Event: Crisis? What crisis?

At our most recent event, co-hosted with the CIPR, John Underwood from the Centre for Health Communication Research shared some of his experiences and advice for managing communications in a crisis.

key takeaways

We have so many public crises in the NHS because it is highly emotive and politically controversial, but there are 3 critical factors in successfully responding to a crisis:

  1. Preparedness and anticipation – plan, prepare and trial (and trial again)
  2. Co-operation
  3. Communication – a well-judged communications response is critical in protecting reputation and preventing potential long-term damage

Crises are generally unexpected, start small, and grow but above all always attract negative publicity and can adversely affect reputation. However, many lessons can be learned and there may also be opportunities for a positive outcome.


John took us through a number of NHS cases and presented some of the lessons learned at a national and local level:

  • Establish the facts first
  • If staff rally to the cause the impact can be softened and co-operation can often have a positive effect
  • Prepare and inform staff for all potential outcomes and impact, and keep them as informed as possible throughout
  • Engage with key stakeholders and regularly check-in with opinion leaders to ensure they are still on-side
  • Open and transparent engagement with the family and/or relatives is important in any issue involving the death of a patient – put as much effort into communications with patients and families as you do communications with the media
  • Consider communications style and content and ensure it is appropriate to the situation and the individuals involved
  • Resist combat but avoid looking defensive
  • Think long-term
  • Speed is of the essence – use Twitter as a primary source of pro-active information distribution
  • Be pro-active
  • Establish one source of information

John’s final advice on minimising the impact of a crisis is to work out the difference between reality and perception.

about the speaker

John Underwood, Director, Centre for Health Communication Research, Bucks New University

John Underwood has advised on many of the NHS crises of recent years. He is a former BBC and ITN journalist and a former political spin doctor.

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