Be prepared: crisis communications with Steph Gray of Helpful Digital

If, next time you got to work, you realised your organisation was knee-deep in a crisis, would you know what to do? Would the rest of your team? If there’s even a flicker of doubt in your mind, you have to listen to this episode.

Our guest is Steph Gray, Managing Director of Helpful Digital. Among other things, Steph’s company runs the Social Simulator, a programme that lets you practice and stress-test your crisis communications plan in a safe, but very real-looking and real-feeling space.

As such, Steph knows a thing or two about a crisis.

In our chat, we dig into what actually constitutes a crisis, how social media has changed things and what the hot topics of the near future might be. We also tackle some real-life recent examples such as the 2018 crises to hit Oxfam and KFC and unpick what we, as communicators, can learn from them.

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Show notes

Steph is the Managing Director of Helpful Digital. You can follow him on Twitter and find him on LinkedIn. You can also find out more about the Social Simulator and arrange a demo on their website.

One of Helpful Digital’s products is The Social Simulator is a web-based platform, backed up with human role-players that gives teams the chance to practice their response to any kind of crisis situation – a cyber attack, repetitional crisis, terrorist attack – whatever.

It’s a real stress-test of a team’s ability to respond in a crisis.

Most the of the role play on the simulator is done live – although some is pre-scripted – and the role players will react and adapt to what the team in training puts out.

As well as being a useful training tool, the simulator can also bring to life a situation and really show what a huge role social media has. It can also help with team building, by letting you get to know what your colleagues have to deal with.

The fundamental thing that differentiates a crisis from dealing with just business-as-usual is whether there’s mismatch between the performance of your organisation and the expectations the outside world has of you.

The speed and depth of social media have had a massive impact on dealing with a crisis. Also, it creates one space where lots of stakeholders will come together and talk about you.

You never really have to wait too long to see examples of organisations having to deal with a crisis – recent examples at the time of recording include Oxfam’s Haiti crisis and KFC’s lack of chicken.

We’re still seeing how both a playing out longer term. With Oxfam, the speed at which ministers started speaking out was surprising. For KFC, it’s been interesting to see them use a cheeky tone of voice – it works because of where their brand parameters are.

Steph is obviously biased, but feels that practice and preparation is vital for dealing with a crisis – it really helps establish who does what and can show the need the resilience. You can build trust and autonomy within your teams.

Organisations that do really well in a crisis tend to have that degree of autonomy so that people can take a central set of messages and adapt them for social media, for investors and so on.

When running a session with the Social Simulator, a scenario is developed for each individual project, along with materials to bring it to life such as tweets, phone calls, media articles etc. Then, at the end of the session, there is usually a de-brief. But, Helpful Digital also have more workshop-style sessions where people can work through things in a team.

The simulation isn’t simply about big incidents; Steph’s team is also used to working in photoshop and mocking up memes and spoofs to test people from a different angle.

Surveys of trust in organisations have shown that younger audiences don’t have the same level of trust and older people, which means the traditional model of press conferences with the CEO aren’t as effective. Young people are also getting smarter at spotting fake news.

We often find organisations that are good at the classic, comms-led crisis messaging are perhaps not quite as good on the empathy side of things.

For the HE sector, lots of things always seem to be bubbling away under the surface that could become a crisis; sexual abuse on campus, Vice-Chancellor pay and tax are all worth preparing for, as well as a shooter on campus. But, Steph also notes the importance of managing, for example, Chinese social networks, because if something happened to an international student it could spread very quickly and many institutions might struggle to manage and respond to it.

There is also value in trusting the wisdom of the crowd – often it is a good not idea not to just dive in, but instead hold back and see how conversations play out.

It’s also worth remembering that you should monitor positive responses too.

I remember hearing about the emergency responders following the 2017 Manchester terrorist attack, they were dealing with a huge volume of incoming support – they had to have an individual looking after that side of things.

In terms of thinking about what future crises might centred around, Steph flags Brexit, sexual abuse and tax issues as ones to watch.

Steph’s top three tips on how to be as prepared as possible for a crisis

  1. Be clear on who does what in your organisation in a crisis

2. Really think about the way you do customer service – a great customer service team can be your gold stars in a crisis

3. Think about speed – speed of getting out a statement but also speed on empathy


5 apps on your phone you use the most

Slack, Twitter, Instagram, Trello and the Economist

4 celebs you’d love to invite round for dinner

Victoria Coren-Mitchell and David Mitchell, Mary Beard and John Major

3 words to describe what it’s like working for Helpful Digital

Varied, entertaining and useful

2 places in the world or big events you’ve never visited but would love to

India and maybe crisis training around around a World Cup in South America

1 social media channel you love more than the others

Instagram – it’s where I go when Twitter, Facebook and the news gets too much!

Find out more

Steph is the Managing Director of Helpful Digital. You can follow him on Twitter and find him on LinkedIn. You can also find out more about the Social Simulator and arrange a demo on their website.

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The Native Podcast is hosted and produced by Dave Musson, our editor-in-chief.

Our music is by Broke For Free and is used under Creative Commons.

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