Thursday 21 December, 2017

Stewart Argo of our Edinburgh office, and former media relations manager at the City of Edinburgh Council, looks back on the white-out of 2010, with some of the inside story on how – or how not – to handle a crisis.

Seven years ago Scotland was slowly thawing out from the worst snow that some parts of the country – including Edinburgh – had seen for 50 years. For me, and many other public sector communicators, it was a defining time in our careers. Here are some reflections from my time inside one of UK’s largest local authorities that apply to business and organisations facing a hostile climate of any kind…

Tell your story through people

Get your messages across via both leaders and those at the sharp end. The former help to demonstrate authority and accountability; the latter put a more human face on the response effort and remind audiences that people like them are working hard to put a situation right.

Unfortunately at the council in 2010 the political leaders would not give interviews. Senior officials were equally unwilling, because, as far as they were concerned, councillors should be the public face. And frontline staff were either denied the opportunity to talk about their efforts or were quite rightly not prepared to step up in place of their superiors.

Yes, the right people in an organisation should be trained and rehearsed in speaking to the media, public and others. But you also need leadership and, regardless of preparation, there is no substitute for that.

Align your processes to your customers, not yourselves

The biggest practical issue we faced was in communicating school closures. The education department worked really hard to keep schools open and to manage closures as effectively as they could. But the fact was that the process for deciding closures was slow, cumbersome and aligned with internal needs, not external.

We ended up issuing closure announcements far too late in the day for many parents to arrange childcare or time off work. Our constant nagging to get the updates out just wasn’t enough to speed things up. They did get faster over the weeks but what officials really needed to do was turn the process on its head – by starting with ‘customers’ needs first and working back from there.

A related issue was that the aim generally was to keep schools open. Education staff would delay closure decisions if there was any hope of opening, only to have to do a U-turn when the weather worsened. That caused havoc for parents, who may have left work by the time the change was announced.

Premature decisions to close schools may have been wrong purely in terms that schools could have been open the next morning with a fair night, but it was almost certainly to do that than the alternative.

Never mind the idiots

Most people are reasonable, but there are some who are definitely not. I spent a lot of the three-week white-out on Twitter and what a dark place it was even in those days!

So, focus on the majority of sensible customers and stakeholders by doing the best you can by them, and don’t get too uptight about – or allow your efforts to be skewed by – the small majority who will decry everything you do regardless.

Be wary of stunts (or what may appear to be stunts)

One of the more bizarre episodes during that time was when the army was called in to help clear the streets of snow. However, a perfectly sensible endeavour to get some extra help turned into farce.

A briefing to councillors about the plan quickly leaked and the first I or my team knew about it was when we had a media enquiry. Of course, there were no proper details but we were bounced into issuing a news release and holding a photocall. The Times photographer who attended said he suspected it was all a stunt; it turned out he was right, but not because it was intended that way!

Very soon after the announcement, the arrangement failed. The reasons were always obscured but my assumption was that the council thought the army would volunteer and the army thought the council would pay, and this was something they weren’t able to resolve.

The lesson for leaders is to handle novel solutions with care; the lesson for observers is… it’s nearly always a cock-up rather than a conspiracy!

Be prepared. Be prepared. Be prepared.

A significant, yet petty, distraction that took place within the council in 2010 was the issue of updating the website out of hours.

To cut a long story short, there was no process in place for doing that and a tug-of-war ensued about who should. Incredibly, we continued to argue about it for at least another winter, with every possible solution rejected.

When you’ve got enough on your plate already the last thing you need is to waste time and energy in-fighting. Senior leaders should have intervened to resolve it but they didn’t.

So, get your house in order before you are put under pressure. And if you encounter a problem, learn the lessons and fix it before you find yourself in the same situation again.

Remember your staff (and that we’re all human)

In the white-out, many council staff also had problems getting to work, challenges in arranging extra childcare, worries over elderly relatives and other personal pressures, at the same time as working extremely hard to help others (as they should, of course).

Even when the circumstances are less severe, a little thanks can go a long way, so make sure you recognise the efforts of your people. After all, without them, no organisation stands any hope of making it safely through stormy weather.