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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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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