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Terrorism is never far from the headlines and while the impact on human lives is, of course, the biggest and most important consequence of a terrorist incident, it is not the only one; businesses need to prepare for the potential impacts. Jonathan Hemus looks at five areas to focus on.

Businesses can feel the impact of a terrorist attack, either directly or indirectly, and the effect – human, operational and reputational - can be significant. Leaders of those businesses have a responsibility to ensure that the organization survives and continues to provide jobs for its people and products or services for its customers. 

Achieving this objective when confronted by the destruction and emotional impact of a terrorist attack presents a unique management challenge which requires planning, training and great leadership under intense pressure.

Here are five areas of focus to help ensure you are prepared to respond should the worst happen:

Scenario planning

Responding to a terrorist incident places unprecedented pressure on an organization to do and say the right thing against a backdrop of confusion and chaos. Without forethought, the likelihood of a well-executed response is extremely low. Scenario planning is a very effective foundation for developing your thinking and assessing your resources ahead of an incident.

Gather together the people within your organization who would be critical to your incident response, for example HR, security, communications and facilities management. With the group, walk through a pre-prepared terrorism scenario, considering at each stage:

  • The decisions you would make;
  • The actions you would take;
  • Roles and responsibilities;
  • The resources and capabilities required to enact your response.

Crucially, as a result of your structured discussion, capture:

  • Additional resource requirements (people, technology, kit etc);
  • Any missing information (plans, procedures, contact details etc);
  • Actions to be taken to reduce the likelihood of the event occurring;
  • Contingencies to be developed ahead of time to reduce impact should an incident occur.

Thorough scenario planning for a terrorist incident will identify the steps you need to take to ensure that knowledge, resources and capabilities are in place to minimise impact in the event of an incident. Not only that, it will help to build strong internal relationships and understanding across departments which will serve you well in the event of an incident.

Plan development

Scenario planning helps you rehearse your thinking and identify how to gear up for a major incident, but you must also have clear plans to guide your response. I suggest that the following core documents are needed:

Crisis management plan – a strategic plan to guide decision making and action planning by your senior team. The crisis management plan should also include guidance and materials related to crisis communication or else be accompanied by a separate crisis communication plan.

Emergency response plan – to be deployed in the immediate aftermath of an incident with the objective of preserving human life, property and resources. It will cover areas such as evacuation and invacuation (the safety policy for keeping people in the building during a dangerous incident outside).

Business continuity plan – designed to ensure your business is operational again at the earliest opportunity. This will include, for example, alternative working arrangements for staff who are unable to attend their normal place of work.

Your crisis management plan should be sufficiently flexible to guide your response to all major incidents (not just acts of terror). However, you should also consider turning learnings from your scenario planning into a checklist of actions, decisions and resources specifically related to terrorism.

Prioritise people planning

A terrorist incident brings with it an immediate need to care for and communicate with employees, customers and other stakeholders, and subsequently a requirement to continue to provide support as they recover from their experiences.

At a time of uncertainty, confusion and fear, employees will look to the people they trust to provide support, guidance and leadership. They will be asking themselves, “Do my bosses really care about what’s happened to me and do they have the ability to guide us through this major event?”. Business leaders and managers must act and communicate in ways which reassure their people that this is indeed the case.

There are things you can do beforehand to help meet this challenge:

Trauma counselling – identify organizations which can provide support and counselling to your people in the event of a major incident. Organizations of this kind will be under significant pressure in the aftermath of a terrorist incident so consider training members of your own team to support their efforts.

Communication – consider how you will communicate with your employees in the aftermath of a terrorist incident. What channels will you use? Are you able to reach them out of hours? Have managers been given training to communicate about sensitive matters? Do you have template materials to be tailored and deployed in the event of an incident?

Prepare for social media

Planning communication of all kinds is a top priority if you are to succeed in protecting your reputation following a terrorist incident. But recent events have shown the critical role of social media and you need to plan accordingly.

With thousands of messages, videos and images appearing on social media in the minutes and hours after an attack, how can you make sense of the information and ensure that your voice is heard? Here are some areas for consideration:

Follow trusted sources of information – the emergency services and government will use social media to communicate verified information and guidance about terrorist incidents. Identify and follow these credible sources to have access to reliable information in a crisis, and ignore speculation and rumour from less informed sources.

Monitoring – in the event of a major incident, you need to know what is being said about your organization (as well as the general situation). So, put in place the capability and resources to monitor social media ahead of time.

Deploy your own social media channels – establishing yourself as a credible voice among the cacophony of noise will help to reassure your stakeholders and protect your reputation. Social media can be used very effectively to communicate the latest situation and steps you are taking to address it. However, the pace and volume of social media means that you must allocate resources (technical and human), agree approval procedures and prepare template content before the event

Reinforce your social media policy – it is second nature for people to post their views, pictures and videos to social media, whatever the situation. Your employees are no different, but it is important to minimise their posting of inaccurate, insensitive or unhelpful content. This begins with the development and briefing of an employee social media policy which should be re-communicated to staff in the event of a terrorist incident.

Practice, practice, practice

Despite being based on the 44th Floor of the south tower, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co lost only six of its 2,700 employees as a result of the Twin Towers attack on September 11, 2001.  The foresight and actions of Rick Rescorla, vice president for corporate security at Morgan Stanley, were the key reasons why.

Rescorla was based at the Twin Towers in 1993 when a truck bomb was placed in the basement of the south tower. He was convinced that the next terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre would involve planes being deliberately flown into the two towers

Consequently, he conducted drill after drill, requiring staff to evacuate their desks on the 44th Floor on a regular basis.  When the planes hit the towers on September 11, Morgan Stanley employees evacuated the building quickly, whilst some staff at other businesses remained at their desks, unsure what to do. Rescorla himself led the evacuation and, tragically, perished as he headed back up the stairs to complete the evacuation.

His example is a powerful validation of the importance of rehearsing your crisis management plans. It is only by drilling your teams thoroughly and regularly that you can be confident they will do the right things under intense pressure.

Following Rescorla’s example, running regular building evacuations should be a fundamental element of your crisis drills, but certainly not the only one. Other important exercising and training includes:

  • Crisis management exercises to rehearse your team’s decision-making, action planning and communication against a realistic scenario;
  • Tactical decision-making exercises (TDXs) to develop decision making skills for those who will have to make big calls under intense pressure;
  • Crisis media training to ensure that your spokespeople have the skills and confidence to talk to reporters;
  • Frontliner training so that switchboard operators, call centre staff, receptionists and security guards understand their roles and responsibilities in a crisis.

Thinking the unthinkable

Contemplating the impact of a major terrorist incident on your organization is a deeply unsettling thing to think about. However, it is only by thoroughly planning and rehearsing your crisis management response that you can rest easy that you would protect not just your people, but also your reputation and business should the worst occur.

The author

Jonathan Hemus is managing director of Insignia, a company that provides crisis management planning, training and consultancy to help businesses successfully manage organization-threatening situations under intense pressure.

For more on how to prepare, manage and plan for terrorist attacks as an organization, you can sign up for Insignia’s webinar on Wednesday, January 31st.

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