enemies, visible and invisible. Data breaches and digital networks intrusions, as well as territorial threats are often driven not by revenge or financial purposes, but by the intruders’ desire to know that country’s level of “protection”.
British Airways and the NHS have been hacked and millions of personal details stolen. Terrorist attacks took place in the US, UK, France and Germany – they all happened from within. Russian and Saudi government agents murdered (and attempted to murder) their own citizens on the sovereign territory of another country.
There are crisis which, although they happen regionally (Scotland and Catalonia, for instance), require national solutions. At times, those national solutions may not be enough to address identity questions because their answers may rip right through the fabric of that country’s make up.
The communication techniques – and related crisis response – are seldom rooted in evidence, economic facts and figures, prosperity data; they are rooted in emotions, human psychology and identity. Often, the regional crisis are ideology driven and can lead to social epidemics, especially in some of the most freedom-oppressive regions of the world.
What really works for government crisis communications is the very high professional calibre of their 3rd tier civil servants (those who are not political appointees) and the specialised skills they bring to a table mainly headed by someone whose appointment was seldom dictated by their knowledge of that sector.
For private organisations, the best take-away from government communications in terms of crisis communication and response should be the ability to integrate the information and knowledge pool held by a variety of business units: this is not about who has a seat at the boardroom table, but about who is best equipped to help the organisation survive during and after a crisis.