The events at Old Trafford yesterday highlighted the challenges that organisations face when confronted with a major security breach. Not since the abandonment of the Grand National in 1997 – due to an IRA bomb threat – have we seen such significant impact from the threat of terrorism on such a high profile sporting event in the UK.
Yesterday’s events underline the challenges that those involved in the handling of an emergency or crisis have to face. How do you manage a situation when the media are already there broadcasting live across the globe? How do you manage communication when as fans leave the ground they are taking to their smartphones uploading the latest information and images onto social media platforms? How do you manage a lack of credible information coming from statutory organisations, because their press offices are not fully manned at a weekend? How do commercial organisations manage the fallout from an event that damages its brand in one fell swoop when the police and other agencies say little for hours, focusing on their operational priorities?
Lesson 1: Reminder that sporting and entertainment events are often terrorist targets
Whilst some may now shrug off what happened at Old Trafford, we should not lose sight of the fact that Paris has shown us that football stadia, and other venues, are now desirable targets for terrorists. Indeed, both UK police forces and central Government are concerned that so called ‘soft targets’ are now on the terrorists’ radar like never before. With the threat from Irish Republican terrorism being raised to substantial last week we have to accept that there are those who wish to cause harm to the UK and its citizens on a number of fronts. Organisers of festivals, concerts, in fact any leisure activity where large numbers of people congregate need to recognise they are now on the front line and plan accordingly.
Lesson 2: Importance of partnership working with the police
There is no doubt that Old Trafford would have been searched by the stewards and possibly the police prior to yesterday’s match. This is normal practice with any major sporting event and serious questions need to be asked as to why the training device was not found earlier. Such procedures give Gold Commanders greater confidence and allow them to make informed decisions regarding the credibility if bomb hoaxes are received or suspected packages are subsequently found, knowing that when the ground was initially searched it was secure. Without this, the whole security operation is compromised. But the feedback on how the evacuation was managed has been positive. I have no doubt that this success was due to the fact that the police and the club had a plan, systems and structures in place for dealing with such a situation. The public were managed in such a way that panic and chaos was avoided. Their staff knew what to do and they had most likely taken part in exercises to rehearse such a scenario. If this alert occurred at a music or arts event, would they have the manpower, training, practice and communications in place to do likewise?
Lesson 3: Many organisations are unprepared
Worryingly, evidence suggests other public entertainment venues are completely unprepared for such a situation. Last year I delivered training for the theatre and the public entertainment industry and was shocked that many didn’t have viable and operational crisis management plans in place and even fewer had considered the crisis communication implications.
If you fail to plan, then plan to fail
I am sure that the public feel that when they go to these places of entertainment they will be looked after as well as fans were at Old Trafford if something goes wrong, but sadly the reality is somewhat different. Too often straightforward emergencies and incidents become a crisis. Why? Because organisations have ineffective plans, procedures and systems in place to deal with them or more worryingly have no plan at all.
With the threat from terrorism increasing and soft targets now very much on the radar, organisations must take greater responsibility for the safety of their customers, patrons and spectators. If you fail to plan, then plan to fail, and such a stance in today’s world will be punished severely not only in the court of public opinion, but beyond in the legal system, if the worst should happen.
Public safety is not just a job for the emergency services, but for all of us whose organisations operate within this environment, and communicating effectively and broadly is a vital component of this. So don’t just sit there, fingers crossed, hoping for the best – take positive action today and start thinking about what decisions you would need to take and how you would communicate them.
Associate Director of Development and Crisis Communications
Chris Webb is Associate Director of Development and Crisis Communications at Crest Advisory, former Head of News at Scotland Yard, and led the blue light communications on 7 July 2005.