Donald Steel is the keynote speaker for the Crisis session at CIPR International’s Global Practice c


Donald Steel is an international responder, trainer and speaker in crisis communications. He works with clients in the UK, Europe, the Middle East, Asia-Pacific and Australasia. He is also a Director of Crisis Communications at Kenyon International Emergency Services, the world’s leading commercial responder to incidents involving death or injury. He is also a director of the leading UK aviation PR company Johnston Associates, based at London Heathrow. He was formerly for 11 years the BBC’s Head of Press.

There is no such thing as a social media crisis.


There, I’ve said it.


Theword “crisis” is one of the most overused words in the English language.It’s usual use is to make a story or issue seem more important than it is. I remember, at the BBC, tabloid newspapers saying the BBC was “in crisis” over the costumes on Strictly Come Dancing. It was a fun story, but I don’t recall the magnificent Head of Entertainment Publicity, Kate Toft, activating the crisis team and asking them to bring their sewing machines.

The word “crisis” has only one use within an organisation. When a situation meets carefully pre-set criteria, it is the signal to active your rehearsed crisis plan. It has no other use.


I believe big changes that are happening in crisis communication have less to do with social media than the devices we all have in our pocket. The cameraphone. The camera is so important to consumers, that improvements in it are the chief selling point when Apple brings out a new iPhone (I can recommend the camera on the iPhone7). Consumers are addicted to the camera.


Over the past few years, it is now the norm for news to break within sixty seconds of a catastrophe with pictures and video. The words are often little more than a caption.


The cameraphone is changing human behaviour. The instinct to record what you see is now so strong, that people now view the world through the lens on their phone. It’s a narrow field of vision. It is such a powerful instinct that, in terrorist attacks, people place themselves in great danger by staying to record it, such as in the recent St Petersburg underground attack.


Stories are now being told - and received - in pictures, not words.


When Fusilier Lee Rigby was brutally murdered on a South London street in 2013, passers-by placed themselves in extraordinary danger as they stood and filmed the horrific event. It was instinctive. It was what the terrorists wanted. They wished to spread their terror via the cameraphone. It was unsuccessful.

The public now view the world through the lens of their phone, whether it is what they eat or what they see. The certainty of major events being seen through the lens of a mobile phone rather than through the words people write is an unstoppable trend.


As I travel round the world talking to clients about crisis preparation, they are rightly concerned about saying the right thing.As pictures begin to dominate how stories are told, are we changing our crisis communications plan so that we communicate in an emergency through pictures? I don’t just mean a video statement from the CEO.


The challenge of portraying our crisis response in pictures in significant. It requires planning and thought. If we do not meet this challenge, we risk losing control of our narrative when trouble hits.

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