Greetings from very sunny Lisbon, where I have just delivered the speech below to a conference on lessons to learn from Covid, organised by the Francisco Manuel Dos Santos foundation. Most of the speakers and experts in attendance were from a medical, scientific, academic or political background, but my session was on crisis management and crisis communications. I hope it is of some interest to some of you.

So – how to manage a crisis? My ten lessons.

Lesson One is about inbuilt redundancy. I arrived yesterday by plane. Two engines powered it. Yet it only needs one to fly. Two pilots brought it into land though it could have been done by just one. On landing the Fire Services were on standby. Not because there was a fire. But because unused lifeboats, unheard alarms, unfelt sprinklers are vital to crisis planning. In those cases, redundancy mandated by legislation. This is a lesson not always applied in government.

In 2016 a three-day exercise took place to test how the UK would cope in a pandemic, in which tens of thousands of people were struck down with a new strain of flu. It did not go well. The Chief Medical Officer said the exercise ‘killed a lot of people’ – hypothetically of course. The official response was to announce the UK was ‘one of the most prepared countries in the world for pandemic flu’ and that issues would be ‘thoroughly explored with the relevant agencies so that lessons are learnt.’ 

So what happened when Covid came calling … the government led by a populist who refused initially to take it seriously, was distracted by Brexit, a government that had under-invested for a decade of austerity, and had eroded many of the institutions required to cope with a pandemic. We failed on Lesson One – you need redundancy or slack in the system for when crisis comes.

The pandemic was unique in that I cannot think of another crisis that affected the entire world, every one of us, to greater or lesser extents.

Whilst there may have been a shared singular pandemic, the responses by governments were multiple. 

Some saw the iceberg straight away and did what they could to avoid hitting it. Some dismissed it as too far away as it struck distant ships. And some realised there were too few lifeboats and pondered whether the best policy would be to let the water run through the ship in the hope we would develop gills and therefore have herd immunity. Apologies if water is on my mind, but I visited your Aquarium this morning, and what a mind-blowing and wonderful place it is.

All of this took place on seas that were anything but calm: waves of populism, polarisation and post-truth crashing against each other. Some captains even denied the existence of the iceberg altogether. 

All happening in an era in which the media world, the information age, is reality. So Lesson Two: in this world you need not merely to develop and executive strategy, but narrate strategy too.

I am going to read three statements of leaders during the pandemic. 

“I’m sorry for the dead, I’m sorry. We’re all going to die one day. There’s no point running away from it, running away from reality. You need to stop being a country of queers.”

This one you will remember … “I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute, one minute, and is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside?’

Number 3. A man who said we would “send the virus packing in 12 weeks,“ because his was the country “ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing.”

Bolsonaro, Trump and Johnson in that order. Populists, polarisers, post-truth leaders.

The skills of these particular populists are best applied to campaigning – slogans over substance; us-and-them division over unity, for whom problems exist to exploit rather than solve.

This is not how you develop, execute and narrate a clear strategy. Here is an example of how you do, by Portugal’s own vaccine supremo – Vice Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo. And what an act of leadership by Prime Minister Costa to see what a good move that was, not to have a politician front and centre all the time, but the Admiral. Smart..

“I said, we are at war, and this is a war against the virus, so what side do you want to be on?” said the Admiral. “You are either ‘with the virus, ’cause you are crazy and you are helping the virus to spread? Or are you on our side, the community?'”

Dressed in his naval uniform – smart – he compared those who spread disinformation about the virus to Darth Vader and the Siths. He changed Portugal’s existing strategy by moving away from small public health centres to large sports halls with a ‘production line.’ And he used soldiers in the Lisbon military hospital to figure out how to obtain the quickest flow of people through a building.

By September 2021 Portugal had the highest vaccination rate in the world and by October, 98% of the eligible population and 86% of the total population was vaccinated against Covid-19. 

This is what I mean by developing, executing and narrating a strategy with clear messaging. 

Or what about the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern?

She declared: ‘we go hard, we go early.’ It sounded like an All Blacks team talk, but it framed her whole approach. She also said one of my favourite lines, in communications terms, from the whole crisis: “We currently have 102 cases. But so did Italy once.”

But not only did she develop, execute, and narrate a clear strategy, she also demonstrated Lesson Three: you need empathetic leadership.

Virtually every effective speech in a time of crisis follows a three-part sequence: empathy, for the fear, uncertainty, and suffering people are going through; confidence, rooted in struggles the society has withstood before, and thus about the hope of success again; and a plan, about ways to turn things around. 

It was interesting how many of the best pandemic leaders appeared to be women: Arden in New Zealand, Angela Merkel in Germany, Sanna Marin in Finland, Mette Frederiksen from Denmark, and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen.

Too many people think that leadership is standing out from the crowd. It’s not. It is leading whilst amongst it. Taking the public into your confidence about the reasons behind your decisions. 

Which is why Lesson Four is to be honest and use experts properly. 

Leaders must be honest both with themselves and with the public. The difficulty is, traits associated with populism include: denigrating experts; attacking the media; using external threats to grow nationalistic sentiment; undermining checks and balances provided by institutions; the promotion of a charismatic, messianic ‘strong man’ leader with answers to all the world’s woes. Hardly a checklist for who you may want in charge during a pandemic. 

In the words of Angela Merkel: ‘You cannot fight the pandemic with lies and disinformation any more than you can fight it with hate or incitement to hatred. The limits of populism and denial of basic truth are being laid bare. Democracies need truth and transparency.’

Despite what I have said about Boris Johnson – I neither like nor trust him – I still tuned into every evening briefing delivered by him during the pandemic. Early in the pandemic, based on my experience of crisis management in that building,  I provided the UK government with a list based on my observations as to how they could improve their briefings.

  • More openness and transparency. Provide more and better data. 
  • Drop the slogans. Whilst initially necessary it quickly felt like they were in campaign mode, not government mode, let alone crisis management mode.
  • Be honest about trade-offs and choices. Take people into your confidence about the real choices being faced. 
  • Stop finessing the death rates. 
  • Show real empathy: respect lives lost, tell stories of those who have lost them. Pay proper tribute. 

The full list of 20 is on my blog. Most were not followed. Hey ho. I’m not sure Johnson listens to anyone for long. Too busy partying.

Here are the words of another leader: “I trust experts. I follow the advice of smart, educated people who know their field because they’ve dedicated their lives to it and have studied it. I have no issue telling you I received my booster jab as soon as I was eligible and again that will be the case for many if not nearly all within our ranks in the coming days and weeks.”

Except this is not a Prime Minister. Or a President. It is a man many of us will be seeing on TV tonight, football manager Jürgen Klopp.

“If I come across friends or people I care about in my life away from football and they tell me they haven’t had a jab yet, I do my best to encourage them to listen to experts,” he said. “It’s never a case of, ‘Listen to me’ – it’s always, ‘Listen to those who know.”

This is Lesson Five: give crisis a face, even if that face is not yours. 

In a city like Liverpool where they don’t like authority and they don’t like listening to a Conservative government telling them what to do, having Klopp endorse the vaccine will have had more impact than anything from our government.

“Ignore those who pretend to know. Ignore lies and misinformation. Listen to people who know best. If you do that, you end up wanting the vaccine and the booster,” said Klopp. Communication worthy of your Admiral.

So Lesson Six. Fight disinformation.

The role of foundations like yours is vital in this. Winning the battle for fact and reason over fake news, rumour and lying. Before digital, news was a shared set of facts and television programmes were broadly a shared set of cultural ideals. Now our information ecosystem is turbo-charging our worst impulses, breeding confirmation bias and negativity.

This is then exploited by autocrats to polarise – the second of the 3Ps. Opponents are demonised and issues to divide a nation are introduced. It is what we in the UK call ‘culture wars’. 

Countries like China, Hungary, the Philippines and Brazil conscript social media platforms to turn against people they don’t like. We have seen in Myanmar how the government used it to turn people against the Rohingya people. And Russia has used social media disinformation war to sway democratic elections.

We have also seen how it can sway people from receiving the vaccine – although not so in Portugal, topping the European table. But surely the time has come for proper social media regulation, and algorithms opened for proper examination and understanding by the public. For all the benefits of artificial intelligence, in this area the risks are all too real.

Lesson Seven is that governments must organise and centralise quickly. 

It may be a sweeping generalisation but it did seem those countries with a closed model of governance were better at locking down and closing society. Whereas those with a liberal, open model of governance were better at opening up following the pandemic. 

For dictatorships, centralisation is easy. But for liberal democracies too, in times of crisis it is essential to have a strong centre. 

I recall the immediate aftermath of 9/11. World leaders found themselves operating in the same time frame and with the same basic information as anyone watching the TV. At a very parochial level, the first decision we had to take as the Twin Towers fell from the New York skyline was whether Tony Blair should go ahead with a planned speech at an event in Brighton. After one tower fell, we decided he would. After the second fell, we decided he wouldn’t. Instead, we headed back to London for a series of meetings.

On the train back from Brighton, I made a list based on notes Tony had scribbled on a lined A4 pad, and the discussions we had, going through all the issues he wanted to address when we got back to Downing Street. This was it. 

  • Meetings needed today.
  • Security briefing (foreign and domestic).
  • Implications for UK airspace. Do we shut down? Restrictions?
  • Policing on streets.
  • Key buildings. Liaise with big firms and economic institutions. Stock Exchange. Bank of England. Canary Wharf.
  • Security at Jewish sites.
  • British victims. Minister in charge.
  • Parliament – do we recall? Statement or debate?
  • TV and press, key messages and format. Press conference when?
  • Link to rogue states/WMD.
  • Palestine/Middle East peace process.
  • Own diary in next few days. Travel? Where?
  • When speak to Bush? Which others first?
  • EU response. UN response/special meeting? International agenda to fill vacuum. G8.
  • US feeling beleaguered – need to help and support.
  • Will US lash out? And where? Probably Afghanistan. What will happen re Libya? Iran? Iraq?
  • Prepare a paper as if we were US? What will Bush be getting advice on? Need to get inside Bush mind.
  • Putin re Chechnya, saying ‘told you so’.
  • Oil supplies.
  • Where are troops that may become relevant? MoD.
  • Reassure British Muslims. Outreach. Minister in charge.
  • Analysis of Islamic fundamentalism.
  • Intelligence re perpetrators – almost certainly al-Qaeda.
  • Bind in Musharraf.
  • Taliban analysis.

None of that had been on the agenda for the day hours earlier. Suddenly it was. You can have all the lists in the world but unless you have a strong centre, you will not be able to achieve implementation at speed. 

On Covid, in Germany, Angela Merkel made sure that the national and regional governments worked together well. This is important. You centralise decision-making and strategy but implementation must be as networked as possible, not least because it spreads the risk, but also because it brings local leaders into your thinking. Trump’s centre was weakened by his constant undermining of State Governors and of his own team. 

Engaging regions and the centre demonstrates that you are throwing everything at the challenge in front of you. This is Lesson Eight. In a full-blown crisis, throw everything at it.

My Lesson Nine is about
technology and data: use technology well and have a conversation about data in non-crisis times. 

In times of crises the range of what is politically acceptable can expand. What once may have been unthinkable, such as locking down the country for example, becomes acceptable. But in liberal democracies, it is not appropriate to make long-term policy decisions on issues relating to civil liberties when society is vulnerable due to a crisis. 

This means conversations about the use of data belonging to individuals should take place away from crises. But it must take place as it is clear it provides huge benefits to tracking and fighting viruses. And as artificial intelligence increases and data flows continue to develop, more granular data will be provided in real time enabling better data-based decisions.

Singapore was the first country in the world to develop a contract tracing app. Its app was less privacy focussed than others and was at times mandatory. Korea combined it’s app with human intervention – a carefully designed process involving support for those in isolation through a case officer from the local council including a tailored stay-at-home kit, monitoring for 14 days where the officer would use the app, and sanctioning non-compliance. Those without a smartphone were still able to receive support through phone calls and text messages. Non-compliance was incredibly low during the pandemic – no more than four people a day in a country of 55 million.

But in other countries it is a real problem which is why in my view, social media companies must now be regulated and their algorithms open and available for citizens to see and understand. But that requires a global not a local perspective. No one country can take on that challenge alone.

This is my Lesson Ten. We need to rethink our global institutions. The second world war heralded many of the global institutions we recognise today. The United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and The World Health Organisation, and. more. 

In moments of global crisis, the response of leaders typically has been to look for greater international cooperation. But not this time. Alongside the real virus was the populist virus,‘America First’ withdrawal and the ‘Taking Back Control’ of Brexit. When the world needed global, pandemic politics gave local.

And yet the pandemic (and future pandemics) represent just one of a growing list of global challenges that require global responses: I mentioned the need for social media regulation, but how? It cannot be done locally. Then climate change, nuclear proliferation, conflict and corruption, organised crime, the growing undermining of international law to name just some.

The UN is not a referee. It is a collection of the politics of the world. But look at the five permanent members of the UN Security Council during the pandemic: Trump’s US, Putin’s Russia, Xi’s China, Johnson’s United Kingdom and Macron’s France. With the exception of Macron, all of them deal in post-truth. 

At times of crisis, people want to believe in institutions as a voice of independence, facts and objectivity. And yet the World Health Organisation was hamstrung by politics due to Donald Trump who was playing them off against China.

Politics is an inevitable aspect of institutions but they must do more to divorce themselves from it, to protect themselves as the arbiters of what is happening. 

In the words of UN Secretary General António Guterres, the pandemic was a clear test of international cooperation – ‘a test we have essentially failed.’ He attributed it to ‘a lack of global preparedness, cooperation, unity and solidarity.’ So the lesson there is clear – improve preparedness, strengthen not weaken co-operation.

Similarly with the EU. Whilst eventually a collaborative approach was achieved, it was too slow to be a positive example for the rest of the world to follow.

Given that both of these global institutions were in part formed to maintain peace following the second world war, the conflict in Ukraine further suggests the need for reform and to rethink how nations can act multilaterally on global challenges.

So there you go.
1. Pre-crisis, there must be slack in the system.
2. Once the crisis is here, develop, executive and narrate clear strategy and messaging. 
3. Demonstrate empathetic leadership.
4. Leaders must be honest with themselves and the public.
5. Give the crisis a face, even if it is not yours. 
6. Fight disinformation.
7. Organise and centralise quickly.
8. Throw everything at it.
9. Have a conversation about technology and data now. 

10. Rethink global institutions.