Thursday, October 31, 2013

Corporate readiness for crisis

The crisis you don’t expect or plan for will be the one that’s likely to cause the most damage.  And while a lot of pundits believe that a good manager is automatically a good crisis manager, it is important to understand that many managers cannot cope with the stress, pressure and abnormal behaviour that occurs during a crisis. 

Most normal management behaviour is reversed.  One minute you are managing a business, the next minute you have to manage a crisis.  Different skills under different pressures.

How many managers can move rapidly from the normal pace of a business meeting to the hectic, urgent demanding pace of life and death decisions, evacuation, emotional trauma and split-second timing?

Containment is the key.  Managers who are prepared, rehearsed, educated, trained and aware are those that can make the transition when crisis hits and contain the situation.

If there is a single, critical feature to being prepared for crisis, it is in treating crisis management and recovery as an ongoing process.  Seeing it as an integral part of the company’s everyday business activities, not merely as a plan that is created, approved, then shelved until needed. 

It is a process that has the whole company - from site management to CEO and Board - trained, tested and involved in a crisis management plan that is integrated seamlessly across the whole organisation. And regularly monitored, reviewed and audited, just like any other quality control policy that is demanded by compliance factors in today’s business environment.

To achieve this, there are a number of critical features of a crisis plan that facilitates  speedy business resumption. Whether the crisis is an oil and chemical spill or explosion, a tainted food product or charges of business corruption, a crisis management and recovery plan must: 
  •     Have tactical decisions made at the  crisis location, and quickly. (This is where the public focus will be  initially.)
  •     Localise the response, while maximising corporate and strategic assistance.
  •     Provide training and support to give staff the skills and confidence so they can manage the early
    stage of a 
    crisis, and back them up with appropriate technology.
  •     Create a tailor-made plan around uniform standards, company-wide.
  •     Develop realistic simulation and training exercises.
  •     Start planning for recovery before a crisis occurs.
  •     Instil a company-wide recognition of the potential impact of a crisis.
What fundamentally distinguishes crisis-prepared, from crisis-prone organisations, is their overall cultural view of crisis management and recovery. 

Strategic actions, technical and structural response, communication initiatives and psychological support have to be part of an integrated management plan and process that immediately puts the organisation in charge of its own destiny.

This process must be a crisis management corporate preparedness program of total commitment by its executives and staff to key stakeholders.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sporting venue crises

While drugs in sport represent an escalating crisis for many sporting bodies, sporting venues also have a need for crisis management planning.  Thousands of people gathered in arenas, stadiums or theatres can be a crisis waiting to happen.  The ineffective evacuation management of these people in an emergency can turn the reputation of a sport or theatrical production into a horrific, memorable event that affects gate sales for many years to come.   

Emergency planning at the tactical level needs to be supported by strategic crisis management that provides an orderly and efficient planning process to identify, quantify, reduce and control significant high-level threats to protect the organisation and its future.

The British tragedy at Hillsborough was a terrible tragedy involving thousands of people in a mass of confusion and terror that was being televised live as it happened.  Five thousand Liverpool football fans watching a semi-final at the Hillsborough stadium were, because of over-crowding, put into a position of being unable to get through turnstiles.  The crowds were re-directed into a tunnel which forced them to an area that was virtually caged off.  Emergency gates were not open and crowds were pushed up against wire caging.  Many people were killed and injured and the media turned the tragedy into an even greater tragedy by printing dreadful pictures of victims’ suffering in the crush.   Rumour and innuendo related to the drunken state of the fans and the difficulty the police had to face in dealing with them.   In fact, the crowd was a victim of lack of planning and bureaucratic bungling.

The South Yorkshire Police did have a plan for re-routing the crowds, but the plan, rather than protecting people, was very much aimed at protecting the football ground from being invaded by people.  There was not a plan it seems for a major crisis of panic and chaos.      

In another sporting incident in Australia, a peaceful, annual international sailing classic, turned into one of the world’s most serious rescue operations in yachting history.  The Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race is held annually after Christmas.   

The yachts sailed out of picturesque Sydney Harbour on a sunny, beautiful day, but as they made their way along the East Coast of Australia, a shocking storm hit the 115 boats.  Winds of 80 knots whipped up huge waves. The yacht race became a race for survival as a huge rescue operation was mounted by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.   

Certainly plans were in place to assist the yacht race in rescue should some of the boats get into trouble, but no in-depth plans were in place to deal with mass havoc caused by wild seas, snapping masts and the tossing of many of the crews into the sea.    Thirty fixed wing aircraft and five Navy and Air Force aircraft, together with police and rescue helicopters, were joined by Australian Navy warships.    Six people were killed and crews were injured.  

The world watched through CNN and BBC television as the massive rescue took place.  In one particular piece of television coverage, a live camera on one of the yachts showed the intensity of the waves smashing on to the deck as the mast was snapped and one of the yacht’s personnel was swept over the side.              

The emergency plan for this race was without doubt responsible for saving many lives, but the investigation that followed asked the question of whether the race should have been abandoned earlier when it was known that the weather was going to develop to a critical situation. 

 Questions about the experience of the crews and the capability of individual crew members for dealing with the intensity of severe weather conditions were reviewed by coronial and yachting officials.  There was long legal discussion about whether the yacht race should have been cancelled.

Clearly the yacht race today has greatly improved plans for managing the worst case scenario, obviously providing contingency plans for response to threats that could harm people and the future of this sport.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Crisis agenda control - your organisation must be heard

Do you want the head of a SWAT team, a fire chief, or a corporate watchdog from a government agency speaking publicly on behalf of your company? Very often, many different outside service organisations and government departments can be involved in a crisis response.

 These groups can dominate your organisation’s location and, if not effectively managed, can become the face of your company, at the same time as dictating the mainstream of messages coming out of the event.  It is important to ensure that an organisation’s crisis plans incorporate ways and means of dealing with outside support groups working in the same response.    

In the response of TWA Flight 800 that was bound for Paris and literally crashed into the sea near Long Island, more than 50 disaster and emergency services operations and government agencies came together to initially deal with the disaster.  At least 20 agencies went on to investigate the event, deal with the pollution caused on the coastline, counsel friends and relatives, and work towards recovery.

The mayor of New York became intensely involved in advising next of kin, problems of environmental pollution and getting the message out to the US and international public.  The Coastguard was involved in underwater salvage.  Other Federal officers from a number of agencies were involved in the complex range of investigations.

This disaster became a major news item across the US for several months as many families and members of the public believed the handling of the whole situation was a crisis in itself.  Many of the post-incident evaluation sessions emphasised the need for greater collaboration between emergency services and government authorities.  All these organisations have their separate response plans which eventually need one common planning and communication thread.

Eric Jacoby Jr., Director of the New York State Emergency Management Office,  indicated there will be a number of changes in local government crisis management procedures following the response to the TWA Flight 800 crash.  He is working towards a greater linking of disaster and emergency policies for future crisis planning.

Reading the reports from the Contingency Planning Exchange Incorporated, it identified what TWA had to face was far more than an emergency. 

It was:

·        dealing with distraught families
·        managing an emotional public
·        coping with a huge press response
·        managing rumour and innuendo
·       coping with a large number of government enquiries
·       management of collecting evidence and finding the cause

Agendas run high in crises.  Political agendas, personal agendas, corporate agendas, emergency agendas, legal agendas.  In TWA’s case:

  • New York’s Mayor, Rudolph Guiliani, was concerned about notifying victims’ families, the environmental damage and telling the public.
  • The Coast Guard was concerned about recovering evidence from the water and dealing with retrieval of bodies and managing the area of water where the wreckage was located.
  • The New York Police Department were concerned about the huge security problems at JFK.  In addition to the normal airport traffic, there were literally hundreds of other people making enquiries.
  •  The FBI was concerned about the federal and international implications of terrorism.   
  •  Lawyers from around the United States wanted to represent the families and the businesses affected.
There were in fact 21 agencies involved in the investigation, cleaning up the beaches, security of the airport, investigations at the airport, counselling grief-stricken families.  Twenty one agencies who were dealing with the crisis management team at TWA.  Something like 2,000 people.  Five hundred media representatives set up operations at the airport and coastguard stations. 

The importance of crisis planning and communication was emphasised in all the post-incident evaluations. 

Planning and communication - two areas in which TWA was - quote “woefully inadequate” - said Mayor Guiliani on US television.  

TWA received criticism from many fronts.  As a result of much of the criticism and the Gore Commission for the US Congress, changes have been made to future crisis management strategies.

Pre-empt the worst case scenario for your organisation. Take control of the agenda in a crisis and make sure you are heard early and continually throughout the crisis response.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


Recently we conducted a survey of businesses, corporations and government to find out what their crisis management recovery program was like. Of those that had crisis management and recovery plans, 30% had not tested them in the last four years.  Not testing crisis management and recovery plans is as good as not having them. The likelihood of full recovery will be very low.
The worst kind of event can wipe out a plant, destroy vital information and virtually stop production, but it should not finish the business.  The minute a crisis is declared, the recovery phase runs parallel.  Alternative means of operation have to be put into action, customers need to be advised, suppliers need to be contacted, and employees have to be supported and brought into the picture early.  Assets and earnings have to be secured and brand reputation and corporate image need to be stabilised.

The transport industry places recovery and damage control high on their crisis management agenda.  Transport disasters have been the death knell of some transport companies.  Aside from Concorde and some specific aircraft, the only industry to actually die because of disasters is the airship industry.  In fact, there were only two disasters - the airship R101 and the Hindenberg.  And in real numbers, there was a combined death toll of less than 100.  Small numbers compared to the 1,403 lost on the Titanic.
In October 1930, the R101 left its mast in Bedfdordshire in the United Kingdom with 54 people aboard, loaded to the hilt.  The fittings on the airship included silver cutlery, potted palms and heavy Axminster carpeting.   

There were large supplies of the finest gourmet food and wine with plans for a banquet over Egypt.  It was also carrying more diesel oil than was needed. 

The airport of Le Bourget in France gave confirmation that the airship was one kilometre north of Beauvais.  Then came the report that the R101 had caught fire after not clearing a hill.  There were reports of a huge fire in the air and the sound of an explosion as the airship hit the ground and broke up.  The cause was never really clarified but it rapidly brought Britain’s airship industry to a close.

Germany persisted with airships, particularly with the magnificent Hindenberg, the ultimate passenger experience.   Magnificently prepared cabins, plush dining room, a library and even a smoking area.   This airship made flights to the United States and passengers relied on this as a regular form of transportation.

On 3 May 1937, the Hindenberg flew into her American landing area from Germany.  Families of passengers awaited at the Lakehurst Terminus.  The media were there.  A radio reporter, with his wire recorder, had decided that this was an interesting event to review.  He moved through the landing processes as the airship slowly lowered its bulk to the ground from the mooring mast.  Then, without any warning, there was a flash.  In the midst of this historic broadcast, the man, engulfed in emotion, screamed “it’s flashing, flashing, flashing terribly, it’s bursting into flames.”  This historical and frightening broadcast was one of the first on the spot broadcasts of an actual disaster in action. 

The crew of the Hindenberg did an outstanding job of helping injured passengers and crew from the burning inferno.  Thirty-six people died from a total of 97. 

This was the end of the airship industry.  The media gave the disaster world-wide headlines and the broadcast was aired on radio stations internationally.  Public outcry and fear was enormous. 

The airship industry reviewed its options but recovery was not one of them. Safety and lack of capability signed the death warrant.  The Germans removed other airships from their fleet and both the UK and Germany closed their factories and hangars.  It was all over.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

A crisis they said would never happen

Consider this scenario.

"It’s 3.30 am and a dull, crimson glow throbs on the black horizon.  The CEO looks hard across the city at his plant - one of the world’s biggest.  The company boasts  leadership in its field.  He is now wide awake.  Fifteen minutes ago, his General Manager Operations was on the phone: “There’s been an explosion.  It’s blown half the site out and some of our people have been killed.” 

He can see the empty freeway filling now with countless emergency vehicles - the flashing blue, orange and red lights trailing towards the city in a morbid celebration.  Both his home and mobile phones are ringing.  The leak of deadly gas is spreading to the many crowded cottages surrounding the plant.  This is the crisis they said wouldn’t happen here."

How typical is this scenario.  A successful corporation.  A known brand.  Now faced with a catastrophe that in just a few hours could reach the magnitude of an international disaster.  The nature and the scale of the problem is almost impossible to recover from.  There are very few, if any, strategic options.  And while their corporate business planning and marketing processes are the most sophisticated, the decision-making plan to save its soul may have been left too late.

Sounds like the Titanic or the Costa Concordia, doesn’t it?  Echoes of the BP oil spill.  The Lance Armstrong cycling crisis.  A stark reminder of the twin towers.  There is a familiar ring - a fatal flaw in response planning. 

It is astonishing, and ultimately unforgivable come the day, how many businesses and other organisations still say It can’t happen here.  Generally, we live in a society that does not discuss crisis. The It can’t happen here syndrome is everywhere. Too many organisations are simply not prepared for the worst case scenario. 

So it comes as a painful shock when they are confronted by a crisis head-on.  Inevitably, they can neither manage the situation, nor cope with the consequences.

Yet, it takes years to build a successful organisation, and it takes only minutes for a crisis to pull it apart.

And, while it’s a fact of life that success does not happen overnight, the corollary is that failure often does. Massive damage can be done to corporate reputation and brand, sometimes for ever.

We believe that every organisation needs a framework for managing the risk of a critical disruption and to build organisational resilience in its crisis management and recovery planning.

Early 2013 is an important time to review your readiness and resilience to face the worst case scenario.