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Crisis Response Journal Crisis Response Journal

Crisis? I'll know it when I see it

Posted on 12th April 2016 at 14:52pm

Welcome to the new CRJ Crisis Management blog, edited by Brian Dillon, where we’ll publish posts relevant to those concerned in managing the most challenging situations. The mantra is information for action – material relevant to help inform, support or generate debate.

We’re not foolish enough to profess to have all the answers and welcome contributions, so dive in and join us.

The mantra of this new blog is guidance - information for action (lightwise/123rf)

The first point though is to get a sense of what is meant by crisis management. This isn’t the forum for a full academic discourse, but equally if we’re going to blog about crisis management we should have an awareness of what we think we’re writing about. So far so good, but this isn’t as easy as it sounds.

A 1998 study found there were a bewildering 28 different definitions of crisis in the prevailing literature. In the intervening 18 years that number has probably increased. Indeed, crisis is often used interchangeably with terms such as emergency, disaster, major incident or even ‘Acts of God’. Each can be described to have its own particular set of features and nor are they the same, so confusion can be caused.

These terms are also prey to a degree of subjectivity in the reader’s mind, conjuring up their own set of characteristics and imagery, which will depend on experience and context. Perhaps then the starting point could be to consider how public authorities define crisis management?

At the executive level governments have, or should have, their own crisis machinery process whereby the full resources of the state can be brought to bear on any national emergency. In the UK, strategic direction can be identified in Civil Contingencies legislation and its accompanying guidance. But this is mute on defining crisis, as the emphasis is on emergencies that are described as: “Situations that threaten serious harm to the welfare, environment or security of the UK.”

The operational outworking of this is that emergencies stretch the services beyond normality, yet these are classified as major incidents and the term crisis is rarely used. Nevertheless, the emergency services are clearly in the crisis business; their methodology of using a defined strategy, command structure and effective tactical plans – underpinned by doctrine, training and exercising – is consistent with best practice in crisis management. However, examining crisis management through the lens of civil contingencies does have its limitations, not least that the focus of the authorities is on national level implications – what guidance then is available for corporate organisations?

An informative document, Crisis Management: Guidance and Good Practice (BSI1200) was published by the British Standards Institute and the UK Cabinet Office in 2014. Aimed at a strategic audience it defines crisis as an: “Abnormal and unstable situation threatening an organisation’s strategic objectives, reputation or viability.” This means an issue in excess of routine events that sit within standard business continuity procedures.

The United States interpretation of crisis management can be found in Standard 1600 published by the National Fire Protection Association on disaster and emergency management. This is similar to the UK’s BSI1200, although it categorises the impact in terms of: “Operations, reputation, market share, ability to do business or relationships with stakeholders.”

This has a more pronounced weighting towards commercial entities than the UK version and it describes crisis management as the ability of an entity to: “Manage incidents that have potential to cause significant security, financial or reputational impacts.”

An alternative and broader interpretation is applied by the German Federal authorities where a crisis is a: “Situation deviating from the normal state, which can occur at any time in spite of the preventive safeguards implemented in the company or government agency and which cannot be handled by the normal organisational and operational structures.” The notable distinction here is that it does not refer to impact, unlike the US or UK models. It goes on to specify that there cannot be procedural plans for a crisis, only general guidance, as each event is unique.

Undoubtedly similar and presumably different definitions exist elsewhere. Yet there are recurring themes: an abnormal event, requiring an extraordinary response and with the potential to cause significant impact. Unless bound to adhere to any particular definition you can take your pick of what suits.

To reiterate the opening point, we’re not going to expend time and effort discussing classifications. Indeed, the steer for this blog comes from that wonderful comment by Mr Justice Stewart in the US Supreme Court in 1964. In passing judgment on whether a pornographic motion picture constituted an obscene publication he said that: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

The same can be said for crisis management. Anyone who has experienced a crisis will know they had neither the time nor inclination to reach for the glossary to decide what type of incident they were in; they’ll have felt it, smelled it and most definitely lived it.

This blog is for those who have been in the hot seat and for those who have it all to come.

Brian Dillon MSc BSc (Hons), formerly with the Metropolitan Police Service, London, UK, is experienced in counter-terrorism operational response and contingency planning, including multi-agency incident command. He has represented the UK within the EU on CT specialist intervention methods and exercised with European and UK partners. Brian's consultancy can be found here, or follow him on Twitter

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