Rising to the crisis management challenge

The way to survive crises within your council is to expect and plan for them, says Mark Fletcher-Brown.

Rising to the crisis management challenge

If your chief executive is charged with drug and drink offences, how can you stop this creating a crisis for your council?

The question, ‘What would most people expect us to do now?'  is a good first starting point. A crisis is a potential loss of the confidence that your citizens (and others) may have in you. That can be stemmed by doing what they would expect you to do.

Most of the time that probably means acting decisively. Don't faff around, kick it into the long grass or look like you're delaying.  Act. Suspend the individual and put out a statement saying so.

If you don't, then the spotlight could move onto you why are you not doing something? What have you got to hide? 

Then get to work rebuilding confidence, something hard won and easily lost.

Keep a Live List of issues that could be exploited to suggest that not everything is working. Always be able to justify your or others' actions. One copy of the list should suffice — anything that's shareable could be, might be and probably will be.

Make it your business to know about things that could undermine trust in your organisation. Has anyone else on the leadership team (or in the organisation) has been charged or cautioned for anything? If so, what happened? When the questions come have answers.

Journalists and others may try to link similar events to create a more compelling narrative, a bigger story, about the organisation as a whole or its leadership.  

A review may throw up issues on which you may need to act now. Again, if you don't, questions may be asked about why you didn't. Plausible deniability will only take you so far.

Often by the time there is a crisis, leaders are left flat-footed, struggling to get answers or dithering. The way to survive is to be crisis-ready — to expect and plan for them.

Keep a Live List of issues that could be exploited to suggest that not everything is working. Always be able to justify your or others' actions. One copy of the list should suffice — anything that's shareable could be, might be and probably will be.

Next, scenario-plan. Look at potential worst cases on key projects or issues that depend upon retaining the confidence of particular groups – members, MPs, key partners, key staff. Map out worst cases and develop ready-to-go plans. We put fire escapes in buildings because we know that at some point we're going to need to use them.

Third, remember every crisis is an opportunity. Ambitious people rarely waste them. They know that a good crisis can help nudge along change. Anyone who could benefit from a change of leadership, for example, might push out messages to suggest there is far more to any story than meets the eye.

Keep a note of people who are likely to exploit any crises you may face and how. Anyone with a grudge today could be milking your misstep tomorrow. Most people can find an axe they'd want to grind if the circumstances were to their potential advantage. A suspicious mind-set is not unhelpful here. Forewarned is forearmed.

Next, practice. Put your organisation through regular mock crises, not just desk top exercises. Don't warn people in advance. Spring ‘events' on them and see how they react. Then learn and improve.

You don't want to find out that key people can't cope with badgering questions on live radio or in front of the press in real time. Better to know in advance that they sweat and stutter under pressure. Everything can be improved. Adrenaline will enhance some people's performance but destroy others.

Finally, keep in mind the rules of the game: the sector is more important than the organisation; the organisation more important than the department; the department more important than the individual; and some individuals are more important than others. You can break these rules but you may have to pay a hefty price.

If you don't arrest the loss of confidence at the individual level, then it will bleed away rapidly further up the tree. A queue of people outside a single bank saying they can't get their money out can undermine the banking sector. Fear is contagious.

Leaders don't always get opportunities to demonstrate clearly how pivotal they are. Those who are attuned to how others see the world, often know what to do. But if they don't, the next crisis could be their last.

Mark Fletcher-Brown is a former communications consultant 


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