Crisis management (tragedy in a community)
Advice for Ministers
In the event of a tragedy such as a plane crash or a high-profile murder, the minister or chaplain may quickly be under siege from the media. He or she is in need of support as a bewildered community looks for solace and humble leadership and the press is keen to be the medium for that.
If a reporter is in touch it is advisable that the recipient is friendly and respectful but indicates it is not convenient to take the call right then. This allows a little time to consider what to say and to ring the Church Communications Office: 0131 240 2278. Emergency out of hours number: 07854 783 539.
The Communications team may often indicate there is no obvious risk in speaking to reporters. The team can, however, issue a statement, advise on interview requests and, if necessary, arrange a press conference. Sometimes the minister may choose not to speak in which case the Communications team can issue a statement to that effect. Either way involvement of the Communications Team may considerably reduce the number of media calls and the general pressure on ministers.
If questioning is hostile, the suggested response to a reporter is: "Enquiries are being handled by the Church's Communications team; please contact them." Never throw away the Church's right of reply by saying: "No comment."
It is important to avoid being drawn into a detailed conversation but request a name, number and a brief indication of what information the reporter seeks.
Action by the Communications Team
The Communications Officer should contact the Head of Communications, the Principal Clerk and other key figures as required.
The on duty Communications Officer should trace the minister using the Yearbook, CIS or Churchfinder on the website.
If appropriate the on duty Communications Officers should track down the Moderator and ask for a short statement. The Church's much needed voice at a time of tragedy may be lost if its statement is released three hours after the tragedy so a timely response is important. Aim to issue the Moderator's statement to the media within the hour of a confirmed major incident occurring but avoid speculating on what has happened. Even if the Moderator is some way from the scene they could perhaps do some of the broadcast interviews if asked.
If the Communications Officer is alone he or she should probably stay at 121 and handle any media calls. If necessary one member of the team can be sent to the scene to support the minister on the ground. It could be there is a need for a second shift particularly if a service is rapidly arranged. After major incidents there may be a need to call in whatever assistance can be sourced outside the team.
If only one person is despatched they may prefer to travel by train so that they can script releases and statements, email and take calls. In other circumstances travel by car may be preferable as it offers more flexibility and protection from the weather at the scene of the tragedy.
It is important to liaise with other bodies such as the emergency services and potentially the Scottish Government or a school or local authority, to let them know the Church is providing comms support for the minister or other Church figure.
The minister is requested to tell broadcasters that any interview bids go to the Communications team first. With many competing bids it is usually TV that takes priority as it reaches many more people. The priority is to communicate to Scotland and on stations with very large audiences. It is advisable to ensure that broadcasters are the priority but be aware that with many newspapers offering websites and twitter feeds, they too seek quick access.
It may be necessary to take responsibility for looking after the minister in a practical way with food, water and encouragement to ring fence time for a rest when possible. There may be a second wave of media bids from less relevant programmes. They are not a priority particularly if the minister is exhausted at this point.
It is advisable to warn the minister that the media may ask him to pass on requests for interviews from the family. They may also try to obtain information on the family or on police investigations from the minister.
As a matter of courtesy the Communications Officer may seek to transfer some interview requests to e.g. a chaplain of another faith. However the Church of Scotland is Scotland's largest national church so in many circumstances is the most obvious source of interviewees.
A Community Service
Worship, a vigil, prayers or some other form of service seem to meet a real need in the community particularly in the first few days after the tragedy. Ministers often hesitate to arrange such an event and commonly need reassurance that people will come. Providing they make arrangements quickly, enabling the media team to publicise the event effectively, people come in significant numbers. It may be helpful to make clear that the event is open to people of faith and no faith.
In notices at the front door of the church it is advisable to highlight restrictions on media presence. The time of 11 am at weekends and 6 pm in the evening seem to be times which make it possible for many people to come.
Operation Note (issued to the media in advance of any service or press event)
Reporters are usually respectful at services arranged after tragedies and write sensitive pieces. The Operation Note to the media should usually offer access to reporters but indicate they are not allowed to approach anyone in church or on church grounds outside.
Photographers are usually also respectful but a battery of cameras is intrusive. For still photos access should normally be restricted to one person from agencies such as Press Association, Reuters or Getty. It is wise to rotate the privilege to ensure continuing good relations. Flash should be forbidden and the photographer reminded to use a long lens to create a distance between photographer and subjects.
Access should normally be restricted to one broadcast operation. As the BBC has greater resources they often do the filming for the pool and proactively approach Sky and STV/ITN to make arrangements.
The press is not normally allowed into church for a funeral service. To ensure they stand at a distance there is sometimes a pen arranged by the police. Sometimes a family agrees to a sound feed from the church so that media can report the eulogy and other tributes to the deceased.
The Communications team can provide support through this process to ensure appropriate arrangements are in place.