Jim Preen gathers the opinions of a number of crisis management (CM) professionals from around the world on whether CM is becoming centralised, as suggested in a recent BCI report, and whether this is a positive development. Other emerging CM themes are also explored.
The new BCI crisis management report makes for interesting reading. Its over-arching theme suggests that CM is becoming increasingly centralised. Statistics in the report back this up with 81.3 percent of organizations that have a centralised approach reporting ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ crisis capabilities, compared to 68 percent who adopted a more regional approach.
Is this a step change or has crisis management been top down for a while and, if that’s the case, is it a good thing?
A concern might be that executives at HQ, who have little local knowledge of facts on the ground, are making decisions which might be at odds with what’s required. Particularly if the incident is taking place in another country.
Then of course there is the pandemic: what effect has that had on crisis management and business continuity? To try to answer these questions and to determine the latest trends in crisis management, it seemed a good moment to reach out to various crisis management practitioners to get their take.
First stop is Australia. Roger Christie is the MD of the Propel Group which specialises in social media. In his opinion it’s fine to centralise a crisis management response but he believes that execution must come from those in the know on the ground to avoid creating further issues. He worries that those further afield might miss context or nuance and that some stakeholders might be forgotten.
He prefers the ‘hub & spoke’ approach which employs a clear responsibility assignment matrix determining who has authority to do what and when.
Roger says: “The key thing for me is context and insight. Regional teams should be sucking up the intel, using their local knowledge to know what is/isn't relevant, and then sharing that filtered intel with HQ for decision making”.
He believes that region-specific social listening and reporting is gold, helping HQ to make smart choices and decisions.
Traveling back to the UK through many different time zones we find tech company boss Richard Stephenson at his offices in Lancashire. Richard runs YUDU, a publishing and crisis management firm. He has fallout from the pandemic in his sites and sees the COVID crisis as an exception not a rule.
He believes any rising-tide or slow burn crisis is much easier to plan and deal with than a sudden catastrophic event such as a terror attack or natural disaster.
He refers to terror experts who warn that we spend too much time focussing on the last attack method rather than the next which could be very different and more devastating. The enquiry into the 9/11 terror attacks in the US cited a failure of imagination as one of the reasons why such an event wasn’t anticipated.
Richard says: “The pandemic does require centralised crisis management as would a global cyber attack. But local crisis management teams should deal effectively with incidents such as flooding, fires, power outages, and any incident that might endanger local staff”.
He goes on: “The mantra should be central visibility of local CMT managed crises and a central capability for managing global crises”.
Lytham St Annes, Lancashire
Lingering in Lancashire we head West along the M55 motorway and find Andy Tomkinson, (Head of operational resilience at Grant Thornton) in the seaside town of Lytham St Annes. Many reading this will know Andy as a man of forthright opinions. When asked about crisis management he doesn’t disappoint.
He believes many of our preconceptions about crisis management are wrong. Particularly, if we see CM as a hierarchy with an emergency at the bottom of the ladder, and a catastrophe at the top. In Andy’s opinion the right way to look at crisis is along a timeline and not the severity of impact.
Andy says: “Events progress from emergency through incident to crisis. They can come on as a slow burn or they can come on suddenly. There are consistent features in crisis, which make sense along a developing timeline model, but are hard to understand in the hierarchy model”.
Here are Andy’s three crisis management rules of thumb.
- In any crisis there’s always a root cause, therefore it makes sense to align with risk management. Prevention is always better than a cure so CM should point to prevention and protection from inherent risk.
- The nature of a crisis is not the key factor as a response will typically follow the same principles. These are best seen as interventions along a timeline. If a fire is put out when it first sparks, it’s far easier to extinguish than once it’s taken hold. Same for cyber, disease, or reputational issues.
- The bigger the crisis, the less scrutiny an organization is under. During COVID everyone was in the same boat, so organizations didn’t have to make decisions because the WHO and governments were providing instructions. An individual crisis at an individual organization is a far sterner test as your competitors will be working normally and in Andy’s words, ‘may be pinching your market share’.
Birmingham, West Midlands
Jonathan Hemus, MD at Insignia is in an ebullient mood, his book ‘Crisis Proof – How to Prepare For The Worst Day Of Your Business Life’ was recently named ‘Specialist Business Book of the Year’ in the 2021 Business Book Awards.
He shares reservations about centralisation if it means all decision-making and micro-management come from head office.
He says: “My view remains that the centre should provide direction, strategic intent, guidance and support for those in the frontline, make the critical decisions and communicate with relevant stakeholders. Local teams (must be) empowered to take decisions and lead the response on the ground”.
He goes on: “I look for coordination, cohesion, consistency and integration from the centre to the front line”.
Rhode Island, USA
As befits a military man he cuts to the chase: “From our experience working with global companies, the collaborative CM approach is the only one that truly works. It comes down to understanding the local and regional nuances in partnership with local leadership teams.”
He’s concerned that as COVID has restricted senior executives’ ability to travel, many now don’t have sufficient knowledge about local issues. He says relationships can’t be built on Zoom and cites tennis legend Arthur Ashe: ‘Trust has to be earned and should come only after the passage of time.’
He makes one final intriguing comment: “I think some companies have gotten away from issues management and everything now seems to be a crisis”.
Crossing the pond from West to East we fetch up in the port city of Glasgow on the River Clyde. Charlie Maclean-Bristol from Plan B Consulting is completing a report on a simulation exercise he has just run.
His take on current crisis management is that it’s becoming more professional and procedural. He senses input from the US, particularly from FEMA, The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is part of Homeland Security. FEMA has a big impact on emergency planning in the US and as we know anything that happens in the US fetches up in the UK a short time later.
In this country Charlie cites JESIP as an influence. JESIP sets out a standard approach for emergency services multi-agency working and training. Many of the documents produced and the working practises promoted are freely available and businesses are starting to sit up and take notice.
He believes that localised crisis response will work for smaller organizations but will be of little use to much bigger firms.
He says: “If a region has an incident they should deal with it, but they should notify upwards that they are dealing with it. A major cyber attack needs to be sorted at the highest level, but it may well be that the local team will manage the problem on the ground”.
He goes on: “You don’t want every single issue escalated to the highest level. Local should deal with local incidents, but once it’s no longer a business-as-usual incident then it must be pushed up higher”.
City of London
He says: “I felt there was a gap in the process and the piece missing was a designated role for non-executive directors. To cover this, I created a Platinum addition to the structure as there’s sometimes a lack of understanding between Gold and the non-execs”.
Typically, the chairman is not the voice for an organization during an emergency, but as Michael says: “Non-execs are accountable to shareholders and their role on a day-to-day basis is to provide checks and balances, this role is no less important during a crisis”.
He goes on: “If there was a scenario where Gold was involved in fraud, or members were taken hostage, then the chairman might need to take on the role of Gold.
Success lies in good communications between all these levels”.
Fast and effective communication is a common theme shared among all those who participated in the writing of this article. When most of us worked in offices this was not a particular concern. If a crisis arose, it was often part of a crisis plan for staff, not present, to make their way in to work. The pandemic has changed all that with many people continuing to work from home.
Recently Transport for London (TfL) reported commuter tube trains running at around 54 percent of pre-pandemic capacity. Both business-as-usual and emergencies must be run, at least in part, in a virtual or online manner.
If a business is well organized, with engaged staff, it can operate in the online world very successfully. It therefore follows that emergencies can be handled in a similarly effective manner. However, crisis plans must be updated to reflect the hybrid working that has rapidly become the norm. Staff have had to think creatively in the last 18 months to avoid working in silos. This type of creative thinking can only be helpful in an emergency.
The proliferation of modern comms technology means there are now many ways to communicate. Specifying the appropriate channels for use during an incident, so that messages are not missed or confused, should be at the heart of any crisis comms plan. All plans need to be tested so it is equally important that all crisis simulation exercises are, at least in part, conducted virtually.
Jim Preen is Crisis Management Director at YUDU Sentinel. Jim designs and delivers crisis simulation exercises and is responsible for the company’s written material. Formerly a journalist, he worked at ABC News (US) where he covered the Gulf War and the Bosnian conflict. He won two Emmys while working at ABC. He lives at Vauxhall in central London.