Written by Michael Jackson, Global Security Advisor with International (Humanitarian) Organisation
For organisations operating in a global and often inter-dependent commercial environment, the onset of a major crisis has the potential to have a significant human, operational, and reputational impact. Whether the crisis is caused by a natural or manmade disaster; a terrorist attack; or an act of criminality, most organisations will have some form of Crisis Management Team (CMT) that will convene and respond to the event. Moreover, CMTs often have the opportunity for scenario training, where event simulation can test the system of response that is in place. This is a critical part of crisis preparedness for any organisation, especially in a global context where a crisis may occur on one continent, but is managed remotely from another. While every crisis differs in terms of their complexity and the challenges that they produce, there are a number of key principles that underpin effective crisis management response.
The critical role that good information management plays in crisis response cannot be overstated. Key actions and decisions will be strongly influenced by the available information. In complex and protracted incidents, information management is best dealt with through the establishment of a stand-alone Information or Intelligence Cell, preferably composed of a skilled analyst and evaluator. The Cell’s role is firstly, to identify the key sources of information, such as background to the incident or event; background of those involved; monitoring media outputs, etc. Once gathered, the Intelligence Cell will process and evaluate the information and will then prioritise it on the basis of the action required. The final element of this information management system is to present it coherently to the relevant decision-maker.
A structured approach should be taken to all decision-making during a crisis. As information is gathered and presented, decision-makers can develop and formulate a strategy based both on the risk imperative present at a particular time, and on the decision-maker’s organisational policy and powers. Through this process, workable options can be identified and implemented. Each decision made and action taken will inevitably have an impact on the incident or event, and this will feed into the information gathering cycle, and consequently back into the decision-making process. Key decisions and the rationale for them should be recorded at the time of making or as soon as possible afterwards.
Command and Control
In managing a major crisis, a clear and unambiguous command structure is essential for an organisation to respond effectively. There are three distinct levels of command during crises: Strategic; Operational; and Tactical. At Strategic level (normally the Senior Management Team and/or the Board of Directors), an over-arching strategy is developed to deal with the crisis based on the organisation’s policy and procedures. An example of a strategic decision would be to establish an overall objective of peaceful resolution through negotiation during a kidnap or extortion case. Resource allocation and logistical support is also a key strategic responsibility; as is a continual review and oversight of the crisis response operation.
Generally, the operational responsibility for managing a crisis is based at senior in-country management level. At this level, the strategic objectives set are operationalised and implemented. The operational element directs how resources and actions are coordinated and used at a tactical level to achieve the desired outcome. Operational command is the link between the strategic and tactical components.
The human interface of any on-going crisis or event will primarily be with the victim’s family, and it is important that a sensitive and supportive relationship is established between them and the organisation involved. A dedicated family liaison person is the preferred option, as this will facilitate the two-way timely flow of information to and from the family. The selection of the appropriate person to fulfil this role is critical, and many organisations have specially trained staff to liaise with victims’ families during major crisis or events.
The reality of any major crisis is that it automatically becomes a media event on a number of different levels. The speed and intrusive nature of social media means that information relating to an incident or event can often be widely relayed, simultaneous to the event itself. For organisations managing a crisis, the impact of this is significant and far-reaching. For instance, the preferred option of personal notification to families/relatives of victims may well be undermined and or indeed made redundant by modern communications, where victims’ relatives learn of the event long before it is possible to reach them in person. This reality may well force organisations to rethink or refine their approach to initial family notification.
The mainstream media interest in the crisis and its management will be intense, particularly in the early stages. Most organisations will have a trained and skilled Media or Communications Officer, and where possible they should be appointed as a liaison person with media outlets. It is important to remember that any public statement or media release (if one is to be made at all) will have a direct impact on any on-going incident or event. Consequently, the content, timing, and potential impact of all organisational media releases should be carefully considered by the CMT. It should also be remembered that media management of an incident includes the post-incident/event phase.
Crisis Management Team (CMT)
In managing a crisis, organisations need to ensure that their established CMT responds effectively for the duration of the crisis. In addition to the obvious activities outlined above, a critical part of the CMT role is to use so-called ‘downtime’ effectively. During less intense periods of crisis response activity, it is crucial that the CMT ‘brainstorm’ by critically reviewing information received and actions already taken, as well as identifying the ‘what ifs’ or contingencies that may arise during the next phase of the crisis. This exercise in review and anticipation allows the CMT to better reflect on a broader, more objective level than is possible during intense decision-making activities or critical periods. Equally important is the resilience of the CMT in managing a prolonged or protracted crisis. Early planning to ensure the CMT’s resilience should include the following: the provision of an appropriate environment within which to operate (adequate office space; protection from unnecessary disturbance; good communications; stationery and white boards; etc); adequate support staff; transport and logistics; provision of refreshments; and rest and rotation of members.
Post Incident Process
Following a major crisis or event, the victims, and also those who respond to the crisis can experience a negative physical and/or emotional reaction. Therefore, it is important that organisations make available the appropriate physical and psychological support to all involved. Often this means early in-country medical and psychological support for victims; victim family support; and support to those who responded to or managed the crisis. In addition, a post-incident debrief should be held at the appropriate time, focussing on how the crisis was managed and to determine the effectiveness or otherwise of the response, thereby identifying any corrective action that may be necessary. The timing of the debrief will depend on the particular circumstances of the event and its aftermath. Where other parties, organisations, or agencies were involved, the inter-agency coordination aspect of the response should also be reviewed.