Navigating comms in the age of permacrisis: Q&A with Scott Langham, Senior Counsel
October 6th, 2023
Scott joined Grayling in 2022 from freuds, where he was Head of Crisis, and has spent more than 20 years at the sharp end of the media industry. He was previously Deputy Managing Editor of the largest English-language website in the world, MailOnline, and Metro.co.uk, and before that he spent nearly a decade at the Press Complaints Commission.
Specialising in crisis and issues management, reputation management, media training, media regulation, and much more, here we get a sense of the day-to-day workings of a senior crisis communications professional.
Talk us through a typical day – what’s on the agenda?
I’m one of those people who immediately checks social media and news before I get up. It’s important in my role to be aware of what’s going on so I can anticipate any potential repercussions for my clients but also more broadly understanding what’s coming up. What are the key things that seem to be driving the media narrative? What are the issues which are creating headlines?
I’m always interested in the latest controversy or scandal and think, “what would I do in this situation?”
The rest of my day very much depends on what’s happening in real-time. It could be media training a senior exec for a broadcast interview or giving counsel to a brand which is considering a restructure.
You must be prepared for anything in crisis management, learning lessons and implications for clients. It’s essential that businesses and brands don’t exist in a vacuum and take a long-term view of their reputation because, at some point, it will be your turn to experience a public crisis.
What’s the trickiest crisis you’ve worked on and why?
I’ve worked on hundreds of reputational challenges, from allegations of mismanagement and inappropriate behaviour to issues of institutional racism and Europe-wide product recalls.
The hardest ones I’ve worked on are those that have involved an accident, death, loss or tragedy. Those are the ones where not only do you have to absorb the emotional stress and energy from the clients, but you’ve got to stay focussed and almost detach yourself emotionally from the situation to deliver what the client needs. In a crisis situation, you build relationships very quickly as you help your clients through the worst, and as you do you feel like you are making a difference.
What do you know now that you didn’t when you started out?
It’s OK not to know everything and immediately know what to do. I think there’s a tendency in our industry to believe that you can prepare to the smallest detail, but you can’t. In a crisis, your instincts come to the fore, and you have to trust them. If you focus on doing the right thing, even if it requires properly saying sorry, you should be OK in the long-term.
When you start out, you’d expect the senior people alongside you to give the right kind of counsel and, if they’re not, you’ve got to have the confidence to stand up and explain what you would do instead. It’s so important to have good mentors. The best people I’ve worked with have always asked the right questions from the start, getting to the root of the problem.
What’s in store for the rest of 2023?
Many businesses (and the people who work for them) are still mentally scarred from what’s happened in the last few years. We’ve seen a direct line of permacrisis running from Brexit to the pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis, and the war in Ukraine. People-centric comms has become fashionable but, in my view, it’s more about staying in touch with the prevailing mood and acting accordingly. It’s essential to understand what your customers are going through and make sure what you’re doing is in step with what’s happening in the world.
What’s your one piece of advice when handling a crisis?
In a crisis, it’s very easy to get caught up in the minutiae. Take a breath, keep your eye on the horizon. You don’t have the luxury of time in a crisis situation, but you do need to find the collective headspace to focus on what really matters and work together get the job done.
One of my favourite fictional detectives is Josephine Tey’s Inspector Alan Grant – he finds that when he’s confronted with a complex case he needs to step away from it entirely for a while, then he comes back with fresh eyes and solves it. I like his approach!
To learn more about Grayling’s crisis communications, please contact Scott here.