England’s riots: over-promising is a crisis management sin

The riots in London, Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Nottingham, Leeds and Liverpool have catapulted England into the spotlight around the world. Much talk has been about the timing – potentially disastrous, a year before the Olympics when England wants the world to visit – demonstrating how damaging, and far-reaching, the impact of a crisis can be.

The riots also occurred a little under a year before London’s mayoral election – opening up disagreements, on cuts to the police budget, between the Conservative government (struggling to balance the books) and the Conservative mayor for London Boris Johnson (seeking re-election) – and giving the Labour party (seeking to oust Boris Johnson) the best opportunity to turn the police cuts into an even hotter political topic.

One contentious issue (long-standing shortcomings in policing) led to a crisis (the riots) which created another (the risk to the Olympics) and another (jeopardising the outcome of an election).

And then prime minister David Cameron committed a crisis management sin. He over-promised.

Speaking in the House of Commons today, having recalled Parliament which was in recess for the summer, he said the government would “do whatever it takes to restore law and order and to rebuild communities”. A tall order but fair enough. He hasn’t set a time limit; he hasn’t specified how – he has not boxed himself in.

His words to “the lawless minority, the criminals who’ve taken what they can get” have created a problem.  He said, “We will track you down, we will find you, we will charge you, we will punish you. You will pay for what you have done.”

How on earth is he going to ensure that? Yes, some rioters and looters were arrested immediately and have already appeared in court (in a process that has been described as chaotic and over-stretched … in short, that’s another crisis). But the others – the people who might have been caught on CCTV cameras or mobile phones but who skidaddled at speed, and those who escaped being captured on camera and in person – can he guarantee they will all be tracked down, found, charged and punished? Of course not.

While the public might not hold him to account on these promises (though it is a risk, particularly if there are more civil disruptions) you can be sure that many of those who are not tracked down, found, charged and punished will gloat about their ability to evade the law. They might become local heroes and they might incite others to take part in lawless behaviour. One over-promise; one almighty crisis waiting to happen.

Demonstrating control and saying what you will do to prevent the occurrence from happening again are essential aspects of crisis management. So is then making sure you do what you said you would do.

David Cameron cannot fulfill his promise – and has exposed himself, his party and the government to new risks that could lead to another crisis… as if he did not already have plenty to grapple with.

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