Communications in a 'Perfect Storm'

Updated: Jan 20

Lacking goods due to a shortage of workers is an ongoing global issue, with the shortage of HGV (heavy goods vehicle) drivers being among the most prominently reported-on. However, the resulting reduction in petrol deliveries across the UK, and the communications surrounding this, led to a ‘petrol panic’ that only exacerbated the issue.

We have all seen the clips and images of cars queued up around the country, myriad no-petrol signs, and unsafe storage solutions from those desperate to get more than a full tank’s worth of petrol – all despite no actual fuel shortage. But how did it get so bad?

In short: because perception and emotion matter. When communicating in a crisis, authority figures forget that a perceived crisis can be almost as bad as a real one, and both can prompt visceral responses. In a world roiling with recent supply chain turmoil and energy shortages on top of multiple long-term crises, clear, strategic communication is more important than ever. Getting it wrong can make problems much, much worse.

If there is a perception of some sort of emergency – or even the mere potential of such – people are likely to respond emotionally, not rationally. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing; survival instincts are there to keep us safe, even if the responses they produce don’t always seem proportionate to the threat (or perceived threat) at hand. Problems can arise, however, when authority figures try to communicate on a purely rational basis in times when emotions run high.

Targeting audiences and crafting messaging based on feeling, and an understanding of the power of the human ‘survival mode’ will generate change more effectively than taking a purely rational stance. When looking to avoid or mitigate a crisis, this means acknowledging people’s fears and providing clarity and solutions – not stating some form of the phrase “Don’t panic", passing the buck, or asserting that there is no crisis when, though that may be true, the events at hand will likely lead the public to feel otherwise.

Consider the covid-related communications methods used across the four nations: direct commands like “Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.”, memorable acronyms like Scotland’s FACTS, and leaders and experts regularly addressing case and mortality rates. These approaches worked because they used straightforward messaging, acknowledged the emergency at hand and the fears it could prompt, and provided clear, actionable tasks and behaviours for the public to adopt.

In a crisis, leaders need to foster trust and reassurance as well as providing information. This means sharing action plans for how a problem (real or potential) will be handled and being prepared to admit when a situation has been handled poorly. Leaders should also sympathise and empathise where possible with the stresses and concerns of their audience, because this creates connection and provide validation. Spokespeople should be pitched to the media regularly to provide reassurance and information, and they should hold a leadership or educational role where possible: think ministers, industry and academic experts, business chiefs. Journalists should be cooperated with rather than penalised for covering a crisis: they are a valuable communications medium given the ease with which news and other media outlets can update the public.

In our last bulletin, J7 explored the age of crises that we now live on - one that has been added to by the ongoing perfect storm of supply chain issues that is unlikely to blow over any time soon. Given that we are all in this for the long haul, leaders across business and politics must get to grips with good crisis communication practices fast or risk causing more unnecessary panic in future.