The current security threat has caused a lot of companies to look anew at their crisis handling arrangements. Many recognise that not only has the potential for a crisis increased but also the degree of difficulty in handling them.

UK event companies are operating in developing countries that would have been unthinkable locations for mainstream events a few years ago.Added to which we now have to work in an environment where there are far higher standards of corporate responsibility and accountability expected and where failings can be communicated across the world in an instant. Simply put, companies and individuals, particularly at senior level, can quickly change from being the victim of circumstances beyond their control to the perpetrator of harm against those whom have suffered merely by failing to respond well to the crisis.

Crisis handling should be part of an event management team’s skill sets. Many would say that dealing with a crisis is just part of the job and to an extent that is true. Event staff, particularly the operations staff, have to be able to deal with the unexpected but it rather depends on your definition of a ‘crisis’ or ‘major incident’. It is not always that obvious.

Most definitions in the events industry centre around the idea that a situation is a crisis if it is outside the capability of the on site team to deal with on their own i.e. it is more than just a bad day at work. This implies a degree of loss of control. For example if there is a stand collapse with no serious injuries it is unfortunate and it needs investigating but generally the on site team would be expected to handle it. If, however, the HSE decided to investigate and started interviewing staff the team might feel that that they needed some help and legal advice. In the UK, a prosecution following an accident like that, even if the injuries were non-life changing, could still result in a £ million plus fine. Poorly handled, the HSE investigation could turn into a crisis even if it did not start out that way.

The security threat in the UK and in many countries has, on occasion, been raised to the highest level following terrorist acts. A rise in the threat level on its own can constitute a crisis especially if the event might be cancelled as a result. The decision to run the event anyway should be taken at senior level and that decision process needs to be managed and recorded. Many make the mistake of believing that in such a situation the venue would simply make a decision. Certainly venue management need to be part of the decision cycle but is it really credible for any interested party to simply allow others to make key decisions for them? Those without a robust plan may find themselves left out of the decision loop.

Event companies that take this seriously have well established crisis handling plans and conduct regular scenario based training to ensure that should it be required, management at all levels are confident about implementing these plans. So what is a crisis management plan? It is important not to confuse this with the emergency procedures which are merely a plan to protect occupants of a venue from an imminent risk to life. The fire evacuation procedures are the most obvious example. If there were a serious fire the Crisis Management Plan kicks in after you have evacuated. Similarly, it is also important not to confuse it with a Business Continuity Plan which is more long term and kicks in once the immediate crisis has passed. To continue with a fire analogy, if there were a fire in a contractor’s warehouse the crisis handling team would deal with the immediate issues of how to service current events. Once immediate solutions have been found the business continuity process would look at how to restore the warehouse to normal function or find an alternative.

Plans will differ between companies and their function, however, all good plans recognise the need to separate the Strategic (Gold Level) decision making from the Operational (Silver Level) team which deals with the incident itself. For example in the event of a serious accident the Silver Team would focus on managing and containing the incident itself whilst the Gold Team considers whether or not the event can continue that day or the next. Gold Team often has the unenviable task of considering whether to prioritise the safety of staff, visitors and other participants over the financial interests of key stakeholders. Sometimes a crisis can arise before we have even deployed to site. This was the case for event organisers and contractors who had events immediately after the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels in 2015 and just after the attempted coup in Turkey in 2016.

Good media handling and communications is essential at all levels. This is not just a specialist function but at some level all those involved need to understand the key protocols. There is no point in the media team carefully managing the narrative only for it to be undermined by staff posting comments on social media.

Staff welfare is another issue that often gets overlooked in plans. This can range from dealing with medical emergency down to very practical issues such as how to handle a situation where staff have to work on site for much longer than current resources allow. Again training and briefing is essential. Well prepared companies have arrangements in place to ensure that all staff are self sufficient to an extent. A simple example is staff always having sufficient essential medication on them to cope with a long stay on site. This avoids adding a potential medical emergency to an already difficult situation.

One of the vulnerabilities of the events and exhibitions business is that the nature of the business is expeditionary, in other words teams are sent off to run or service an event. If the definition of a crisis is that we need outside help that help could be in a different part of the country or a different country (and time zone) altogether. A good plan recognises these constraints and builds in flexibility. It may even be the case that a crisis arises on site in the early part of the tenancy when the senior team is in the air en route and not able to respond for many hours. Many event companies now have a 24/7 duty director system ready to respond to a call from on site to cope with just this sort of eventuality.

No plan usually survives contact with reality and this is especially true in the events industry. Who in 2010 could have predicted that an Icelandic volcano would ground all air travel in western and northern Europe for six days? A good plan, however, if it is robust yet flexible can ensure that any company can mitigate potential losses and influence the narrative to protect the business and its key stakeholders.

This article was written by Simon Garrett of ESSA's retained H&S advisor.  

The views and opinions expressed in these blogs are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of ESSA, its members, board or staff. Our members represent a broad range of views within the event industry, and we have provided this section of the website for their opinions to be openly heard and discussed.

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