No one enjoys mulling over the ‘what if’ of a possible terror strike. But according to Mark Rowley, assistant commissioner of the Met Police, the UK has thwarted 13 potential attacks since 2013, when soldier Lee Rigby was killed. And while it’s worth acknowledging that terrorists remain highly unlikely to attack your business, that doesn’t make the consequences any less dreadful if the unthinkable does happen. The owners and patrons of Brussels Airport, Paris’s Bataclan concert hall and Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Hotel would surely attest to that.
Non-deliberate crises can be similarly traumatic. From BP to Alton Towers, countless businesses have had a regular workday torn inside out by a disaster that suddenly throws staff and customers into the path of peril. And if it mishandles the fall-out, the company’s reputation can suffer greatly too.
Whether a deliberate attack or an accident, such incidents are by their very nature tough to foresee, so it’s hard to build a cast-iron plan for a response. But you can alleviate the risk. Here’s how…
1. Empower the right people
Health and safety managers have the skills and experience to identify, assess and plan for a whole range of risks – so consider broadening their responsibilities. Land Securities did just this. After three months of reporting to head of operations, the commercial property company's health and safety director, Clive Johnson, apparently told the board: ‘The only way this is going to work is if I report to one of you guys.’ He now reports directly to the chief executive, and security has been added to his remit; he even has weekly meetings with the head of UK counter-terrorism, due to the volume of iconic offices and shopping centres in the firm’s portfolio. ‘The more involved I’ve got the more I have realised how well it sits with health and safety,’ he has said. ‘It’s all risk management.’
2. Expect the unexpected
If you wait for something to happen before you think about what you're going to do, it’ll be too late. Every business needs a crisis management strategy that prepares them for serious threats: from simple procedures that quickly work out what’s happening, to a clear breakdown of how employees are expected to respond. Look at previous case studies of those who did it, and run mock incidents – covering how you can act rapidly, how to secure the scene and how to keep people safe. But as every public crisis will pose a different challenge and require a unique response, your plan will only get you so far. You need your people to be proactive, autonomous and aware.
3. Get your communications straight
In any situation involving the public, you'll need to balance the need to restrict information for security and privacy reasons, with your duty to keep staff and customers safe and informed. You need to make sure everyone internally is aware of how to share information, whether that’s via text message or internal social media, and with whom. In the case of a terror incident, however, the government advises against putting anything on social media that might reveal crucial details (of either the threat, or the planned response) without first consulting the police. Externally, pick one capable and personable (and ideally fairly senior) character to act as the company’s human face in the event of an incident, and give them the media training they need to handle what could be a very demanding role.
4. Show compassion and humanity
In the wake of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, then CEO Tony Hayward told TV cameras that: ‘There’s no one who wants this over more than I do, I’d like my life back.’ Given 11 people had lost their lives, this didn’t go down well at all: the incident, and Hayward’s slip, has dogged his career and BP's reputation ever since. By contrast, following the Alton Towers rollercoaster crash in 2015, which led to traumatic injuries for several victims, owner Merlin Entertainments swiftly accepted full responsibility, and did so in a manner that felt human. CEO Nick Varney went to the scene in person, publicly apologised to the victims and their families, and promised compensation without the need for legal action. He also made several appearances on TV news, where he asserted that his only concern was for the victims, not the company share price.
5. Go above and beyond
Offer counselling and support to employees, and the families of anyone affected. And this is equally important when the incident is not your fault. No one could blame Taj Group, owner of Mumbai’s Taj Mahal hotel, for the horrific terrorist siege there in 2008. Even so, in the days immediately following the attack in which many hotel staff lost their lives trying to save guests, the group pledged to support the education of children whose parents had been killed, and offered jobs to relatives who had lost a key breadwinner. It even extended its support to souvenir sellers who worked in the area and had seen their earnings hit by the drop in tourist footfall. When people are suffering, the only suitable response is a human one.
For more ideas on how to build better health and safety, visit the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health