The International Writers Magazine: Diary of an Honorary Consul
Diaries Part II
ManagementI love that phrase, Crisis Management.
Years ago - here I go again - on one of the many management courses
I attended throughout my short lifespan, I remember one that included
a lecture on how to manage a crisis.
The tutor stood
before the class and said, the CEO has just announced the year-end
figures of the company. Great losses. Next years plan is to reduce
the staff by 20% and increase production by 40%. You are all heads of
a department. He handed each one of us a different area of responsibility
with fictitious budgetary and other figures. You all
have to meet as a board of directors and sort it out. The company has
a crisis on its hands! He set us up in small groups to role act
our designations and get on with the lesson. Well that was a long time
In todays corporate world nothing has changed. In fact Id
say that most boards are in a constant crisis management mode as played
out by all of us when we were students. Industry, stock markets, financial
assessors, lawyers and directors are probably so used to it by now that
I would bet that plans based on crisis management are used when the
company is doing OK! But in consular work, the situation is entirely
different. When crises and plans are discussed and implemented we are
referring to those that are affected by real live situations
involving human beings. In general, there are two kinds of crisis. Those
that are anticipated and can be planned well in advance and those that
are not. That simple. Then we have the magnitude of the crisis that
could involve the whole network throughout the world. These latter cases
are generally totally unexpected.
The world of sport has a great bearing on consular activity. Whenever
major sporting events, or even smaller ones take place whereby a large
crowd of British citizens descend upon the venue that is held outside
the United Kingdom, consular planning is usually prepared beforehand.
Whether it is the Olympic games, or a rugby match between England and
France, the consular hotline is open from day one. From sport we move
on to cultural fares, international expositions, rock concerts and possible
conferences that would attract an unusual number of non-residents, the
same line of action is put into place. All these events are studied
carefully. Statistics based on past experience are analysed, information
is passed on to the consular posts that could be involved and eventually
meetings are held with all the different authorities or institutions,
such as travel agents, police, immigration and local city council officials
to piece together the final plan. In most cases pre-event planning avoids
major problems, even the unexpected ones. The whole set up is considered
crisis management planning.
From the pre-warned events we move on to the sudden tragedy situation.
A bus crashes in the Middle East with various dead and wounded Brits.
A terrorist attempt in a night club or even worse, the latest Tsunami
in the Far East, the whole consular division of the Foreign Office is
geared, to the best of its ability to act immediately in any one of
these cases. There are two factors to take into account. One is the
remoteness of the area and the other is the actual coverage on the ground.
A horror story could develop in the middle of a civilized country and
near to a well-staffed consular post. Such was the case of the recent
Madrid train bombings. No Brit was involved but a large consular section
was available on hand to trigger off a crisis management plan. The Tsunami
disaster overwhelmed almost every country on this planet that had tourists
visiting all the areas. The Northern Europeans were hit very badly as
far as number of casualties amongst their citizens were concerned. Nevertheless,
in a case like this, every possible plug is pulled out and every available
spare consular human is taken off routine work and placed
at the disposal of the crisis management team.
What are the main issues? When any citizen of any county travels abroad
he or she is at risk from a number of different areas that would not
normally come into play in the home country. Language barriers, unfamiliar
customs, monetary availability, medical facilities and above all, lack
of legal knowledge when faced with a police or immigration problem.
Most people are sensible enough to take all the precautions and inform
themselves before they go abroad. Generally speaking, and within the
international tourist arena, travel agencies, airlines and governmental
foreign offices are sufficiently helpful to guide anyone travelling
abroad. So what problems could arise?
They range from the unexpected loss or theft of money and documents
to been taken ill or being involved in an accident. Consular posts are
ready to assist in advice on how to cope with the problem such as methods
of receiving emergency funds to the issue of temporary documentation
to return home. If requested, they inform the next of kin back in the
home country to reduce any human stress. The more serious cases such
as criminal activity usually take on a similar plan of action. Only
in this case information on legal procedures of the country and list
of lawyers and interpreters is handed to the victim so that he or she
knows what to expect and how to cope. But back to major events, what
Crisis management. Every one of the normal procedures mentioned earlier
are multiplied by tens, hundreds or even thousands and instead of the
odd Honorary Consul or general post, coping with the one off situation,
a whole team is sent on its way to the scene. If it is an event such
as a football match, the team waits in the wings in case of a problem.
Once the match is over, they check with both police and hospitals for
any arrests or casualties. If there are, visits take place immediately.
The final stop is the airport or other transport sections to make sure
all the foreign fans are on their way back home and no one is left behind.
But the tragedies?
Again, the procedures are identical but with a subtle difference. Here
we are dealing with real human tragedy. The scale as well as the reason
are the first things to take into account. A bus crash and a terrorist
bomb attack may have exactly the same number of lives lost or injured
but the psychological effect on the team is very different. It hurts!
Nevertheless, identification, verification, consolation of survivors
and repatriation is all part of the Crisis management plan. The team
takes a few tranquillisers and gets on with the job. It can take days,
weeks and even months for the final chapter to be closed on a case.
The Southeast Asian Tsunami file will be open for decades.
© James Skinner. February y 2005
Diary Number One
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