Crisis management and the importance of consultation

The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo)’s knee-jerk objection to the news that the prime minister has invited a US expert to give advice on tackling gang culture raises an important aspect of good crisis management – the need to consult specialists.

The police force and its leaders are, inevitably, feeling sensitive and demoralised. They have had to cope with two significant resignations over phone hacking at the News of the World; the pressure of responding to the recent riots; the IPCC’s initial findings during its review of their actions in relation to the death of Mark Duggan (which led to the riots); and being attacked verbally, physically and reputationally. No wonder they feel vulnerable.

But this is no time to let your emotions get the better of you, personally or corporately. Like any organisation in good times, the police force is not perfect. There is scope for improvement and retreating into a bunker of self-protection is not good enough. Like any organisation in crisis, it has a choice: fight or flight. Objecting to gaining information from another country’s experience is the equivalent of flight.

As for Sir Hugh Orde’s criticism that seeking advice from US police expert Bill Bratton can be discredited because the US still has 400 gangs, this not only sounds desperately defensive; it also illustrates the danger of playing the numbers game. What is the proportion of US gangs in relation to its size, compared with the number of gangs here in relation to our size?  And how do you count the number of gangs anyway – when they seem to merge, disband or reform in a somewhat fluid way depending on the charisma of their leaders, the opportunities, the reasons, the motives, the mood, the triggers. The US is bound to have more gangs than us but it doesn’t necessarily show that the US police is ineffective; it could just as easily show how much more experience the US police has of tackling gang culture.

In short, the police force should have invited advice from others in similar situations – not left it to the government to take action. It should now welcome that move.

In the immediate aftermath of a crisis, it is very easy for any organisation, business or individual to retreat from potential criticism, to hide from the spotlight and to look inwards for ideas and direction. Discussion must take place internally (about what went right, what went wrong and what could have been done better – against your crisis management plan and the options you considered as the crisis unfolded) but if you only consult internally, you will only gain a narrow, limited – and potentially over-cautious, self-interested, self-supporting and self-serving – perspective. You need to look broadly and consider numerous options – for urgent or immediate actions, for ways of minimising and mitigating risks, and for devising a longer-term strategy. You must look at it in relation to others’ crises – as experienced by those others.

Let’s remember that the benchmark-setting Chilean government consulted NASA not on how to get the miners out of a tight spot – but how to help them survive for a long time in one. NASA, which has been dealing with that challenge since the late 1950s, was bound to have some valuable insights and experiences. Consulting it was both inspired and expedient. Consulting Bratton is more obvious than inspired – but just as expedient.

A word of warning: it is just as important not to over-consult. It is tempting to ask everyone for a view but, in the early phase of a crisis, you need to make good decisions fast. Consult a small core group – those essential to running the crisis and protecting the organisation’s reputation plus involved specialists. Leave wider consultation, particularly internally, till later. Yes, someone must listen to the ground to gauge opinion – and report on it – but during the initial phase of a crisis leaders must assume a command and control approach. As the organisation moves into recovery – and reviewing its crisis plan – consulting more widely makes sense. At that point, if not earlier, it never makes sense to turn down the chance to benefit from others’ experiences and hindsight.

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Rescuing the Chilean miners – exceptionally exemplary crisis management

Everyone involved in crisis management can only have watched in awe as the Chilean miners’ ordeal unfolded. With only a few blips which, as the last few miners are being brought to the surface, now seem inconsequential, it has gone down as a supreme example of What To Do.

At almost every stage the response has been measured and considered. Every aspect of the miners’ welfare was thought-through in detail, while they were underground, as decisions were made about their rescue, during their nerve-wracking journey through the shaft, when they emerged above the surface, on their way to hospital, and (as has been announced several times) as they rehabilitate – to daylight and daily life.

So, too, has been the management of the emergence of each miner. Seeing close relatives walking slowly to the shaft, accompanied by a female minder in a journey timed to end a few minutes before the phoenix capsule emerges, joining a group which includes the Chilean president and his wife, has been like watching the world’s best choreography. Everyone playing a part and everyone in their place, the spotlight playing on each rescued miner first, their closest family next and with everyone else a minor part of the chorus.

Meanwhile, concerted hard work is being done by a large team – nameless and faceless, above ground and below – of people monitoring the equipment, managing each descent and ascent of the capsule, making sure that each trip is as risk-free as possible.

And so it has been from the start of the crisis – and more particularly, from the 17th day afterwards when the world discovered that the miners were still alive. Responsibility was taken at senior level (you can’t get higher than the president). Statements were circumspect, expressing cautious hope without raising expectations. Communication was maintained, revealing appropriate details without resorting to platitudes or flannel. Specialist and expert help was sought and taken (rare in itself). No expense was spared to ensure, as far as was possible, a successful outcome.

If a crisis management expert were to recommend that a crisis management plan should contain the level of detail we have seen played out in Chile, he or she would be dismissed as obsessive. Yet it is only when the fine details are considered, and planned for, that a plan becomes valuable. While no crisis ever goes to plan (though this crisis has come very close), it is only when you have a detailed plan that you have the leeway to amend it to fit the circumstances.

It seems churlish to mention the blips. The most striking was the slowness of the mining company, and the government, to apologise for the accident. Next was an announcement that the miners would be brought up within 48 hours when it was clear to observers that this was speculation. No one knew when the equipment would be deemed fit for purpose; it was too soon to set a time; the deadline was extended. Then there were moments of jubilation from crisis workers as milestones were reached. Yes, emotion was bound to spill over in such tense situations (we are, after all, human) but, with no miners rescued, it was too soon for such a public display of celebration.

If the outcome had been different – and as I type this the last miner, Luis Urzua, has emerged but the eight strong support team is still underground – these moments would be deeply regretted. Staying measured and calm is a fundamental aspect of crisis management.

But this is nit-picking. From accepting NASA’s advice on how to support people trapped in confined spaces to the president’s candid admission that the government had been at fault for not having more stringent controls governing mining, this crisis has set a new standard for crisis management.

Now all the Chilean president needs to do is fulfil his promises. Let’s hope that doesn’t lead to a whole new crisis.

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