Crisis Handling – are you prepared?23 Oct 2017
The current security threat has caused several companies to look anew at their crisis handling arrangements. Many recognise that not only has the potential for a crisis increased but also the degree of difficulty in handling them.
UK event companies are now operating in developing countries that would have been unthinkable locations for mainstream events a few years ago. Furthermore we now have to work in an environment where the expected standards of corporate responsibility and accountability are far higher and where failings can be communicated across the world in an instant. Simply put, companies and individuals, particularly at senior level, can quickly change from being the victim of circumstances beyond their control to the perpetrator of harm against those whom have suffered merely by failing to respond well to the crisis.
Crisis handling should be part of an event management team’s skill sets. Many would say that dealing with a crisis is just part of the job and to an extent that is true. Event staff, particularly the operations staff, have to be able to deal with the unexpected but it rather depends on your definition of a ‘crisis’ or ‘major incident’. It is not always that obvious.
Knowing when a crisis is a crisis.
Most definitions in the events industry centre around the idea that a situation is a crisis if it is outside the capability of the on-site team to deal with on their own. Imagine a stand collapse with no serious injuries: it is unfortunate and needs investigating but generally the on-site team would be expected to handle it. Imagine then the HSE decide to investigate and interview staff; the team might feel they need help and legal advice.
In the UK, a prosecution following an accident like that, even if the injuries were non-life changing, could still result in a £million plus fine. Poorly handled, the HSE investigation could turn into a crisis even if it did not start out that way.
Event cancellation – a crisis in itself?
The security threat in the UK and in many countries has, on occasion, been raised to the highest level following terrorist acts. A rise in the threat level on its own can constitute a crisis especially if the event might be cancelled as a result. The decision to go ahead with the event should be taken at senior level involving both the venue and the event organiser and that decision process needs to be managed and recorded. Those without a robust plan may find themselves left out of the decision loop.
Is your Crisis Management Plan in place?
Event companies that take this seriously have well established crisis handling plans and conduct regular scenario based training to ensure confidence about implementing these plans.
It is important not to confuse a Crisis Management Plan with the Emergency Procedures (in place to protect occupants of a venue from an imminent risk to life).
The fire evacuation procedures are the most obvious example. The Crisis Management Plan kicks in after you have evacuated the serious fire. Similarly, it is not to be confused with a Business Continuity Plan which is more long term and kicks in once the immediate crisis has passed. Continuing with a fire analogy, if there were a fire in a contractor’s warehouse, the crisis handling team would deal with the immediate issues of how to service current events. Following these immediate solutions, the business continuity process would look at how to restore the warehouse to normal function or find an alternative.
Plans will differ between companies and their function, however, all good plans recognise the need to separate the Strategic (Gold Level) decision making from the Operational (Silver Level) team which deals with the incident itself. For example in the event of a serious accident, the Silver Team would focus on managing and containing the incident itself whilst the Gold Team considers whether or not the event can continue that day or the next. Gold Team often has the unenviable task of considering whether to prioritise the safety of staff, visitors and other participants over the financial interests of key stakeholders.
Sometimes a crisis can arise before we have even deployed to site. This was the case for event organisers and contractors who had events immediately after the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels in 2015 and just after the attempted coup in Turkey in 2016.
Communications and staff welfare
Good media handling and communications are essential at all levels. All those involved need to understand the key protocols; there is no point in the media team carefully managing the narrative only for it to be undermined by staff posting comments on social media.
Staff welfare is another issue that often gets overlooked in plans. This can range from dealing with medical emergency down to very practical issues such as how to handle a situation where staff have to work on site for much longer than current resources allow. Again training and briefing is essential. Well prepared companies have arrangements in place to ensure that all staff are self-sufficient to an extent. A simple example: staff having sufficient essential medication on them to cope with a long stay on site to avoid adding a potential medical emergency to an already difficult situation.
Preparing for constraints and flexibility.
The nature of the events and exhibitions business is expeditionary, in other words teams are sent off to run or service an event. If the definition of a crisis is that we need outside help, that help could be in a different part of the country or a different country (and time zone) altogether. A good plan recognises these constraints and builds in flexibility. It may even be the case that a crisis arises on site in the early part of the tenancy when the senior team is in the air en route and not able to respond for many hours. Allowing for the inaccessibility of the senior team by, for example, having a 24/7 duty director system ready to respond to a call from on site.
No plan usually survives contact with reality and this is especially true in the events industry. Who in 2010 could have predicted that an Icelandic volcano would ground all air travel in western and northern Europe for six days?
A good plan, however, if it is robust yet flexible, can ensure that any company can mitigate potential losses and influence the narrative to protect the business and its key stakeholders.