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Crisis Management: A Few Observations
by H.H.A Cooper

"Avoiding or muting crises is often far better than precipitating such."
Malcolm Forbes

These wise words have particular relevance in the context of our recent handling of matters relating to Iraq. They lose nothing of significance when applied to matters of less world-shaking importance. Few would recommend stirring up a hornet's nest or poking a Bengal tiger with a walking stick - even if it is, for the moment, behind bars. Yet, curiously, how often do we see people in real life do the equivalent of such foolhardy acts. There is a strong belief among some that contentious matters can only be resolved by bringing them speedily to a head - a kind of crisis management by poultice. There is a certain excitement to this, especially if the boil can be effectively lanced, the fever subsides, and the patient survives. But there is always the question, whether, in the instant case, such heroic measures were necessary. Sometimes, the remedy is worse than the cure. If a crisis can be anticipated, is it not better to head it off or take measures, prudently, to reduce its impact?

What in general terms, is a crisis? Obviously, they come in all shapes and sizes, and affect every department of human interest and activity. For the present purposes, a crisis may be defined as some critical event, anticipated or otherwise, affecting the lives, physical integrity and other tangible or intangible interests of those concerned with it. Crises may be produced by natural occurrences or by human agency. They may impact a single human being or assume global proportions. In medical terms, a crisis is a turning point; it is the moment at which things are likely to get better - or worse. What is done, at that moment, may profoundly affect the outcome. It is not a time for guesswork - or meddling. Sometimes drastic action is required to avert a tragedy. At others, it is more prudent to do nothing, and let matters take their course. Sensible restraint is often the hardest course to counsel or to take. The impact of a crisis is always susceptible of being affected in some way by preparations undertaken to meet and deal with the event. These preparations translated into practical, operational terms constitute what is called crisis management.

Crisis management, in the security field as elsewhere, presents many different aspects, dependent upon the nature and dimensions of the events involved. It always rests upon a philosophical basis, which has to be transformed into a guiding policy. The tragic encounter of the Titanic with an iceberg in the North Atlantic produced an immediate crisis, with which the captain and his crew had to cope. Women and children first into the lifeboats was, obviously, not an ad hoc decision based upon nautical expediency. The application of the developed precepts is effectuated through organization and the authority conferred upon individuals assigned to deal with what has occurred. These things have to be thought through, carefully, in advance if the crisis is to be successfully managed. Otherwise, the crisis itself takes over and dictates its own outcome. Policies must be designed and communicated, and personnel trained how to respond in accordance with them. Knowing what to do, and how and when to do it is the difference between a controlled, disciplined response and unmanageable free fall. But, of course, you do need a parachute, for as Robert Anton Wilson observed, "encounters with death and danger are only adventures to the survivors." Fundamentally, crisis management is concerned with minimizing harm and restoring order through the intelligent employment of the appropriate, available resources. The emphasis, here, is upon what is appropriate. Pouring oil upon troubled waters may serve to calm the storm. Pouring water into sulfuric acid is a recipe for disaster.

A sine qua non of effective crisis management is good risk assessment. At the heart of this latter is accurate intelligence, military, law enforcement, business, or whatever. Without it, you are boxing, or grappling, in the dark. Knowing what is over the other side of the hill, or coming down the pike gives the crisis manager the vital edge. Even if you cannot know, you must be in a position to speculate intelligently. The more you know, the higher your level of security -provided you use your knowledge effectively. Nowadays, public and private entities must, more and more, assess the risks likely to be faced whether from criminal elements, political foes, disaffected subjects, or external enemies. This is no time to emulate the ostrich. Once the threat is identified and measured, steps can be taken to deal with it. Some threats can be avoided, warded off or defused through diplomacy, while others can only be handled, effectively, through the exercise of countervailing force. Meeting the threat in an appropriate fashion, on the most economical footing, is an exercise in conflict resolution, but that, as they say, is a whole 'nother story. Social and political crises are rarely self-limiting; all call for intervention of some kind. Their successful management requires a neat blend of skills, temperament, fortitude and experience, as well as organization, taking appropriate account of cultural, ethnic, and political factors. The Golden Rule is: if you can't make things better, avoid that which can only make them worse.

Crisis management training and consultancy are highly specialized undertakings. Do not engage the service of a psychiatrist to manage a crisis when what is required for the matter in hand is an engineer. Whatever you do in this matter of selection, make sure you choose wisely and well. The late, great Malcolm Forbes also said, "Never hire someone who knows less than you do about what he's (or she's) hired to do." The true specialist is becomingly modest, avoiding exaggerated claims and promises. Yet, another Robert Anton Wilson aphorism is worth citing here: "Specialists all tend to see things in weird ways." While it is not good policy to keep a dog and bark yourself, it is always sensible to try to find out what the barking is all about and to learn something of its nuances. Thus, coping with a natural disaster, such as a tornado, a hurricane, a flood, or an earthquake, is very different from handling, say, a catastrophic financial crisis; serious civil disturbances; or terroristic events such as assassinations, kidnappings, hostage-taking or threats of mass destruction. Special expertise is called for in all these diverse instances, and it is a foolish manager indeed who fails to obtain it when it is needed or who hesitates to do so for fear of looking bad. Even the best and most experienced of ship's captains needs the services of a pilot when entering unfamiliar waters. Those who reject what is required take upon themselves a most onerous responsibility that few are equipped, with even the greatest luck in the world, to discharge. Taking into account expert advice does not absolve the crisis manager of the responsibility to act; the decision-making power rests with those to whom it has been assigned. Knowing what advice to take and when to take it, marks out the prudent crisis manager from the foolhardy.
Crisis management in the field of security covers the gamut from the commonplace to the once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. While all crisis management contains certain core elements common throughout, the differences command attention so as to require radically separate treatment for both organizational and training purposes. The area of specific interest has to be defined before a program to meet the needs of those concerned can be designed. A hierarchy of responsibilities has to be established, and training must be precisely directed to the needs of those exercising those responsibilities at each level. But will it work? Who can tell until it is tested in the crucible of reality. Thus all crisis management training is always a work in progress, preparation for some future eventuality. Crisis management is concerned with something - something bad -that has yet to occur. Paul Dickson, perhaps, put it best: "While we are pretty much stuck with the present there is every reason to believe we can and should have an effect on the future, rather than have it entirely managed for us by others." Crisis management, wrong-headed or not is deeply ingrained in the human spirit. Whether we are struggling against the forces of nature or the wicked wiles of Man (or Woman) we are persuaded that, if only we work at it, we can bend the outcome in our favor. Perhaps we can. After all, crisis management is just a sense of leadership and a cool head, right? Right!

H.H.A. Cooper is president of Nuevevidas International, Inc. He manages crises for people around the globe, and still finds time to handle a few of his own. He also serves as Vice-President for Certification for A.S.E.T.

Copyright © 2003, Executive Protection Institute