What can the escaped cow story teach you about crisis comms?

Have you heard about the cow who escaped from a farm, swam across a river and ended up in the streets of a busy town?

While that may sound like the start of a joke, there is no punchline.

Instead, this was an incident that captured massive media and social media interest after footage showed the runaway cow being twice rammed by a police car.

And those actions have put Surrey Police firmly in the crisis media management spotlight.

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Beau Lucy – a 10-month-old calf – escaped her grazing enclosure on Friday night and swam across the river to Staines-upon-Thames.

Dramatic video footage captured her loose in a residential area before being run down by a police car.

Home Secretary James Cleverly branded the incident as “unnecessarily heavy handed” on X, where the footage has received more than 24 millions views. The RSPCA said the force’s action “appeared disproportionate”.

And BBC wildlife presenter Chris Packham posted: “What sort of monster rams a calf? Twice?”

The media headlines were equally damning:

Outrage as police car filmed ramming escaped cow sending it flying down road Express

Home secretary demands urgent explanation after police ram calf in suburb The Times

Fury grows as shock footage shows police ramming escaped cow with squad car LBC

Police caught on camera ramming runaway cow as Cleverly calls for answers i

Surrey Police car filmed deliberately driving into cow Sky News

I’ve also seen the story covered on TV by BBC News and Channel 4 News.

How did Surrey Police respond?

Well, it released a statement the following day.

It said: "The cow was running loose throughout the evening on a number of main roads and during this time, we received numerous calls from the public reporting a car being damaged and it running at members of the public.

"Given these reports, officers were extremely concerned about the public’s safety, and over a period of a number of hours tried a number of options to safely capture the cow.

"Unfortunately, these were unsuccessful, and the decision was made to stop it using a police car. This matter has been referred to our Professional Standards Department.”

The statement then went on to discuss the cow, saying that it was now at a nearby farm, had been seen by a vet and was being treated for a “large cut” on her leg.

And it ended with a quote from Ch Insp Sam Adcock, acknowledging the “distress” the footage had caused and reiterating the police car was only used after other methods had failed.”

What do you think?

It’s a detailed, wordy statement that begins with a lengthy explanation.

And lengthy explanations in crisis statements can often sound like excuses.

For me, the statement is also the wrong way around.

The footage has gone viral and has been widely picked up by mainstream media. People are angry and upset about what they have seen.

So, you must begin by acknowledging that the footage is upsetting and that people are concerned about the action police have taken.

And you need to quickly update them about the welfare of the cow.

I would start the response by saying something like: “We know the footage is causing a lot of upset and appreciate people are concerned about our actions.

“And we are sorry Beau Lucy was injured in the incident. She has been seen by a vet at a nearby farm and is being treated for a large cut to her leg.”

It could then cover what it is doing about the incident and why it took that action.

Something like that would be much closer to the CARE acronym we use during our crisis communication training.

It stands for Compassion, Action, Reassurance and Examples.

Compassion: You must show people you understand the severity of what has happened and its impact.

Action: Outline what you are doing to manage the incident. In a crisis, you need to be doing the right things to make it better, and let people know you are doing those right things.

Reassurance: Reassurance is linked to the ‘action’ part. People want to feel reassured that what has happened will not be repeated.

Examples: Use examples to reinforce the compassion, action and reassurance parts.

An updated statement from Surrey Police on Sunday was much closer to this.

It began with Deputy Chief Constable Nev Kemp saying: “I fully appreciate the distress our handling of this incident has caused and will ensure that it is thoroughly and diligently investigated.

And he went on to acknowledge the welfare of the cow, saying: “She is now back with her owner and recuperating with her herd. She did sustain a large cut to one leg and cuts and grazes. She continues to be monitored by a vet and our rural officers are staying in contact with the owner for updates.”

We also learnt the officer driving the car during the incident has been “removed from frontline duties”, which shows action.

The statement finished by reassuring the public it cares about the welfare of animals.

It said: “As well as our overriding duty to protect the public, the welfare of animals is important to us and we know people want answers about how this happened and what led up to it. I am committed to ensuring that we have a full understanding of what took place and why, and we will fully support any investigation.”

It is a much better response, and Surrey Police could have done with it 24 hours earlier to gain more control over the story.

It is notable that in the second response, it is the deputy chief constable who is quoted rather than a chief inspector.

 

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It shows the incident is being managed at the top of the organisation, and the response has been escalated – a good move given how much attention the incident has grabbed.

But it could have gone further. Remember, it was a viral video that exposed the police’s tactics to scrutiny. So, why isn’t there a video of the deputy chief constable discussing the incident rather than just text quotes?

Should the force not put him up for interviews rather than relying on journalists to read his words? While its statement was read to viewers, Mr Packham was giving interviews. Who do you think got more time to get their views across?

As we stress during our training courses, good crisis comms won’t solve your crisis.

But it can reduce the reputational impact.

And there are always lessons to learn from how those in the spotlight have responded – good, bad or mixed.

 

Media First are media and communications training specialists with more than 35 years of experience.

We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.

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