The ‘Today’ programme on BBC Radio 4 this morning had a textbook example of good practice in crisis communication.

It was an interview in response to a damaging story in The Times newspaper about Action Fraud, the outsourced police call centre which handles all UK fraud reports and decides which ones should be investigated as crimes.

Following reports that Action Fraud was ‘useless’, the Times sent a reporter to work undercover as a call centre worker. He reported a culture of mocking and misleading victims, led by senior managers, and secretly filmed footage in which a police trainer made insulting comments about the police and their handling of fraud.

The report was dynamite and has prompted calls from politicians of all parties for urgent action to overhaul the system.

John Humphrys of ‘Today’ interviewed the undercover reporter, Paul Morgan-Bentley, and the police’s National Lead for Economic Crime, Commander Karen Baxter of the City of London Police.

Commander Baxter starts with a clear advantage, to English ears anyway. She has a warm, friendly northern Irish voice and a manner which sets the tone perfectly between human and authoritative. Nothing at all like a stereotypical policeman.

She began by addressing Humphrys by his first name, a practice about which there are conflicting views. It can be seen as sucking up or cronyism, but as Humphrys is such a well-known voice in the UK and it’s so common for interviewees to call him John, I think it was fine.

Baxter then went into the tried and tested crisis comms model of SAIL – Sympathy, Action, Inquiry, Lessons – which is pretty much universal and works well as long as you don’t make it sound too formulaic.

So she began with an apology to pretty much everyone:

“John, it is disgraceful, because the first thing I’d like to say is, let me apologise to victims and the public for having witnessed this footage. I’m angry about it, and it is entirely unacceptable, and it will not be tolerated in any way…”

Lesser interviewees might have been tempted to deny the undeniable, to act defensive or minimise what had gone on, but Action Fraud had been caught bang to rights, so the best course of action was to agree with what was being alleged and make it clear that she was as shocked as anyone.

Next comes Action:

 “As soon as I was informed of this footage and of this information from Paul, I have very robustly had a number of meetings with Concentrix, our service providers, they have commenced urgently an investigation, and currently there are a number of staff subject to that investigation and there are a number of staff suspended. I think that is entirely appropriate.”

A perennial problem in crisis interviews is answering predictable questions like: whose fault was it? Will heads roll? If so, whose…? It’s pretty standard to say that you can’t comment on individual cases, but it can sometimes sound overly officious. So the ability to bridge between something you CAN’T say and something you CAN say is very important, and Baxter is very good at it.

Will individuals involved be sacked?

I can’t say that at the moment because that is a matter for Concentrix, the service provider, but what I can say is that that behaviour has no place in Action Fraud. It falls well below the standards of policing and well below the standards of the City of London.

…that behaviour, and individuals who show that behaviour in Action Fraud and in that call centre, particularly in a managerial role, have no place in Action Fraud as we see it today….

And now Inquiry:

… I will be doing a really stringent review around the standards.

As for Lessons, we’ll have to wait and see what proposals are brought forward for change.

Two final good pieces of technique – setting the bad points of Action Fraud in context:

This is one of the fastest-growing crime types that is affecting the United Kingdom. And what we need to do, not just in policing, not just in Action Fraud but right across society is decide how do we take this forward….We prevented £94m of fraud last year with one of our units in the City of London, and I think that’s where we need to get to. But it is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it going forward.

All in all, a great example of how to get a positive interview out of a negative subject.