Crisis communications: a perspective from the Red Cross
Founded in 1863, The Red Cross are renowned specialists in managing crises. Here Marc Lamers, Director of Communications of Rode Kruis Nederland, talks through the tactics they used to navigate the choppy waters of COVID-19.
Many brands have cancelled their running campaigns and shifted their focus to COVID-19 content. But Red Cross campaigns are humanitarian, with issues like human trafficking or locusts in East Africa. I’d imagine these issues can’t really be put aside. How have you approached reorganising your communication strategy to meet the crisis?
There's a couple of ways to look at it. We have had to cancel some regular campaigns in the Netherlands because of COVID-19. Our event first aid is not happening for example, because no events are taking place. There are hundreds of volunteers in the Red Cross who give first aid assistance at all kinds of events. But this year they can’t.
We also do first aid and educational programmes. We had to temporarily cancel these too, because it’s difficult to educate people in first aid when you have to maintain one and a half metres distance and you’re not allowed to gather in groups. So we transferred the resources from those campaigns to COVID-19.
We presented our action plan on May 6th. It was our largest upscale aid program since 1953, when the dykes broke in Zeeland, and 3000 people lost their lives.
In that respect, we’re not so different from other organisations. But the main difference is that we are really concentrated on our core: “This is what we do, this is why we are doing it, this is why we exist”. This brings focus to our campaigns.
The Red Cross must keep better tabs on impending crises than other organisations. Nevertheless, did you have a protocol for a crisis of this scale?
Absolutely. This is the benefit of being an aid organisation that is accustomed to being active in times of crisis. Normally we would do this in an international context but now we have to do it in the Netherlands. It took us some time to adapt to the Dutch situation, which maybe sounds a little strange because we are Dutch and in the Netherlands. But we have not experienced real crisis here for a long time.
In the first two weeks, we really had to step up. But as the Red Cross, we have a crisis management plan, which we have developed over the last few years. Every time there's a big crisis, we revise it and make it better. So there's a moment when we activate our crisis management plan, and all kinds of things come into effect.
What advice would you give to communications departments who are now developing a crisis management plan?
My personal advice is not to rely on the plan too much. In the military, you can really develop an assault plan. But, like Moltke said, ‘No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.’ It is the same for a crisis management plan. It is good to develop one. It is also good to train and exercise it. But when the crisis comes, you really have to be on the ball. Don't rely too heavily on the plan of action, but rely on the context and its intent.
Looking back to the start of this crisis, one thing I’m glad came out of the Red Cross plan was a really solid chain of command. So people didn’t need to ask questions like: ‘Who's responsible for this? What is my mandate? Do I have any means that I can use to activate my operations?’
Clarity in roles gives room to manoeuvre. And that is, of course, what a crisis needs because it is never planned. The evaluation of the evolution of a crisis is also never clear. So you have to be active and creative. With clear mandates you don't have to waste time discussing the wrong things, but instead can spend time discussing operations.
How do you train your staff for a crisis?
I think there are a lot of good training scenarios available. Not only in the Netherlands, but also worldwide. There are companies and agencies that can help you run them. From my personal experience, being involved in big and small crises, I'd say the ‘what if’ element is an integral part of crisis training. You can't plan for a crisis. But you can think ‘what will we do if this or that happens? what will we do if we don't have this?‘
In my previous job at the University, we asked questions like ‘what would we do if some idiot cut through our power cables and we didn't have electricity?' Every scenario should be considered.
Were there any major surprises for you and your team during this time?
When I started in February, we already knew that COVID-19 was happening in China, so it was less of a surprise. We were able to respond quickly and our public information really took off. We developed tips for hygiene, created some clips on how to wash your hands— things like that.
At the Red Cross we are familiar with ‘storm’ types of crises. When a storm hits an area, a lot of things that can go wrong. And when the storm goes away, we step in and provide assistance and aid programmes.
But COVID-19 is not a storm. It started in the Netherlands at the end of January, but it’s still here. And it will probably still be here next year. We have to get accustomed to the fact that this is not a ‘storm’, but another type of long-lasting crisis. We are witnessing an evolution, and will need to adjust our aid programmes to address it.
In the first two months, there was a lot of emphasis on the health elements of COVID, but now we see a shift towards the economy, and the psychological effects of the crisis. We need to adapt to different phases, which makes it a really unique crisis.
Another element to consider is that COVID-19 is a ‘disaster upon disaster’ crisis. In the Netherlands, we have a pretty sound health system, and an availability of food. We have enough water to wash our hands. But there are a lot of countries in Africa, South America, and Asia, where these basic elements aren’t there. The locust disaster that you mentioned is hitting some African countries, and causing disaster in their food chain. So now there is not only a health issue, but a food issue at the same time. It's a disaster which has a tremendous effect on people's lives. And, of course, it provides us with all kinds of problems in running our aid programmes in those countries.
It is hard to come into contact with some parts of the population now. You see that especially in African countries. People are a little wary of going into hospitals, especially in countries where Ebola was really a big problem. So they avoid hospitals. Which is a problem when it comes to the coronavirus, as people need medical attention if they are sick. At the same time people are worried about food. So they only go out and try to find food or water.
In other countries there is flooding going on so they face another type of problem after rain falls. So the Coronavirus has all kinds of faces, like a monster.
Has this changed the way you will strategise in the future?
I think from a communications perspective, the question becomes ‘how should you position yourself as an organisation, in times like these?’ We already saw from various surveys that organisations need to adapt quickly to trends and developments in markets. So strategy must not be too rigid but enable flexibility.
They say never waste a good crisis. I think it would be very beneficial for organisations to see that they have all kinds of new possibilities to become more versatile. For instance, you can still run an organisation and not have everybody at an office. You can find new ways to interact with teams, and report in different ways.
Organisations are more or less redefining themselves. They are asking: ‘why are we here? How do we do what we do?’ They are building on the trend of purpose-driven strategies. I think that the general public will also be more receptive to organisations who present themselves as meaningful. So it's not about making money, but helping people and making it worthwhile for them. And sure, making money is an outcome, but it’s not the goal.
That will have an effect on the way we do communications. ‘How do you communicate? What do you communicate?’ We should be more adaptable. When I started my job, I developed a communication strategy, which could amount to 30 pages. It was all laid out, planned, and analysed. That was good stuff. But now you need a strategy that fits on 2 pages— and you will probably have to tweak it next month.
For a communications director, especially, you have to be the link between executive boards and your team, the business of your organisation, and the world around you. You should also be the link to the general public as well. You need to translate all these signals into one communications strategy; including internal communications as well.
How do you make sure that these internal communication strategies are strong? What tools do you use?
I think there are a couple of key elements in really good internal communications. One is that you have to be present. So leadership has to be visible to all employees; to tell them what is going on, and why it is relevant. And to explain how they will act on the things that are relevant.
There is this misconception that internal communications is the last thing that you address. But this crisis shows that it is more relevant than ever. It's my personal belief that internal communications is one of the most relevant tools any communications department has. It provides you with the possibility to connect with your organisation.
Although it is growing in importance, it is still sometimes seen as just ‘sending out messages’. However, with a two-way type of internal communications, you can enrich many processes in the organisation. For example, listening to what is going on in the organisation, and translating those things in advice for the executive board to help them make decisions. Which will then allow you to communicate back to the organisation so that people can embrace those decisions.
One of my statements in the Red Cross and also previous organisations is: if you can't explain it, don’t do it. The communications department is a key link between the employees in an organisation, the general public and the decision-makers. And vice versa. Decisions that are made should be embraced by the employees as well. So internal communications is not just sending stuff, but it's also listening.
What’s the best way to listen to your organisation?
There's no easy answer. But what is really important is getting out there. We now have all these technical tools that provide us with all this information and data. But data management is a lazy way of communicating. It's sitting behind your laptop looking at dashboards. Instead of actually being with your people, having a coffee with them, or sitting down for a chat or for lunch. That provides you with an even greater arsenal of information. You even hear the stuff that people don't always say. In that sense, coffee is more relevant than email.
Have journalists become more accessible during COVID?
I haven't thought about it, but now you've asked: journalists are a group of professionals that really like to call. A lot of professional groups have forgotten the art of calling and have completely shifted towards email, or maybe WhatsApp. But journalists still like to call you for information. In my experience, journalists are really reachable.
Of course, you have to be valuable to a journalist. So your story should be worthwhile. I think a lot of people have to be aware that due to all kinds of budget cuts, there are fewer journalists. So they have less time when you pitch a story. If you are going to reach out to them, make sure you have your materials ready such as stock material, photographs, and background information. This way they can create their story. If you do this, journalists will be available.
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