Mayor Joe’s lesson in crisis communications for leaders

  • Burnt out car park

As news stories go it happened at one of the quietest times imaginable for newsrooms – 4.30pm on New Year’s Eve when a fair proportion of journalists were relaxing with their families and/or gearing up for the celebrations.

As ever, a breaking news story is no respecter of leisure time and when a landrover parked on the 3rd floor of a multi-storey car park near the Liverpool Echo Arena burst into flames it was literally all hands to the pump for our emergency services, council staff and the security personnel on site. [source:Liverpool Echo 2/1/18]

The following sequence of events as revealed by Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson reveals how important it is for leaders in the public and private sector to get across a crisis as soon as possible.

Crisis communications timeline

Anderson says he first received a call at home at 4.45pm and was told there was a “small fire incident” which was ‘under control’.[source: Roger Phillips,BBC Radio Merseyside 2/1/18: dur. 1:31:00]

He was then told at 5.15pm that the blaze “had spread to a few other cars” but was “containable”.

Maybe it was his fire safety experience as a former merchant seaman or maybe along with millions of others he had watched with horror the Grenfell Tower tragedy unfold and wanted to be across the situation immediately, but straight away he rushed to the scene of the blaze despite the assurances from those on site that it everything seemed to be under control.

He arrived at the car park at 6.15pm when the fire was “out of control” and an estimated 1300 cars were subsequently destroyed along with the car park itself.

The Liverpool International Horse Show at the arena was cancelled and the animals lead to safety.

Thankfully, no people or horses were hurt in what appears to have been an efficient emergency evacuation procedure.

Seen and heard

For distressed families to see the mayor ( and the local MP Louise Ellman) out and about, actively trying to address their concerns and offer solace must have been reassuring during a highly stressful time.

Families involved in the evacuation have since spoken of their fear that it was a terrorist attack and so nowadays – more than ever- anything that can be done to get people out of danger and into safety needs to be done with calm authority.

Above all, those affected need to be listened to – this is not something all politicians are renowned for when their reputations might be at stake.

All political leaders come in for a fair amount of stick as part of their daily routine but I would argue strongly that what Joe Anderson did on New Year’s Eve is exactly what needs to be done by a figure of authority in a crisis or potential crisis, whether he or she is a shop owner, a CEO or a politician.

It’s what we expect from our leaders but recent history shows this is NOT what always happen, so when it does we ought to acknowledge it; it does help.

Anderson reckons he spoke with 60 families in the arena who were displaced by the fire,even offering to put some up in his own house.

I’m not sure that the Queen went quite as far as that in her post-Grenfell visit to the devastated site but her appearance in the aftermath of the tragedy was much praised at the time whereas Theresa May came in for criticism for not engaging on a similar level earlier.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of that criticism, in May’s case the image of a distant and distracted leader out of touch with the feelings of ordinary people was further cemented.

Whatever the result of the Liverpool fire investigation Mayor Anderson deserves credit for his swift reaction and actually getting down to the arena and being seen to be helpful and meeting the people affected.

The Golden Hour

The first hour of any emergency is usually the most important as any good crisis communications consultant will tell you (including this one!).

Politicians come in for plenty of stick from the media and public, often rightly so, including Joe Anderson.

But they deserve credit when they get it right.

And boy did he get it right on New Year’s Eve.

Anyone who has been in an emergency evacuation procedure will be aware that in the initial stages of the crisis there is a confusion and often conflicting messages and rumours.

Which is why the presence of a senior figure of authority can be an important signal to all that however bad the situation is the authorities are working hard to get it under control.

His appearances on the media help to spread this message, so providing the words are backed up by actions -which they certainly seem to be in this case- distress can be kept to a minimum and an element of calmness and control under adversity can be the defining characteristic of the crisis,whatever the final outcome of the investigation.