Managing a Crisis: what lessons should we learn?

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One of the most interesting features of working in the travel industry is that almost everything that happens anywhere in the world affects travel and tourism. There are more than 1 billion international tourists worldwide – and around 50 million leisure trips made by British citizens, if you ignore business travel. As a result, most parts of the world will be visited by Brits at some stage in the year – and therefore anything that happens almost anywhere has a UK angle. This means that the Foreign Office needs to get involved in almost every international incident, and some travel business somewhere in the UK will be worrying about the impacts on their customers. In addition, in any business which involves moving people, things can go wrong, and problems will need addressing.


As a result, the travel industry should be better prepared than most when something comes along to disrupt our daily lives. Having worked in large travel businesses, I would say that this is largely true, but I still believe that we have a lot to learn, and many areas in which we could improve how we respond to crises. I also think that this is an area where the travel industry could actually teach others how to do it better.


In recent weeks, I have found myself thinking a lot about this topic, and have come up with a series of principles on what constitutes a good response in times of crisis. In practice, these take a lot more than a short blog to explain – and I would be very happy to work with any business to develop these further, but the Cooper Guide to Crisis Management starts with the following.


Crises need dedicated resource – management should not take place off the side of people’s desks – and a dedicated space to work from. For most people, it is much easier to work in familiar surroundings, so the temptation is always to stay there – and save the hassle of activating a dedicated space. The reality is that there are far too many distractions when you take this approach – and the quicker that a separate location is used, the better. The requirements for that dedicated space are too detailed to address in this, but it is fair to say that you need to plan that space carefully.


Businesses fail to move to crisis mode quickly enough – and try to keep as Business As Usual. As a related point, those businesses that have a dedicated Duty Office or similar often think that it is preferable to keep working through that Duty Office. At the end of the day, there is significant business disruption in going into crisis mode, so many think that it is easier to avoid. The reality is that once a crisis affects a business, it can be all encompassing. The lost hours at the start in not moving to crisis mode may never be recovered, which can cause significant reputational and financial damage. In practice, you need to have some clear means of identifying when an incident becomes a crisis, and needs to be dealt with in crisis mode.


Media and external information now moves more quickly than business information – you will struggle to keep up. Many observers have commented on the speed of information flow now – it takes a minute to record and upload a video on social media – and not much longer for the mainstream media to identify an interesting story with live footage. The first you may be aware that your business is affected by a coach crash is when you see photos of the coach on Twitter – which is unnerving, to say the least! This emphasises the importance of preparation, so at least you can have some form of holding position ready for almost any eventuality. The challenge of speedy information flow is that we lose the time to think, and a quick off the cuff response can be very damaging in the long term. It’s so much better to have made some preparation for the risks which may affect your business.


Crisis leadership needs to be command and control – those involved want clear direction and instructions. In a world where management by consensus and through team work is increasingly the norm, we can forget that sometimes there is a place for command and control. For many people involved in dealing with a crisis, what is happening is outside their normal experience, and they therefore look to the person leading them to give a decisive lead. I have always felt that the military understand and deal with crises better than most, and much of this is as a result of their clear structure for doing so, as well as people who are used to an environment where they need to obey orders. That is not to say that a dictatorial style is the best – no-one knows everything, and failing to listen to colleagues frequently leads to decisions based on prejudice, not reasoning.


You should always have a plan, to provide structure – but don’t expect any crisis to follow the plan exactly. I have always loved quotations, and whilst there is an issue about whether Churchill or Benjamin Franklin coined this phrase, it is absolutely true that “He who fails to plan, plans to fail”. The reality is that however thorough you are, and however much you try to predict what may befall your business, there is bound to be something different. Who could have predicted that a volcanic eruption would disrupt so much aviation in the Northern Hemisphere? However, unless you have given some consideration as to what you might do if a crisis does occur, then you are going to be spending a lot of time running round like a headless chicken asking yourself what you need to do next.  Getting a plan and a basic process documented is both good practice, and an essential tool for when something does happen. It is rare that a business can follow the plan precisely, but it should act as a strong pointer as to what needs to be done.


Any plan should be tested regularly, and lessons learned and implemented from those tests. The only way that you really know whether your plan is the right one, and will work in practice is to test it. Crisis simulations tend to be time consuming and it is always easier to say that there are things happening in a business which take precedence. However, the last experience anyone wants is to realise in the middle of a crisis that a fundamental part of the plan doesn’t work. Testing should therefore take place regularly – at least annually, and equally importantly, anything learned needs to be incorporated into an updated version of the plan. If a business has experienced a crisis in the past year, it is sometimes tempting to say that as the plan has been tested in practice, no further simulation is required. That temptation needs to be avoided. No two crises are exactly the same, and the more prepared a business is, the better.


Plans go wrong at the points of hand off – it’s easier to control when you are responsible for everything, but that is not going to happen. It is easy to forget that you are never going to be in control of all aspects of managing any crisis. There will always be both internal and external interactions. You may, for example, be working with medical insurers and their assistance companies to deal with injured customers. It is common for mistakes to occur when more than one party is involved – assumptions are made as to who is addressing which issues, and you need absolute clarity on who is responsible for which aspects. Your plan will rarely be able to address that point.


Those involved in managing a crisis forget about the need to rest – and that can lead to bad decisions. There needs to be a handover process. It is easy to get caught up in an adrenaline rush, and keep working beyond the sensible limits of your body. Tired minds make bad decisions, and the way your mind works when it is experiencing lack of sleep has been compared to having a psychotic episode. You may be lucky, and be able to close down an incident room for 6 hours or so at a night-time, but equally, that may not be possible. You therefore need to ensure that you have planned your resources to ensure that teams can be rotated. This should happen at the start of any crisis.


Contact lists are rarely fully up to date – and it can be difficult to contact the right people. One of the joys of modern technology is that it should be very easy to stay in touch with your key contacts. However, people do move on, and phone numbers may change. It is a pain to do, but every business should give responsibility to one person for keeping all contact lists right up to date – and this probably involves checking the key contacts monthly. That can be easier to do for internal contact numbers, but often gets overlooked for external contacts.


Never under-estimate the admin support that you will need. I will end my list of rules with one of my many hobby horses. Even though most of us are proficient in typing and other comms now, it is always surprising just how much basic admin support is needed in any crisis – whether that be in ensuring that everyone is fed and watered, or in making sure that a proper log is kept of what is happening and when. Making sure that the admin team is properly resourced is often overlooked, and it should not be.


Whilst these principles don’t provide all the answers, if you have properly considered these points, you should be on the front row of the grid when it comes to dealing with any crisis. If you are not, taking the motor racing analogy further, trying to force your way through the field can be difficult and time consuming – and time is the luxury that you very rarely have in dealing with any crisis.