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Alastair Campbell: Right decisions can take you out of crisis

Former UK Press Secretary speaks at the Public Diplomacy and Government Communication Forum in Dubai

19:44 March 12, 2017

Dubai: There is always opportunity amidst a threat, and it is possible to get “good out of bad” in a crisis, a former UK Press Secretary said at the Public Diplomacy and Government Communication Forum in Dubai on Sunday. 

Addressing a plenary session on Crisis Communications at the Forum on Sunday, Alastair Campbell, former Downing Street Press Secretary and Director of Communication & Strategy for ex-UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, said: “I define a crisis as a situation that threatens to totally overwhelm you unless the right decisions are taken. No matter how big the crisis, you can still take decisions that take you out of the crisis.”

Citing the Northern Ireland peace process, he said that some of the most important moments that took the process forward “were actually moments when frankly things seemed the darkest.” After the Omagh bombing, Bill Clinton helped to recommit to the peace process, he said.

Talking about the importance of dealing with stress in a crisis, he said one of the most important qualities of a good leader today is resistance to stress. In today’s social media dominated environment, leaders are under tremendous stress. “Under stress you become smaller and smaller until you can’t give out a message. Many people underestimate this challenge,” Campbell said.

He urged leaders to centralise and lead from the top in a crisis. “Without centralising, you cannot effectively coordinate, and you have to give authority to coordinate. Particularly in a crisis, silos don’t work. Break down the gaps between the silos.”

He pointed out that in today’s environment, one can “no longer control the outcome like we used to. We can only control what you do and what you say about it, and if you focus on that, you’ll actually find yourself executing a strategy as opposed to being driven by other people’s tactical demands.”

Campbell said it is vital for a leader to proactively communicate to the public in a crisis. “When a crisis strikes, the public don’t just expect to hear from their leaders, they demand it. You have to be out there explaining what’s happening, and use that to dominate the agenda.”

Speed is of the essence in responding to a crisis, he said. “Once the crisis is out there blaring out across the media 24 hours a day, your tactical response has to be fast and overwhelming. Never, ever, tire of putting out the same basic messages. The point at which the communicator is getting totally bored with what he is saying might be the point at which you might be getting to the outer radar of public consciousness. But before you even get there, most people give up, thinking nobody’s listening.”

Campbell said that it is important for people in a crisis to know that the crisis will one day be over. “So many people, when they get into a crisis, think this is their life forever, that they are never going see their children again, they are never going sleep properly, they are never going to sit down and have a proper meal, and everybody is going to hate you forever, because you are identified with the crisis. It might end with you out of power, or without a job, but at least hang on to the notion that it will end.”

In conclusion, he said that throughout a crisis, it is vital to have somebody good who can “take charge of the task of working on resuming normal strategy once the crisis is over.”

Organised by the Government of Dubai Media Office (GDMO), the Public Diplomacy and Government Communication Forum looks at a range of communication issues that governments encounter in the light of recent political, social, environmental and security developments.