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Bespoke crisis comms training session for a health research charity

How we helped Alzheimer’s Research UK prepare for potential comms crises.

Alzheimer’s Research UK (ARUK) exists to find a cure for dementia. As with many charities, ARUK had looked at areas of potential risk and developed an incident comms plan to put into action should they find themselves in a challenging comms situation.  

ARUK wanted a bespoke training course to help colleagues across the organisation understand how the plan would work in practice, along with insight and advice on how to handle media scrutiny. 

What was our challenge? 

ARUK wanted to bring its incident management plan to life to help colleagues from across the charity recognise the importance of spotting potential problems, know how to escalate to the right person and then how to play their part in handling comms around the issue. 

Some 18 senior staff and comms and fundraising colleagues took part in the session, with a range of crisis comms and PR experience. They wanted the training to extend beyond the logistics of the comms plan into what constitutes an incident, how to control the message, how to engage various audiences, especially the media, and how to maintain reputation and credibility. 

As well as a walk through the theory, we wanted to immerse ARUK colleagues in some scenarios to give them a flavour of how to handle a real incident. 

How did we approach the session? 

Working with ARUK comms colleagues, we explored the areas of risk for the charity so we could design our session around realistic potential incidents. 

We reviewed their incident comms plan so we understood the remit of the comms team and how they would work with a wider incident management team. Before we designed the session, we surveyed colleagues on their levels of experience and confidence in incident comms so we could meet their needs. 

Theory first 

We crafted a morning session which shared and explained ARUK’s incident comms plan, before talking them through how to identify and escalate a problem.  

We provided an ARUK-specific handout on ‘how to manage incident comms’ so we could discuss with colleagues the steps to take to gather the facts, create a narrative and FAQs, identify audiences and communicate with credibility and concern. 

Managing the press 

We balanced training on internal processes with a look at what the media want – thinking about how to develop good relationships with journalists and using case studies to show how to prevent a drama from escalating into a disaster. 

Now practise! 

Using three scenarios of escalating severity, we asked colleagues to work in groups to plan their response using the ‘how to manage incident comms’ guide. Our favourite session was the final mock press conference where we enjoyed throwing in a few curveballs to test colleagues’ reactions. 

Reflections on learning 

At the end of the session, we asked colleagues to think about what they, their teams and the charity might do differently as a result of the training. We followed up with a survey to check that we’d helped them improve their understanding of incident comms planning and asked for their feedback so we could improve too. 

“It was brilliant to work with the team from Agenda on this crisis comms training and we’d highly recommend them. We were impressed with the time they spent getting to know and understand our charity as they developed the training course, meaning we got much more from the session than we would have if it had been an off-the-shelf course."
Henry Scowcroft, Head of Communications & Engagement, Alzheimer’s Research UK

What was the outcome? 

On the day, colleagues really engaged with the discussion and scenarios, and gave careful thought to what they’d take back to their daily work. The follow up survey revealed the majority of participants either learned more than they expected or learned a lot, especially on how to control the story, what to say to audiences and how to build relationships with journalists. 

One colleague said: “It was a great session, a lot to cram in but the trainers handled it really well. The practical session was brilliant as it brought everything to life.”

“Everyone learnt so much during the training, and really enjoyed seeing it all come to life with the hands on aspects of the course. It really helped to bring different teams from across the organisation together to understand how to support each other with this important area of work.”
Henry Scowcroft, Head of Communications & Engagement, Alzheimer’s Research UK