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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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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The Met Police – is what they say what they mean?

The response from the Metropolitan police to the anti-Conservative Party student riots in London yesterday raises some interesting issues.

The commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, made a statement on television last night  in which he apologised for the Met’s inadequate response to the rioters, pledged to find out what went wrong and promised to do everything possible to make sure it didn’t happen again. His tone, demeanour and words were exactly right. Top marks.

Today not only has the government criticised the Met for its failure to expect the unexpected but the Met has also let itself down. Its website does not include the commissioner’s comments.

Instead, it carries a short, sharp, shock of a statement more or less absolving itself of responsibility because they had been given duff gen. It was going to be peaceful, they had been told by the organisers, so they took a minimalist approach. [http://ow.ly/38qZ4]  They have also added an even shorter statement about the 50 arrests made as a result. [http://ow.ly/38rKP]

And that’s it.

So, is it conciliatory or bullish? Has it apologised or passed the buck? Is it only interested in arrests and self-serving back-covering – or in improving its service?

During a crisis, press officers will be under huge pressure. The volume of calls will be overwhelming; time will slip through fingers. Everyone will run on empty – or biscuits that result in short bursts of energy (which might make them feel invincible) followed by long slumps of exhaustion (when the easiest task will be too much hard work).

But someone, whether wired or tired, needs to be responsible for keeping up the flow of information and for ensuring it reflects the business’s position.

When a chief exec speaks direct to camera or on radio, rather than on paper with words in quotation marks, producing a transcript or putting the video or recording on the website is an essential task. Otherwise its absence will speak louder than words.

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