Mark Sedwill on handling the COVID crisis, a gun in the face and the power of pizza

February 20, 2021. Series 3. Episode 21

My guest for this episode is someone who can not only talk about what it is to personally face down a life-threatening crisis, but who has worked at the epicentre of multiple crises that have affected us all.

Mark, (now Lord) Sedwill, was Cabinet Secretary from 2018 until last year.  He was Britain’s most senior civil servant and, to quote from the musical Hamilton, ‘He is the man who was in the room where it happened.’  He has worked at the right hand of two Prime Ministers as they navigated crises including Brexit, the Salisbury poisonings and of course the ongoing Covid19 pandemic.  But these were not the first intense dramas in our guest’s life of public service.  In previous jobs he’s been threatened at gunpoint by Saddam Hussein’s henchmen and whilst serving as deputy high commissioner in Pakistan, he had a bomb planted under his seat.

Mark Sedwill is the embodiment of that calm, unflappable public servant that is uniquely British and characteristically understated.

Mark’s Crisis Cures:

1 . Pizza would be the first.  One of the things you have to do is keep people going.  Often in a crisis it’s the simplicity of a pizza.  I like a Diavalo myself!

2. Listening – Remember you have two ears and one mouth and there’s a reason for that.  Listening actively.  Encourage the quieter voices and don’t jump to conclusions.  You often need to go slower in order to go faster.

3. Communication – In any crisis, communication isn’t just explaining what you’re doing – it’s part of managing the crisis.  It has to be central to what you’re doing.


Halo Trust:

Show Notes:

This podcast was an absolute masterclass in crisis management.  Although the stage Mark, Lord Sedwill has operated on is national, at times even global – the lessons still apply I think for anyone trying to navigate a proper problem.

Mark, of course, is a man who found himself dealing with two of the biggest government crises of modern times – Brexit and most recently the pandemic.  But it was his previous roles across government, the military, UN and the Intelligence Service, (not that he would reveal a thing about that, naturally!) that provided the muscle memory for him to step up when those big tests came in at number 10.

His approach in essence was powerful in its simplicity.  In crisis, you need to communicate more, not less – because communication is at the core of crisis management.  You need to make sure everyone understands their job, including you – don’t try and play every position on the pitch.  It’s important to understand that staying calm is contagious because how you behave and the words you use, will impact how others behave.  And remember – when you’re talking or shouting, you’re not learning and sometimes the quietest person in the room has the most telling point to make.

Mark was also clear that in crisis you must leave room for error and that includes your own.  His admission that his analytical approach can sometimes mean he lacks empathy was revealing.  As Mark says, ‘you won’t get everything right, but when those mistakes happen – recognise them, make sure that you’ve absorbed them, then move on.’

This is an episode packed with useful takeaways from a man whose career has been dedicated to public service at the sharp end.

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Host – Andy Coulson

Producer – Louise Difford


Full transcript: 

00:00:00.00 Intro music


00:00:19.04 Andy Coulson:

Hello and welcome to Series three of Crisis What Crisis? A podcast designed to be a useful field guide as we all try to navigate and continue to come to terms with a dramatically changed world. Whether personal, professional or both, crisis is, without doubt, the new shared experience. I’m Andy Coulson, a former newspaper editor, Downing Street Director of Communications and one time inmate of HMP Belmarsh. For the last five years I’ve put all of my experience, the good and the bad, to use as a strategic advisor to business leaders and I can tell you that the bad has been just as useful as the good. And that got me thinking, as the first lockdown began, that there are plenty of great podcasts out there where you can hear stories of success but there are far fewer where you can benefit from the experience of those whose lives have properly unravelled.


00:01:05.15 Andy Coulson:

So, in Crisis What Crisis? I talk to the embattled, shamed, courageous, ruined, damaged, resilient, unlucky and lucky survivors of crisis. Some names will be familiar, some less so, our guests share their experiences though, with honesty, often with humour but always in the hope that they might be useful to anyone facing down their own demons and challenges. Put simply these are crisis conversations worth sharing. Stay tuned at the end of the episode when I’ll give my thoughts and takeaways, the lessons, if you like, for when life unravels. And if you enjoy the podcast please do subscribe and give us a rating and a review, it really helps make sure these stories reach an even wider audience of people who may find them useful and that in the end is what it’s all about.


00:01:52.20 Andy Coulson:

Crisis What Crisis? is generously supported by Myndstream, a brilliant company who harness the power of music for personal wellbeing. Whether it be music for meditation, to help focus, sleep, stress relief, yoga and fitness, rejuvenation even grief and loss, Myndstream is there to improve human performance. I’ve tried, it works and I’d recommend having a listen to the Myndstream catalogue yourself. Just search Myndstream, that’s mind with a Y, on Spotify. Thanks again for joining me.


00:02:26.08 Andy Coulson:

I’m delighted that my guest today is someone who can talk, not just about what it is to personally face down a life-threatening crisis, but who’s worked at the epicentre of crises that have affected us all. Mark, now Lord Sedwill, was the cabinet secretary from 2018 to last year. Britain’s most senior civil servant. To quote from the musical Hamilton, “he is the man who was in the room when it happened”. A man who worked at the right hand of two prime ministers as they navigated crises including Brexit, the Salisbury Poisonings and of course the Covid 19 pandemic. These were not the first moments of drama in a life of public service for our guest. In previous jobs he’s been threatened at gunpoint by Saddam Hussein’s henchmen and whilst working as Deputy High Commissioner in Pakistan had a bomb planted under his seat.


00:03:16.17 Andy Coulson:

Mark Sedwill is the embodiment of that calm, unflappable public servant that is uniquely British and characteristically understated. Mark, Lord Sedwill, thank you for joining us today, how are you?


00:03:29.19 Mark Sedwill:

Andy, I’m in great form thank you and good to be here with you. Nice to have the opportunity to talk.


00:03:35.01 Andy Coulson:

Well, it’s great to see you. Mark, we’re talking as the lockdown continues and on a day in fact that a pretty startling piece of crisis management, seemingly from Number 10 has been heavily briefed. This idea that a breach of quarantine rules may carry a ten year prison sentence. Now, it’s an eye-catching idea which strikes me as being utterly, completely bonkers but I wonder what your reaction was when you read it over the cornflakes this morning.


00:04:03.00 Mark Sedwill:

I was surprised because it sort of came at me out of the blue and I am with Lord Sumption, who wrote a column about it this morning, on the merits of it. I think the broader lesson about crises and crisis management is just how important it is to stay calm and keep steady in crises and not overreact to events as they arise, and this looks to me like it might fall into that category.


00:04:32.10 Andy Coulson:

Yeah, I mean, I remember a number of occasions in Number 10 when someone on the political side of the room would chuck in something along these lines and those on the Civil Service side would, to be fair, keep a straight face. But their eyes told you that they were thinking please god, make them stop. Now, I don’t expect you to name names, of course, but does that resonate? That occasionally the system that we have will throw up these moments, right?


00:05:04.00 Mark Sedwill:

Yeah, and in a way that’s part of the strength of the system because crises are always something where you’re having to be adaptable. You’re almost, by definition, no matter how well-practiced you are, no matter how many crises you’ve faced, acute, chronic, whatever, you’re dealing with something new and unexpected. And so having that tension where there are some wild ideas, and by the way they’re not always wild ideas from the political side of the table, professionals and civil servants can come up with a few on their own account. But having that tension, ensuring that there is always someone in the room who feels confident enough to say, actually ‘no, that’s crackers we won’t do that’, I think is an important way of reacting to it. But it is important to ensure a prime minister or whoever’s in charge is exposed to as wide a range of ideas and inputs as possible as they navigate through it. Because simply sticking to the traditional script of the traditional playbook might not be enough and some crises prove not to be.


00:06:04.12 Andy Coulson:

Very good, yeah, I’d like to talk a little bit more about that a little bit later in the conversation around that idea that you’ve got to allow people to get it wrong, quite aside from coming up from the unusual idea but also that they have the courage to get it wrong. I’d like to start though by talking about the process of crisis management at the highest level where you’ve operated so effectively. And there is this idea, outside of government there’s this idea that inside, behind the door, there’s an operations room with a systems driven by an all seeing all-knowing complex algorithm that you know, a switch is flicked in times of national crisis when in fact crisis management in Number 10 is a fundamentally human process. That it’s a group of people in a room often armed with incomplete and sometimes incorrect information, all trying to do their best, invariably with constant incoming from the media and political opponents. It’s a messy process, is that right?


00:07:12.13 Mark Sedwill:

Yeah, absolutely and I remember listening to a World War Two general once being interviewed about how you operate on the battlefield and he said, I didn’t expect him to say this, the first thing he said was, ’Well you spend much of your time trying to figure out where everyone is.’ So in any situation one’s dealing with incomplete, inaccurate information, as you said, and trying to look through, in the modern era, a mass of information to really identify what is going on. As you say, it’s fundamentally a human endeavour. We train people in crisis management. There are procedures, there is that room, the COBR suite and so on but fundamentally in the end, it’s still getting a group of people around a table with a decision maker in the chair and that human activity of figuring out what’s going on and what the right response is.


00:08:01.24 Andy Coulson:

What can you tell us about the sort of… because you get that training as you mentioned. There’s a kind of well-exercised muscle in government around crisis, to an extent, in terms of process. But what was your personal approach? When you were at the top of that, horrible expression, but when you were at the top of that decision making tree with the Prime Minister, what sort of state of mind have you got? What approach did you take to it?


00:08:29.17 Mark Sedwill:

So it partly depends on what position you’re in. If you’re chairing a meeting, as I often was, then sometimes I’m actually trying to drive energy into the meeting and keep people really focused. If you’re sitting to the side of the Prime Minster, often the job it to try and keep everyone calm, stop people moving straight to decisions before all the information has been put on the table, the professionals have had their say, all of the options have been canvassed. And I think probably I always saw my job as just, in some ways, slowing us down slightly in the moment, just in order to try and get to the right decision and then be more confident that that decision would stick. Sometimes you have to go slowly to go fast.


00:09:11.00 Andy Coulson:

Yeah, and you’ve got the added complication, obviously, of politics, not to state the absolute obvious but quite often the decision making process is loaded down with other considerations that in any other world are relegated. How did you manage that? Clearly the line is drawn very clearly, right. That is not for you, that is not the job, but there’s just the reality isn’t there, because it’s a human process, of having to continually make sure that that balance is in the right place. I mean, a fascinating challenge in one regard. Would you place it in the fascinating box or would you place it in the actually, at times, pretty irritating box?


00:10:00.05 Mark Sedwill:

Closer to the fascinating end rather than the irritating, I mean, it’s just a fact of life. We’re making decisions in a political environment and I think the thing that people often don’t understand, outside government, is just how non-party political those decisions are. So the kind of reaction that a prime minster will have in the circumstances of a crisis is essentially detached from whether they’re a Labour Prime Minster, or coalition or Tory Prime Minister. Much more based on the personality of the individual concerned. And that’s’ true of anyone who’s in the lead in a crisis and handling all of the same pressures. It’s why former Home Secretaries, former Prime Ministers, notwithstanding a party political affiliations often have an empathy for each other and often ask each other’s advice because they’ve all been in those situations. So the political environment is undoubtedly an important part of the context in which we’re operating but the fact it’s political doesn’t really mean that the nature of the party in government is actually a factor in most of the crises that I’ve dealt.


00:11:20.03 Andy Coulson:

Yeah, it can occasionally get in the way, of course, but you’re right. And certainly with the pandemic the sort of national effort has been clear. The pandemic I suppose has in a way exposed the truth of that crisis management, as we’ve just described it, that it’s that human process and therefore it’s imperfect. And the frailties of that were perhaps best demonstrated when the Prime Minister was, of course, in intensive care. And so many of his senior team, you included Mark, were diagnosed with Covid. You know, if the film is ever made of this crisis then that will certainly be one of the key scenes. It’s easy to forget the impact of those days. There was visceral drama across the country and beyond of course. How do you reflect on them now?


00:12:19.08 Mark Sedwill:

I think, I mean, I was lucky, I had a pretty mild bout of it and therefore although I was isolating was able, via Zoom and Teams and the other means, to carry on operating while I was unwell. Actually, one of the parts of the system that did work well, and it was something that we developed in the National Security area was being able to support Dominic Raab as First Secretary as he stepped up to cover the Prime Minister’s duties for Covid. And in National Security you have to be able to do that because a prime minister might simply be out of contact if the crisis is developing, a terrorist attack or of course the nuclear command chain and so on, there must always be continuity in that.


00:13:09.20 Mark Sedwill:

And so essentially we just took those principles and applied them to the different circumstances of Covid and the machine clicked in smoothly behind the first Secretary, Dominic Raab who had been nominated by the Prime Minister to step in for him should he be indisposed by the illness, which by that stage of course he had for a couple of weeks or so. So in a sense that was, although it was a really nasty moment when he went into intensive care and at a human level we were all worried about him and the impact on his family and so on, actually, the system was one, it was one of the periods during Covid when the system knew exactly what to do next.


00:13:56.00 Andy Coulson:

Yeah. How did you manage the human side of it though, given that you’re all basically staring at your computers, with no ability to really be in the room together? You know, all the usual ways by which you would try and keep people calm and either actually or metaphorically be wrapping an arm around them. How did you manage that bit?


00:14:19.20 Mark Sedwill:

I think one of the things that you always do in a crisis and when I talk to courses about crisis leadership, is I tell them that leadership in a crisis is like leadership at any other time, you’ve just got to do more of everything. So you have to be even calmer, you have to communicate even more. You have to just be prepared to slow down a bit and make sure you’ve had all the inputs before you make a decision. But once you’ve made a decision that’s it, you’ve just got to then get on and implement it and the argument stops. And so at a human level, around that period, it was really those kind of principles that certainly I applied. So we pulled the whole cabinet tougher, again virtually, and just told them what the situation was, what the arrangements were for supporting the Prime Minister and for maintaining the continuity of government.


00:15:14.15 Mark Sedwill:

And I think people find at a human level just that confidence that the machinery is working gives them some confidence and helps people stay calm and keep their heads and make the right decisions. And certainly on my mind, right through that crisis, as through others, some developing faster and more acute than Covid was, but really at that particularly difficult moment when the PM went into intensive care, was to how just to try and ensure, using all of those kind of techniques, one just kept everybody steady. And to be fair, everyone stepped up and responded accordingly.


00:15:58.15 Andy Coulson:

We had Johnny Mercer on the podcast previously and he was saying a similar thing really that in the environment of warfare that courage is courageous. Is that sort of a related point that demonstrating to your team that you’re continuing to function and that the system is continuing to work carries its own value? That that in itself can be contagious, wrong word to use in the context of a pandemic, I’ll grant you.


00:16:36.11 Mark Sedwill:

Yeah, and that is exactly right. And indeed, it helps you as well. So by forcing oneself to stay calm and to demonstrate that to the team, you’re helping them be calm and helping them actually operate more effectively, more intelligently with an ability to consider. If you’re racing around shouting and looking like you’re in a panic, you actually make everyone around you less effective. The reverse is true, if you deliberately project calm, confidence, assurance then you make everyone else around you operate better, more intelligently, more thoughtfully. That in itself helps you as the person in the centre of it actually maintain the real calm. So there’s something here about almost the theatre turning into the reality. If you can project calm, no matter how anxious you’re feeling, actually you will in the end stay calm yourself.


00:17:44.03 Andy Coulson:

And that extends to the written word as well, which obviously is very important in the political process, very important in Whitehall. So much communication is written. I’ve always held to the view that if you use the language of crisis, if you start talking about firestorms, indeed, if you start talking about crisis almost at times, you almost elevate it to that level. Do take the same view? Do you take that same kind of approach with the written word as you do in a meeting or on a Zoom call as it was?


00:18:19.24 Mark Sedwill:

Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right, Andy. And sometimes people like me can be accused of being too dispassionate and deliberately choosing un-emotive language, in a crisis but in other circumstances too, to describe situations that are highly emotional. And so whether one’s dealing with an acute attack like Salisbury, which was outrageous and one quickly runs out of adjectives to describe actually what I was feeling during that period, but in communicating always trying to sound dispassionate, trying to remain professional, means that we’re likely to make better decisions that we don’t regret later.


00:19:10.15 Andy Coulson:

With Covid, obviously there’s going to be a public enquiry at some stage that will pick over the detail and the lessons will be learned. But when you reflect on the very early stages of it how were you able to prioritise? Clearly keeping the NHS operating at the level that it needed to operate has been at the core of the whole challenge. But so many different issues attached affecting every aspect of our lives. Just give us an idea of how you approached that challenge. Because it’s of a different order to anything, certainly that I ever dealt with in politics, that most people have ever dealt with.


00:19:59.19 Mark Sedwill:

Absolutely right and as you say, there was enormous pressure particularly on the health system, not just the NHS but the rest of the healthcare, health and social care system as well. I think he thing that guided me through this phase is to remember that government, and particularly government in crisis, is a team sport. And so what was my role and what were the roles of other people? And one of the things, as you know, it’s tempting to do at the centre particularly under the pressure of a crisis with acute public anxiety of the kind that we saw during Covid, or in one or two other circumstances, is the tendency to try to play every position on the pitch and centralise every decision. And bring everything into the centre and have the professionals sitting in the COBR suite for half the day explaining to ministers what it is they’re doing and so on rather than actually getting on with the job.


00:20:50.07 Mark Sedwill:

And so part of my job was to really make sure that we distributed the responsibilities properly, we had the right decision-making and other mechanisms, information mechanisms in place so that it was sort of a Heineken Test, you want to reach the parts that others can’t. So can you be sure that the Prime Minister is only having to do things that only he can do. And has all of the information etc. and advice that he needs in order to do those things and make those really big decisions. What can be delegated to the Health Secretary? What can be delegated to the Foreign Secretary? What can be delegated to the Home Secretary etc. and left to them with obviously information of flows but left to them to decide. What is going to be left to people in with operational responsibility in the NHS, Chief executive of the NHS, the Chief Scientific Advisor and the Chief Medical Officer, public health officials and so on?


00:21:49.14 Mark Sedwill:

And getting those arrangements right, and this is very much based on essentially a military structure and experience but being really clear about levels of authority, where decisions are going to be taken, whose job is to do what, was then ensuring alongside that information is all being shared, so everyone understands what’s going on, even if the decisions are decisions are distributed, was the big part of what I was trying to do, just to get that system operating properly rather than trying to race around, chase around after the ball. John Reid the former Labour Home Secretary, Defence Secretary, etc. used to call it five year old football, where everyone runs around after the ball and it’s a pretty good analogy, government can be quite like that. And what you have to do is force everyone, like a decent team in any sport, to hold their position and recognise everyone has a different role to play and they have got to have confidence in everyone else on the team.


00:22:48.24 Andy Coulson:

He was politician who was good in a crisis and I say that from the media, I didn’t work for him in politics. There’s also the sort of danger of ego isn’t there? And again, I’m not asking for naming names but a crisis often attracts those ego-related problems. There’s the kind of, as you’ve just described, there are those people who will think a crisis is an opportunity for them to demonstrate their brilliance in every regard and that they’ll get their fingers into every part of the pie. And then of course there are also people who are utterly terrified of getting something wrong because they’re the sort who live in fear of what it mean either for them, for a politician publicly, or for a civil servant, in terms of their career. So there’s that kind of perfectly understandable, but potentially very damaging, ego human piece int he middle of it. How did you deal with that? Are you blunt about that aspect? Stay out or why aren’t you getting involved? Or is it a much more subtle process?


00:23:58.00 Mark Sedwill:

It can be both. There are times for bluntness and certainly there will have been occasions during Covid, I can think of a few examples where looking back I was probably much blunter than people might have expected, just because I felt it was necessary to impose some discipline or structure on a situation that as you know under pressure can quickly run into, essentially run out of control. And the other factor you have to keep in mind is the different personality types. As you said, ego comes into it of course, but also you have extravert and introvert personalities and often what one really needs to do is create the space for those people who are quieter, more reflective, don’t like making instant decisions to have just a moment to think and to ensure that their contribution is bought into whatever discussion there is.


00:25:01.10 Mark Sedwill:

You’re not learning if you’re talking. You’re only learning if you’re listening. And there is always a risk, in government generally, but under the pressure of a crisis when decisions are having to be taken quickly, that the loudest voices in the room are those that carry the day. And part of my job was always to try and ensure that the quieter voices in the room who might take little more time expressing themselves and express themselves in less vivid terms, had their opportunity to give their perspective and insight. And I think that again, is something one should always try to remember in a crisis that actually it might well be the quietest voice in the room who has the most important point to make.


00:25:46.02 Andy Coulson:

One of the comms challenges of course, which is the bit that I am interested in, was that that balance between political and scientific leadership. You know, Churchill talked about the need to get scientists or to keep your scientists on tap not on top. A phrase I rather like. The PM though seemed to take a different view from a communications point of view. He clearly took the decision that the science should take the lead not just in terms of the kind of policy decisions but in terms of the shop window. Where are you on that?


00:26:31.16 Mark Sedwill:

Well I think, like you, I remember Churchill’s phrase and of course, by the way, that should be true of every profession, it’s not just scientists. But if you’re the political leader then all of the professional expertise, whether it’s scientists or military or civil servants or whatever, economists, you name it, should be on tap and not on top. And in the end the politicians have to make the judgements and balance off all the various risks and issues. And I think this Prime Minister was conscious of that right the way through this. I think if you actually look at it, although there’s been this phrase of following the science, of course the science isn’t a single point, there are different views even among the scientists.


00:27:17.16 Mark Sedwill:

But it probably, given the nature of this crisis, a pandemic, a public health crisis of this kind, and the confidence the public have in listening to the frontline professionals in these circumstances, just as in a terrorist attack it’s actually the senior police officers who tend to be upfront in the media explaining exactly what’s going on on the ground and in the investigation rather than the minister, I think that distribution of communications responsibilities is right. And so if you think of a terrorist attack you have the police on the ground, as I said, would be explaining it or as they did in Salisbury, explaining what’s going on operationally but the policy and political implications are then for ministers to explain either in a press conference or in parliament.


00:28:12.01 Mark Sedwill:

And in Covid, I think, generally that blend has also been there. We haven’t, for example, had economists out explaining the government’s economic policy that’s been the Prime Minister and the Chancellor and so on because those are inherently political matters but the operational issues around health meant it was right to have the Chief Medical Officer, Chief Scientific Advisor, Chief Executive of the NHS, doctors, professors, etc. out explaining to the public because they carry authority and credibility with the public and know what they’re talking about.


00:28:44.00 Andy Coulson:

I get, I totally agree with the idea of having those voices out there but for a period at least, quite a long period, it was more than that though. They were very much, as I say, in the shop window, they were at the lectern and in the early days given equal, if not frankly, priority status over the Prime Minister’s own messaging. You felt that was the right thing though? Or would you say with the benefit of hindsight, which is of course the easiest thing in the world, that balance wasn’t, in those early days of the crisis, necessarily right?


00:29:19.07 Mark Sedwill:

I’m not sure. I don’t think it was government’s intention, or indeed the Prime Minister’s let alone the professionals intention for the balance to come out that way. It was always, those press conferences always had the Prime Minister or the Heath Secretary or another minister in the central position leading the press conference and taking and distributing the questions and so on. And certainly the experts alongside, whether it was Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance or their various deputies and colleagues always saw themselves in a supporting role. I think inevitably the media, particularly the broadcast media tilted the balance in the public mind because it’s really interesting and unusual for people to hear from someone like Chris Whitty who, until the pandemic, had always maintained a low public profile.


00:30:27.13 Andy Coulson:

The sort of disease of the ‘don’t know’ a politician’s reluctance to use the words, ‘I don’t know the answer’ to a question, was that an issue, again, in those early days. Because an armchair critic, again, one of the easiest jobs in the world by the way, would say that we too often, rather than saying ii don’t know, government rush to give an answer that turned out to be a blind alley or turned out to be an answer that was entirely the wrong direction when the right answer should have been ‘we don’t know yet’. That rush to… wanting to present an aura of certainty around everything, did you recognise that? Do you agree? Do you think that that’s a problem within politics?


00:31:25.08 Mark Sedwill:

There’s always great pressure out there and I think it is hard for someone to say I don’t know in circumstances where the key objective is to communicate confidence to the public and to try and ensure that the public behave in a particular way. Whether that’s to comply with the restrictions of the lockdown in the Covid case or if you think of a national security incident perhaps to stay calm and stay indoors, whatever it might be. And so I think I would prefer that we had a mechanism by which it was possible to communicate the levels of uncertainty that we’re dealing with without saying ‘I just don’t know what’s going on’ but to communicate the levels of uncertainty without that becoming a political football. And I don’t think that’s entirely the responsibility of the politicians by the way because you know, you’ve been operating both sides of the line in the media, you know how that can be interpreted if the media want to be hostile about it.


00:32:32.22 Mark Sedwill:

So I think there is something to be said for communicating the degree of uncertainty, the fact that one is operating in the fog of events. But remembering that in the end the purpose of communication isn’t simply to inform it is also, in a crisis, to try and affect behaviour, whether it is to get people to come forward with information, to lie low and stay out of harm’s way or to comply with a series of instructions on a lockdown. And so you’ve got to ask yourself about the effect of communication on behaviour not just whether people, and in particular the media and the political correspondents especially feel well informed.


00:33:20.12 Andy Coulson:

I agree completely. It is certainly a two-sided coin in the way that you described. But you might also argue that the way to get to the behavioural change, if you like, is through consistency and through building a relationship of trust between politician and public.


00:33:41.20 Mark Sedwill:

Yeah I agree with that and I think…


00:33:43.14 Andy Coulson:

And that’s about authenticity and the authentic answer is, it can’t be every time, but it can more frequently than it is, ‘I don’t know…’ it’s a very difficult one.


00:33:57.09 Mark Sedwill:

I think without necessarily just saying I don’t know but I think actually that was part of the reason for having the scientists alongside. They did communicate the range of uncertainty in the assessment that they were making. They were always very careful to say ‘here is what the evidence says so far’. And some of that was lost in translation as it as summarised and communicated through to the public. But that was part of the reason for having the scientists there was to let people know essentially these were judgements that were being made on the basis of the best evidence and insight and expertise available, but that we were learning more and more about the nature of the virus and so on as we were tackling the pandemic. And I think that was one of the benefits of having the scientists alongside even though, as you say, sometimes the same tone is difficult for a politician to take.


00:35:03.14 Andy Coulson:

Yeah. We’ve talked about your approach, you’ve seen so many senior politicians, prime ministers included up close. You’ve been at their side as they’ve operated in crisis. What are the characteristics, in your view, that make, at that level of politics, a great crisis manager?


00:35:21.20 Mark Sedwill:

People who are good at the big picture and who stay calm. So I think that’s true of any crisis manager, by the way. But of course at the very top level it’s going to be a politician, a very senior politician. And one of the things that the system needs from political leaders is to remain at that sort of connection to the big picture. That it isn’t just about managing the immediate crisis, it’s managing the immediate crisis in the context of whatever the political priorities are at the time. And so a politician who can remain political and doesn’t simply try to become a super-official or a super-crisis manager is really important. One who stays calm, who’s able to ensure that people around them are genuinely giving them the real advice and insight and who’s willing to have difficult things said to them and unwelcome truths spoken to power, etc. Those kind of capabilities, good listener, calm, focused on the big picture makes a good crisis manager and of course, only more so at the political level.


00:36:39.03 Andy Coulson:

That’s an interesting point: the ability to allow people to speak truth to power when you’re the power. With the two prime ministers that you’ve worked with that was the environment, you would say?


00:36:56.04 Mark Sedwill:

We always tried to make sure that it was and to be fair to both of them, and indeed actually, I’ve worked closely with, not as closely but closely with previous prime ministers as well, or been close up to them. Actually under the real pressure of crises, whether it was the financial crisis back in 2008 I was Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary on 9/11 and therefore was in a lot of key meetings with Tony Blair around that time and the Iraq war. Heavily involved, as you were of course from your own time, in a range of national security issues that David Cameron faced. So I’ve served under seven but of the five prime ministers I’ve seen close up I think all of them, actually, in their very different ways, with their very different personalities operated pretty well in a crisis. And that’s when you sort of saw the underlying strengths, that it takes to get to that job, come out.


00:38:03.17 Andy Coulson:

Let’s talk about another crisis that landed in your lap. You touched on it earlier, March 2018 and the Salisbury poisonings that has, of course, been made into a TV drama, the stuff of a spy novel. What can you tell us about the process on the inside of that crisis? Because you won’t, I know, want to talk about all the work that you’ve done in and around the world of intelligence, quite reasonably, but you were also National Security Advisor. And this situation came at a very, very significant big picture security risk alongside the fear that hundreds of people could be directly affected, could be directly poisoned. How did you approach that one Mark?


00:38:48.04 Mark Sedwill:

I think there were two big issues that we were dealing with throughout that. The first was just the operational and practical challenges of the use of a nerve agent. And actually to their enormous credit the emergency services in Salisbury responded with great speed, professionalism, very calm throughout that and kept the public safe. And things could have been an awful lot worse had they not done so. And although the effects of that attack were appalling on obviously the people concerned, notably of course, those who were affected by the Novichok itself, including Dawn Sturgess who sadly lost her life, actually it could have been a great deal worse. And they reacted really well.


00:39:39.12 Mark Sedwill:

The other thing that was striking about that was that we were able, in the investigation, to apply a range of techniques that essentially had been developed by the counter terrorist effort in policing, the intelligence agencies and so on and by treating it that way we were able to develop quickly a good picture of exactly what had happened. And then of course it became apparent that it was an act of a hostile state, the Russians in that case. And so it was that set of issues and just managing that really. But to be honest the professionals in that area were so well practiced we’d dealt with so many terrorist attacks, the community knew each other. Although it was a different kind of attack the relationships were there, the confidence was there and actually my job, in many ways, was relatively straightforward. It was convening the meetings and just making sure everything was happening in good order in the police in particular and those doing the investigation had the time, the space and the resources they needed and actually kept everybody else off their backs to let them get on with it.


00:40:45.21 Andy Coulson:

I use the word understated earlier and I think you’ve just given us an example. So we’ve got two situations here, you’re the man in the room. You’re the first person, probably one of the, or maybe one of the first people to be told two things. First our Prime Minister is in intensive care, that is a proper moment that we’ve discussed and how you handled it. In this case, what you’re being told is the Russians did it. That is a, by any measure, wherever you place that moment in history, that is a very, very significant moment. What I’m interested in is how did you react? Yes, there’s the process and the systems, I totally understand it, but how did that, especially given your knowledge and history and expertise in the world of security, hugely significant moment, how did you react to it?


00:41:44.17 Mark Sedwill:

I think you’ll find a lot of people who’ve been in similar situations to the ones I’ve been in, and if you interviewed people particularly in the military but also others who’ve been in frontline situations, is you actually act in quite a detached away. And the emotional impact, in a way, tends to strike you later and in the quieter moments at the end of the day when you’ve left everyone behind and you’re, in my case back in the flat in London just trying to decompress a bit at the end of the day. In the moment the professional training, the fact that you’ve been through lots of different things before just kicks in. You just kind of get on with it.


00:42:32.23 Mark Sedwill:

And certainly what I’ve found and it’s something I discovered about myself quite young, is I react by going hyper-rational in these circumstances, that’s just my emotional reaction. And it’s happened to me when I’ve been injured, for example, I just go, you know, in a sports accident or something like that, I become quite detached, analytical and hyper-rational. And so actually in the moment I don’t feel the pressure of events at the time. It’s ‘Right, what are we going to do? What’s happening? Have we got everyone we need? Let’s make sure we’ve structured this in a way to be able to make the right decisions, think about the wider implications, tell ministers what they need to know when they need to know it.’ All of that kind of…


00:43:23.10 Andy Coulson:

But there’s adrenaline.


00:43:24.06 Mark Sedwill:

And the emotional impact happens later.


00:43:26.03 Andy Coulson:

But there’s adrenaline surely?


00:43:28.02 Mark Sedwill:

Yeah there is but in my case the adrenaline tends to cause me to, as I say, go super-calm rather than raising my emotional level. So people who do see me in those situations would recognise that.


00:43:50.07 Andy Coulson:

Where did that come from then, Mark? Where’s that kind of…?


00:43:53.13 Mark Sedwill:

I don’t know. I mean I think that I’ve just… I’m not even sure it’s an ability I think it’s just a reaction. And of course, it means sometime that you can underreact that you can find that you’re bringing all of your intellect and experience to there when everyone else involved is reacting emotionally and therefore you can sometimes get it wrong.


00:44:20.15 Andy Coulson:

So there have been moments when you thought to yourself I should have been more emotional. Can you give us an example?


00:44:27.00 Mark Sedwill:

I think not necessarily more emotional, probably more empathetic to the way others were feeling about something rather than just getting my teeth into what needed to be done next. I can’t think of an example off the top of my head but I would probably recognise it if someone else quoted one at me.


00:44:51.22 Andy Coulson:

Can you identify your first crisis? There are a couple that I want to talk about in a second that were later in your career, one quite early in your career. But do you remember your first, what you would term crisis?


00:45:05.10 Mark Sedwill:

Yeah the first professional one anyway I was on my first posting in Egypt back in the early ‘90s and we had some British tourists who were down in Luxor on tourist bus, just visiting the historic monuments down there. And that bus was attacked by gunmen who were essentially an insurgent terrorist group, Islamist group in that area, actually a precursor of Al-Qaeda associated with Ayman al-Zawahiri who then of course became the head of Al-Qaeda after Osama bin Laden’s death many years later. But that was a group who were active in Egypt and some British tourists were killed.


00:45:52.02 Mark Sedwill:

And it wasn’t my job particularly, I wasn’t doing a consular job but I went down to Luxor immediately the incident became, you became aware of the incident at the embassy, in order to be essentially, the point person on the ground. I was a pretty junior officer at the time and we just needed somebody on the ground to essential be the liaison with the Egyptian authorities and to work out what was going on and to connect with the tourists who were still in the area. And I spoke Arabic and therefore I volunteered to do it. And so that was the first security crisis or crisis of that kind I was involved with.


00:46:31.08 Andy Coulson:

And that attitude that you’ve just described, that ability to kind of detach slightly, was there then? Or given that it was the first time it must have been a… I mean, it must have been an appalling scene to find yourself in the middle of just from an emotional perspective. But you were able in that first instance to be able to separate yourself, if you like?


00:46:54.11 Mark Sedwill:

I think so. And I think the way I, when I look back, I think he way I handled it was by really focusing on everyone else. And you’ve got some people who are really badly frightened and later on the parents of the young woman who was killed in the attack came up. And of course you’ve got, you mentioned ego earlier, it think one of the key things in those circumstances is to take your own ego out of it and to really recognise that actually the victims are the people you’re dealing with, you’re not a victim yourself, your job is to help them. And to again, to maintain calm and confidence and be willing to absorb all of their anxieties and the anger that people feel in those circumstances without raising the temperature by your own emotions to move up the scale as well. And so I guess I just did that at that time and I don’t know how skilfully I managed it but that’s the way I responded to that, it felt like the right thing to do and I guess it felt like the right way to approach things since.


00:48:19.12 Andy Coulson:

But there’s nothing that you identified in your past, in your upbringing? I don’t know what your parents did for a living or what family life was like as a much younger man but have you tried to trace back, you’ve not described it as ability, I will, but this attitude that you have towards moments of drama? Have you been able to trace that back at all and find a connection, or not?


00:48:47.22 Mark Sedwill:

I haven’t really tried to be honest. I’m not one of the most reflective people, I tend to live my life forwards rather than looking back. So, look, I just don’t know, I had a very normal upbringing. I went to the village primary school, the local school in the local town. My father was a local businessman, my mother was a medical secretary so there’s nothing in my family background that you naturally put me into this world. It’s not as if I came from an army background or anything of that kind. So I don’t know really. And of course, you don’t know how you’re going to react until you face it anyway.


00:49:30.05 Andy Coulson:

That’s the other truth of crisis, exactly. So Iraq, you’re there with a UN badge on so to speak, looking for weapons of mass destruction or at last looking for evidence of mass destruction and you find yourself confronted by Saddam Hussein’s bodyguards and a gun is waved in your face. A very different type of crisis. How did you approach that one, Mark?


00:49:59.11 Mark Sedwill:

Well that, again, is where just staying really, really calm and I did, we were in a team and some of the people, including some of the military background around me, different nationalities and so on, were reacting quite emotionally. And there was just, I could see this situation getting out of control. Voices were beginning to be raised, it didn’t help that there was a language barrier that people weren’t waiting for the translators and so on. And that’s just people operating under stress.


00:50:37.02 Mark Sedwill:

And again, one rationalises things in retrospect, you don’t think about it at the time but I was deliberately trying to stay calm and not least because the guy, the young soldier who was at least pointing the gun at me but the whole group of them around us were clearly very frightened themselves. Not of us, we weren’t armed but of the consequences for them if they got it wrong. And just trying to calm them down, speak slowly. As I said, I spoke Arabic and so I was able to do some of the talking and just speaking slowly and calmly and just trying to explain to them that we didn’t pose a threat and that if they wanted us to back off we’d back off. That’s how I responded in the moment to try and take the heat out of the situation.


00:51:44.07 Mark Sedwill:

I remember watching an advert for the Army actually, which showed an incident where tempers were getting very high in, it was obviously reconstructed, but tempers were getting very high in an insurgent situation, I think in Africa if I remember rightly. And they showed the solider taking his sunglasses off. And immediately the situation calmed down. And I just, that image has always stuck in my mind, that being able to connect eye to eye, you know the guy having taken his sunglasses off, showing that he wasn’t posing a threat, wasn’t trying to impose his ego, his adrenaline, etc on the other guy, took the heat out of it. And I always thought that was a great advert for the way that the British military can operate.


00:52:30.17 Andy Coulson:

Your life was also in danger, although you didn’t appreciate it at the time, when you were the Deputy high Commissioner in Pakistan. You find yourself at an event in the Himalayas I think where you discover after the event, if I’ve got this right, that there was a bomb under your seat. A bomb not intended for you, for someone else, but that could easily have claimed your life. Just tell us a little bit about that. And obviously there’s an example of a crisis that actually in the moment of course you had no idea, but afterwards you’re told this, how did you react?


00:53:13.03 Mark Sedwill:

Very philosophically really. This was at this extraordinary cultural event, it was actually a polo match between two neighbouring villages, polo is not an elite sport in that part of Pakistan. It’s very much a village sport, something like twelve, thirteen feet up in the foothills of the Himalayas, between neighbouring villages and we’d essentially stumbled across it. We were travelling, my wife and I were travelling there on an official visit and stumbled across it. And they invited us to stay for the match and we happened, remarkable coincidence, to come across Michael Palin and his team who were filming their Himalayas suit at the time. And so we still have the photo of me and Michael Palin watching this polo match so in some ways…


00:54:04.03 Andy Coulson:

Sorry, actually in the seat?


00:54:07.16 Mark Sedwill:

So he wasn’t in the seat, he was in the neighbouring seat, we think, but of course that would have been a much bigger story had he been hurt by it. And we sort of found out later that it was there. And the thing is there were so many security threats at that time in Pakistan, we’d evacuated the mission a couple of times because of terrorist attacks as had others, it didn’t really register. And it almost just became an anecdote.


00:54:41.04 Andy Coulson:

I mean, in 2009, 2010 you’re in Kabul as our man in Afghanistan. I suppose if there’s a capital city of crisis, Kabul is definitely on the list. Are you drawn to these places? Is there a part of you, I talked about this with Jeremy Bowen who has spent so much of his professional life as a sort of crisis volunteer if you like, inserting himself into these terribly dangerous environments, is there a bit of you that has that?


00:55:15.05 Mark Sedwill:

Oh yeah, and no, unquestionably, I think have to recognise that. I’ve never done a diplomatic posting really anywhere away from some kind of a crisis. Never been posted to Paris or Washington or Brussels or any of these places. So that kind of challenge, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt even Cyprus which was under huge pressure at the time and actually there was even a threat of the military action at the time I was there. So yes, I’ve always been drawn to that, I enjoy operating in that kind of environment and part of it is that one has the opportunity to make an impact. As the British ambassador in Afghanistan you can have a real influence on events.


00:56:10.17 Mark Sedwill:

But it was certainly at that time it was possible to do so. When the military campaign was at its peak and the Brits had the second largest deployment of foreign troops after the Americans, huge aid programme, huge counter-narcotics programme and all the rest of it, there was a real opportunity to have an impact in a way that a diplomat operating in a European or North American capital city is essentially just an observer. And so having the opportunity to be involved and roll my sleeves up and have dust on my boots is the kind of work that I’d always wanted to do.


00:56:51.21 Andy Coulson:

A bit more than that thought, isn’t it Mark, isn’t it also the risk?


00:56:55.14 Mark Sedwill:

Yeah, there’s a bit of that. I just hope my family aren’t listening to this podcast. But of course there is a bit of that. I mean I do, you mentioned adrenaline earlier, I wouldn’t describe myself as an adrenaline junkie but I do enjoy risk. I learnt to skydive, I ski, I scuba dive all of those sorts of sports appeal to me. And I guess I’ve chosen areas to go where one has that heightened experience of being at the sharp end.


00:57:31.04 Andy Coulson:

You were a Royal Marines reserve, right?


00:57:33.06 Mark Sedwill:

Yeah, for a brief period when I was at university and shortly afterwards before I went overseas for the first time.


00:57:40.23 Andy Coulson:

So in terms of the future, what is it, you’ve been tipped as a potential Secretary General of NATO, a huge job that will not be without its elements of crisis as well, I’m sure. When you look to the future what happens next? What’s on the list? What’s in your mind? The NATO job would be a fantastic role for you.


00:58:10.15 Mark Sedwill:

Yeah that would be a remarkable opportunity and to even be considered credible for it as someone who isn’t a politician, hasn’t been a minister, when all of the Secretary Generals at least except the first, have been is very flattering and I’m grateful that people think I might be credible for it. Who knows what will happen, you know how these things are, Andy? There’s a lot of water to go under the bridge before that job becomes available. Jens Stoltenberg, who’s a friend and who is doing a brilliant job in my view, has done a brilliant job, has got another eighteen months or more to run. So we’ll see whether…


00:58:51.04 Andy Coulson:

Invariably it goes to a politician doesn’t it the job?


00:58:54.09 Mark Sedwill:

Yeah, well it always has except for the first one who was Brit, it’s always been a politician. So I’m entirely philosophical, as I say, I’m flattered that people consider that I might be credible for it and if the opportunity arose as I joked on another interview, picking up a phrase that someone else might have used, if the ball came loose at the back of the scrum of course I would….


00:59:18.18 Andy Coulson:

That’s copyrighted that one Mark, that’s copyrighted.


00:59:23.03 Mark Sedwill:

Of course I’d be interested.


00:59:25.04 Andy Coulson:

Very good.


00:59:26.10 Mark Sedwill:

Well actually aside from that, who knows but aside from that I’m actually enjoying trying a different style of life. Putting together a portfolio of different activities, some in the private sector, some with charities, still doing some government work in chairing the G7 panel and the Atlantic Future Forum which is a security conference that we’ve established in the UK using the aircraft carriers as the venue. And I’m enjoying putting that jigsaw together and it’s a different way of operating to having a full time public service career but I’ve got another couple of decades of active working life to go and I’m really enjoying trying a different thing.


01:00:12.22 Andy Coulson:

Well unfortunately we don’t get a vote on Secretary General of NATO but if we did you could count on mine. And I suspect that a fair number of people who’ve listened to this podcast would also put their cross in the box. Look, I just want to say thank you, Mark, for talking to us today in the way that you have. I think it’s been an incredibly useful conversation for anyone who is involved in crisis management who’s trying to navigate a significant problem and you’ve navigated the most serious in a way that put public service first and foremost and the national interest right there. And so thank you for that. But I’d like to finish by asking you for your crisis cures, if I may? These are three things that you’ve leant on, three specific things, not another person, that you’ve leant on in the difficult moments. What comes to mind when I ask you?


01:01:12.19 Mark Sedwill:

Pizza would be the first and actually there’s a serious point behind that, I know it’s a serious question. But actually one of the things that you really have to try and do is keep people going. And often in a crisis people are really keen to be involved, want to do their best, recognise the responsibility and they can tire themselves out.


01:01:38.02 Andy Coulson:

You’ve got to tell us what pizza you order when you were in Number 10.


01:01:42.04 Mark Sedwill:

Well we always got a variety, I like a Diablo myself but we would always get a variety so that people could get their teeth into it.


01:01:52.13 Andy Coulson:

It’s that risk thing again, isn’t it?


01:01:55.12 Mark Sedwill:

I know it sounds a bit flippant but there is a serious point there. Just doing some of the small things that mean that you’re making sure that people are getting enough sleep, enough food, enough rest. They’re able to bring the best of themselves. You’re giving them permission to take time off and maintain their own resilience, is really important. And so when I think of that point I think of pizza because that’s a way of just capturing it.


01:02:24.20 Andy Coulson:

And the second?


01:02:27.11 Mark Sedwill:

Second, remember you’ve got two ears and one mouth, and there’s a reason for that. And so slow down, listen, make sure that you’re not only just listening, but listening actively. Making sure that you’re encouraging the quieter voices, those who are less likely to speak up unless encouraged, that you’re getting all of those inputs. And that you don’t jump, even under pressure of events, and the need to react swiftly, that you don’t jump to conclusions more quickly than you have to. That sometimes you have to go just a bit slower to go faster because you go faster if you get it right and then the decision can follow and be implemented and that’s all part of staying calm but you’re just forcing oneself to listen just to make sure that everyone’s had their chance to add their perspective as you’re making a decision is really important. And then of course, you expect everyone to, once the decision’s made, to get on with it.


01:03:30.21 Mark Sedwill:

And I think the third thing, this comes back to the point you were making earlier, is in any crisis you put it in the political context, but in any crisis communication isn’t just explaining what you’re doing, it’s part of managing the crisis. And therefore you’ve got to put communication, whether it’s inside the system or out to the public or up to the political level, whatever it might be, has got to be absolutely central to what you’re doing. And actually if you’re explaining what you’re doing, you’re making better decisions usually. And so don’t forget that communication is part of a crisis, it’s not just an annoying afterthought where you try and figure out what the media line is. It’s absolutely central to the way you approach it.


01:04:17.04 Andy Coulson:

Mark, thank you. That’s absolutely superb and thanks again for your time today, for what I think has been, from a crisis perspective, an absolutely invaluable conversation.


01:04:26.21 Mark Sedwill:

Thank you very much.


01:04:27.21 Andy Coulson:

Great stuff.


01:04:29.13 Andy Coulson:

This podcast was an absolute masterclass in crisis management. Although the stage Mark, Lord Sedwill has operated on is national, at times global, the lessons apply, I think, to anyone trying to navigate a proper problem. Mark is a man who found himself dealing with two of the biggest government crises of modern times, Brexit and of course the pandemic. But it was his previous roles across government, the military, the UN and intelligence, not that he will talk about that of course, that provided the muscle memory for him to step up when those big tests came in Number 10.


01:05:01.16 Andy Coulson:

His approach, in essence, was powerful in its simplicity: in crisis communicate more not less. Communication is the core of crisis management. Make sure everyone understands their job, including you, don’t try and play every position on the pitch. Understand that staying calm is contagious, how you behave and the words you use will impact how others behave and remember that when you’re talking or shouting you’re not learning. Sometimes the quietest person in the room has the best point to make.


01:05:30.08 Andy Coulson:

Mark was also clear that in crisis you must leave room for error, including your own. His admission that his analytical approach can sometimes mean he lacks empathy was revealing. But as Mark says, you won’t get everything right but when those mistakes happen, recognise them, make sure that you’ve absorbed them, if you like, and then move on. As I say, an episode packed with useful takeaways from a man whose career has been dedicated to public service at the sharp end.


01:05:59.04 Andy Coulson:

Thanks for listening to Crisis What Crisis? Feel free to send us your feedback. You’ll find our contact details and our show notes giving you the key insights from our guests at there are also links to our newsletter,  Facebook page and Instagram. There are more useful conversations on the way soon and if you enjoyed this podcast please do give us a rating and a review. Thanks again.




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