Authenticity – The key to effective crisis communications

By Nick Owens, Director, Sefiani Communications Group

One of the advantages of working at Sefiani is being able to participate in our quarterly CEO Boardroom lunch series, which always feature thought-provoking speakers.

Last week was no different, with a group of Sefiani clients and senior staff treated to an insightful presentation from Mark Morrow, Assistant Commissioner of the NSW SES, on the topic of effective leadership in a crisis.

It’s something he would know a thing or two about – the SES is the main agency responsible for managing public safety in times of flood, storm and (fortunately far less frequently) tsunami. SES actions and communication can literally mean the difference between life and death for people in affected areas.

Drawing on his experience as the public face of the emergency response to some of the state’s worst floods and storms, Mark gave a vivid insight into the pressures at play in getting people to do what is necessary to stay alive, even if that means evacuating now.

He spoke too of the raw human dimensions to the job: what do you say when a mother with three young children perched on a roof, in the middle of the night with no food or water and mobile charge dwindling, calls begging to be rescued, when you know that is not possible? And what are the broader political and organisational consequences of stating publicly that he could not guarantee that none of 100 residents of a Lismore flood zone had perished overnight?

On the question of what makes for effective communication in a crisis, several themes were clear:

  • Authenticity is key. For Mark Morrow, the best-prepared media talking points are worthless if they don’t sound natural coming from him. Think about a piece of public communication that has resonated with you recently. Was it something from the heart or read from an auto cue? That’s not to say message preparation is not helpful – it just needs to be real.
  • Speak to values and mission. Mark’s staunch view is that the SES is about saving lives, not making the SES look good. When he interviews with Sunrise or Today, his message is aimed squarely at residents in a flood or storm-ravaged location, not anyone else. Sometimes this means being blunt and brutally honest. But for Mark that’s worth it if the message gets home.
  • Know your stakeholders. When a crisis hits it helps to have a 360 degree view of who you need to reach, and whose help you might need to get the job done. For Mark, a key career learning has been to build relationships not only with political and bureaucratic stakeholders, but also the SES’s large volunteer base. Get these sorts of relationships and communication channels right and the path through any crisis becomes easier.

There are lessons here for the corporate world: By trying to control the message ever more tightly, are we just muting the very authenticity that resonates with people? And what’s the role of an organisation’s values in informing its response to a crisis?

All in all, a stimulating discussion and valuable insight into the fine judgement calls that make for effective communication in a crisis. And for the record, everyone in the flood zone, including the family stuck on the roof, survived.