10 things comms should do after an incident

As public authorities work to get flood-affected communities back to normal they will be reviewing what went well and what could have gone better. Here are top ten tips for an effective review.

by Ben Proctor

1. Do an after incident review.

In the midst of an emergency or even while trying to get everything back to normal everyone will be very committed to capturing the learning. As soon as normality kicks in and managers start demanding the full attention of the beleaguered comms team it can be really hard to get people to sit down and think through the incident. It’s important to do it though.

2. You might do several.

In a widespread incident affecting multiple agencies in multiple locations, lots of people are involved. They play different roles, they have different perspectives and they all need to be part of a review. It will be neither feasible nor helpful to bring all of those people together. As a general rule it is a good idea to do reviews in the teams or multi-agency groups that people actually worked in for the emergency.

3. Be sensitive.

Undertaking an honest assessment of what worked and what didn’t in what was, almost by definition, an unusual and stressful situation can be a real challenge for many people. People feel blame and guilt and they impose blame and guilt onto others. You can’t do an effective review unless there is trust between participants and confidence in the process. At LRF level there will be people trained in facilitating reviews but you can’t expect them to drop into your comms team meeting.

4. Be structured.

For a comms team it can be very useful to walk through the timeline of the incident. It’s really useful to test “what did we know at this point?”, “what messages were we trying to get out?”, “how effective were we?”.

5. Use data

These days agencies have a range of media with which to get public safety and information messages out. This does not, necessarily, mean that the message will get to the right people. Hard data about who heard your messages and who didn’t is the way to answer the “how effective were we?” question.

6. Identify lessons

It is a standing joke across disaster response, around the world, that we don’t learn lessons, we just identify the same ones over and over again. You do need to identify what went well and what didn’t go so well. It’s easy to overlook the “went well” aspect but that is, in many ways, the most important part. If the emergency shift pattern you thought would work well, really did worked well: then you need to keep that in the plan and reinforce it in training. If it did not work so well, what would have worked better (and is there any data to support that)?

7. Ask “what if”?

If it went well, ask yourselves what if the situation had been less favourable. You can spend a long time asking ever increasingly unlikely what-ifs with ever decreasing benefits. The trick is to imagine just one or two steps beyond what actually happened. So the emergency shift pattern worked well. What if people had been on holiday, or off sick, or the alert had come in on a Sunday, or (given the political climate) your team had been reduced by 25 per cent.

8. Learn the lessons

So by this point you probably feel you’ve spent quite enough time reviewing what was, probably, a largely successful operation. Your work is not yet over. You need to update your planning, update your training or update your procedures.

If everything went smoothly you can put a big tick next to items on the plan, but you still need to update your training. Incoming staff need to understand that this plan has been tested and following it led to the right outcomes.

If things need to change, you probably need to update the plan, which means training people on the new plan. And potentially you need new working practices or skills for members of your team. So more training

9. Take it all to other agencies

Emergencies in the UK are dealt with by different combinations of hundreds of agencies. This is a real strength, it gives flexibility and ensures that there is a skilled expert response for almost every situation. To work effectively it means that these agencies have to understand and trust what their staff will do in emergencies. There are frameworks for this but ultimately they all rely on agencies keeping each other informed of what they can expect. Even comms teams. Especially comms teams.

10. Exercise exercise exercise

Once you’ve identified your lessons, updated your plans and trained your staff, it’s time to exercise your revised plans. To make sure they work and everyone knows what they are doing.

And then have a nice cup of tea.

Ben  Proctor is a former local government head of communications and a consultant specialising in data-driven communications excellence. 

Picture credit.