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Crisis management: Prepare for the worst Chris Patey

Plan for a crisis, prepare for the worst, practise your response and be prepared to show leadership.

Although the media can give us a hysterical impression of the calamities facing the world, it merely amplifies the unexpected situations that can strike anywhere and can cause serious problems for the unprepared.

So far 2015 has seen the TransAsia plane crash in Taiwan; financial instability caused by the wrangling between Greece and the rest of the Eurozone; terrorist incidents in Paris and Copenhagen; and the ongoing chaos in trouble spots such as Nigeria, Ukraine, the Middle East and Libya.

Direct threats; such as climate change, terrorism, transport accidents and natural disasters can cause substantial harm to built assets and their inhabitants, while indirect threats, such as negative PR, especially in this age of social media, can cause huge reputational problems before facts are even established.

Given this, it is no wonder that engineers are increasingly asked to provide some level of risk or crisis management consultancy alongside their usual design services, and this is a trend that is likely to continue.

New regulations, such as BS 11200:2014 and other associated ISO standards for IT Security and Business Continuity are coupled with Business Continuity Institute good practice to provide guidance on the strategic advice needed. Clear strategies are pivotal in enabling clients to manage risk associated with infrastructure assets or systems.

While crisis management strategies will vary, there are four key principles that should be kept in mind:

1. Leadership comes from the top

Leaders need to be effective and visible at times of crisis, both by internal staff and, where necessary, by external observers. A case in point comes from the airline industry, which has seen a number of disasters recently. Two are easily comparable: the loss of a Malaysian Airlines flight in March 2014 and the Air Asia plane crash in December 2014. Both were tragic events with the loss of hundreds of lives. However, the visible involvement of Air Asia’s CEO from the start of the crisis was clearly intended to gain control of the situation at a very early stage and to help mitigate any negative media reaction to the disaster.

2. Communicate effectively

The example above highlights another principle of crisis management, which is good public relations. When handling a crisis it is easy for an organisation to become engrossed in internal firefighting. However, the public and the organisation’s staff will be looking for answers, and the media and social networks, in the absence of information, will quickly develop their own narrative which can be inaccurate and damaging. Any good crisis management plan must take account of public communications; what messages you want to get out, how to deliver them, when and to whom they should be passed and above all these messages must keep control of what is being expressed.

3. Consistent preparation

In order to deal with a crisis and recover effectively, consistency is needed between preparation planning and the response. It is important to have clear structures and roles and responsibilities within the response team. The team in turn must be supported by a good information management structure. Training and ‘dry run’ exercises are essential to provide a competent team that knows how to make decisions and take action when it matters. A part of the skills set is maintaining records of actions taken, together with the decision-making rationale. This allows for valuable post-crisis analysis that increases the team’s knowledge and competence during the crucial time of a genuine crisis.

4. Review regularly

The fourth key principle is that crisis management plans are not designed to be stagnant; they have to evolve to suit changing circumstances. Crucially it is imperative that any mistakes encountered in training or in live events are understood and changes are made to the plan to capture what has been learnt in order to prevent any recurrence.

Staff within an organisation will come and go. Buildings may change as a result of maintenance and upgrades. An organisation’s risks might change as its interests move from sector to sector or country to country. Over time – sometimes a very short amount of time – an organisation can evolve in response to market conditions to look very different. Risk is also shaped by political and environmental changes. A crisis management plan therefore must be regarded as a live document to be continuously updated to take account of any of these changes.

A crisis is defined as ‘an abnormal and unstable situation that threatens the organisation’s strategic objectives, reputation or viability’. They are difficult to mitigate against and the outcome is never guaranteed. But a strong and embedded crisis management capability gives an organisation the necessary tools to reduce exposure to risk and to respond competently.

Social and physical infrastructure systems are increasingly interdependent and are coming under ever greater strain. At the same time, we inhabit a world facing a new range of natural and man-made threats. Preparation and implementation of a crisis management plan may not avert unforeseen events, but will help owners and operators to deal with them when they occur.

Whether existing assets or a new dream project, it helps to think the worst.

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