Say goodbye to the ‘golden hour’ in crisis communications

David Whitely by David Whitely | Nov 25, 2019

It has been a long-held principle that during a crisis, the actions taken in the first 60 minutes are the most important in managing how any incident will be managed, perceived, and reported.

Those first decisions made in what has become known as the ‘golden hour’ as an incident unfolds can often be the difference between maintaining some control of the narrative and the reporting of an incident or finding yourself constantly chasing that narrative which is being dictated by others.

According to international public relations magazine, PR Week, the term ‘golden hour’ dates back to the Second World War when surgeons discovered that, if a wounded patient was not treated within the first hour, they were more likely to bleed to death.

During my career with roles in government, regulation, and aviation, I have dealt with many challenging incidents as part of a communications team and this metaphor has often been invoked.

There have been times when, as a communications team, you feel like you’re not in control of the story and that, little by little, control of the narrative is dripping away.

So, the steps taken in the first 60 minutes to grab hold of an incident have always been central to how much control an organization will have.

With the advent of the 24 hour news cycle, digital communications and social media, and the demand for instant reporting, however, this golden hour has become a thing of the past.

Crisis communication before social media

I remember dealing with a potential public relations crisis near the beginning of my career in communications, years before the advent of Facebook and Twitter.

As a team, we knew that a story was due to break at a certain time, through a certain media title, and we had time to plan.

This allowed us to take control of the golden hour, to craft a robust response, and to prepare our media spokespeople for the onslaught of enquiries and requests for interview.

In the end, having this time to plan and align our teams and messaging meant that we controlled the narrative from the start and, while we endured a round of challenging interviews and calls, our messages and responses were a part of all coverage and the story lasted one news cycle.

Having this kind of time to prepare is a luxury that is, however, fast becoming a thing of the past.

Has the golden hour become the golden five minutes?

The development of the 24 hour news model and the growth of social media as a way of sharing news and information has created a situation that journalists, as well as needing to be constantly filing content, are also expected to be constantly commenting on news as it happens.

This means that, for communications teams, especially those in operational environments like airports where something can happen at any moment of the day or night, there is no golden hour to prepare – things can escalate so quickly.

Take this example from my time as Head of Communications at London Gatwick Airport.

It was an ordinary day on Monday 10 August 2015 at Gatwick. It was a busy day in the summer peak but operations were running smoothly without incident.

We then monitored this tweet from Sky News presenter Kay Burley which appeared out of the blue.

This was news to us in the communications team – we were sitting in our office overlooking the airfield and we were certainly not being evacuated!

As you can imagine, a journalist of such high profile tweeting a blunt message like this immediately prompted follow-up tweets, messages, and phone calls from the media seeking information and clarity on a potentially huge story.

There was no golden five minutes, let alone a golden hour, in this situation so we needed to swing into action to get the facts and deal with the situation.

Airport teams need to plan, prepare, and take control

To get to grips with an issue like this that is already playing out in the media, you need to be able to rely on the plans and procedures that you have put in place to guide your response.

The real story is that, on this day at Gatwick, one fire alarm had been triggered, in one part of one of the departure lounges, in one of the terminals. While there was no actual fire, the alarm necessitated the temporary evacuation of a small number of passengers from that part of the airport. It resulted in no interruption to operations and, as an incident, was over quickly.

It had come to Kay Burley’s attention because one of the passengers that had been temporarily evacuated tweeted a picture of the passengers moving out of the affected area and saying he was being evacuated. On the back of this, Burley tweeted her message from the Sky studio.

The Gatwick communications team was able to contact the incident operations team, ascertain the facts of the case, approve and issue a media line, and post communications on social media, all within nine minutes of Kay Burley’s tweet appearing.

The team was able to do this because it was well-drilled, had prepared for and practiced dealing with issues like this, and had systems and controls in place to ensure the fast transfer of information and the swift approval of media and social media lines.

It is crucial for all communications teams to spend time anticipating the kinds of issues that an organization might face, planning how the team will respond to them, and, crucially, practicing and testing these plans to hone skills.

Sharing best practice and learning from airport peers

These issues were a topic of much debate and exploration during the Airports Council International-North America 2019 Marketing and Communications Conference in Miami, Florida in November.

The conference brought together marketing, media, and communications professionals from airports across North America.

For one session, Mindy Hamlin of Hamlin Communications – a company that helps airports and transportation and government agencies engage their stakeholders, tell their story, and prepare for crisis – presented on key aspects of crisis communications and then led an exercise to put delegates through their paces.

The message was clear – airport communication teams need to strategize, plan, and prepare for crises in advance, so they have robust plans in place to move swiftly to take control of an incident as it happens.

The quicker that teams can get a statement to the media and on social media – even if just a holding statement to keep questions at bay while the full picture is being ascertained – the quicker they can gain control of the narrative.

The holding statement will buy a very small amount of time as the facts are confirmed and the plan of action to deal with or recover from the incident is decided upon.

As this plan is put into action, regular, timely and ongoing updates to the media and social media must be given – nature abhors a vacuum and the media will find other sources to publish or broadcast if you’re unable to keep up a steady flow of information.

Stay on message and keep your partners and stakeholders close

This shows the crucial importance of keeping on message – not just for your internal teams but also for your stakeholders. Airports are communities, mini-cities, that bring together different players across many diverse sectors.

I was once involved in an issue that required strict message discipline and, while we had ensured that everyone at our company knew and understood this, we had not confirmed our lines with one of our partners. Inevitably, they were asked to comment and the media narrative lurched out of our control with the message that key partners of ours were being “kept in the dark”.

Having a clear line of communication for stakeholders who may be asked for comment is key to keeping a singular voice and message on a given incident.

Be certain in planning but flexible in execution

In the end, the success or failure to manage a crisis involves many factors, not just communications, but the perception of the public, governments, and regulators on how an airport has managed an incident is wholly influenced by media coverage and the response by people that may have been affected by it on social media.

Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke is reported to have once said that, in battle, “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

For crisis communications, however, you must have a robust and tested plan to manage that first engagement with the media and then remain flexible and fleet-of-foot to stay in control as the incident unfolds.

David Whitely

David Whitely

Senior Director, FTI Consulting
David Whitely is a ACI World Business Partner with more than 25 years’ experience in journalism, corporate, media, and public relations in the UK, Canada and Australia. He has held in roles with HSBC, and with the governments of the UK and Western Australia. In aviation, David has served in the senior leadership teams of London Gatwick Airport and ACI World. He is currently a Senior Director with FTI Consulting based in the Asia-Pacific region and supports clients on strategic communications matters including ESG, crisis and reputation management, and change communication.
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