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: Diary of an Honorary Consul

Diplomatic Diaries – Part II
James Skinner

Crisis Management‘I 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 year’s 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 ago.

In today’s corporate world nothing has changed. In fact I’d 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 then?

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

Diplomatic Diary Number One

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