So summer’s here. Sunny days, warm sultry evenings and the great outdoors. Sporting events and festivals, tourist attractions and beaches, crowds of people enjoying parks and open spaces. All looking to have a good time.
What could go wrong?
Hopefully nothing more serious than sunburn, the odd traffic jam, England going to penalties in the Euro 2016 and Andy Murray losing to Novak Djokovic (again) at Wimbledon.
The plain truth is that this summer is the most tense for police and security services for a decade. It’s barely six months since terrorists brought carnage to the streets of Paris including a suicide bomber outside France’s national football stadium – a venue that will host six matches during the European Championship, including the final, in July.
In recent days the US authorities have warned its citizens to avoid festivals and tourist attractions in Europe, and, in the UK, police have warned that events including Glastonbury – which opens on the day of the EU referendum – are at the top of their list of potential targets for Islamic State-inspired terrorism.
Whilst the biggest current threat is undoubtedly from those who aspire to the misguided beliefs of Daesh and who seek to carry out indiscriminate ‘spectacular’ atrocities to further their aims, we should not overlook the increasing threat from Irish republican terrorism with the Home Secretary warning that a terrorist attack is a strong possibility.
These warnings are not there to frighten people – concern is genuinely mounting about the risk of harm to the UK and its citizens from terrorists, even by historical standards.
Fears are growing on an almost daily basis amongst the police, security services and Government of the risks of a terror attack on so-called ‘soft targets’. The football stadia, entertainment venues, theme parks and tourist attractions enjoyed by tens of thousands of people each day. There is a genuine concern at the highest level that the people who run these places of entertainment and enjoyment do not understand terrorism, how it could impact on them and, more worryingly, are completely unprepared for dealing with an attack should one occur. Such is the concern that the National Counter Terrorism Security Office (NaCTSO) has begun running events across the country to raise levels of awareness amongst businesses who make their living from keeping us entertained.
When the public attend venues of entertainment they undoubtedly believe that if something happens then they will be taken care of. The reality is worryingly different and many organisations have adopted the policy of keeping their fingers crossed and hoping for the best.
And, of course, terrorist attacks are not just confined to the UK. This month will see the first anniversary of the beach massacre in Sousse, Tunisia, a reminder of the soft target British holidaymakers present on the shores of the Mediterranean. Not since the summer of 2006, when my former colleagues in the Met were preparing to disrupt a plot to bomb transatlantic flights, have the authorities been on such a heightened state of alert.
The question for the rest of us is ‘Are we match fit?’
When a crisis hits and affects a business, an institution or a community, then that is not the time to discover that the answer is ‘no’.
During my time leading on counter-terrorism communications at Scotland Yard, I saw first hand how good the emergency services were at responding to the gravest of situations. But I also had a ringside seat as all kinds of businesses struggled to manage the crises they found themselves in. Often this was down to lack of effective structures and plans, exacerbated by poor and outdated communications – with their staff, customers, stakeholders and the public. Sometimes they made poor decisions too, decisions which we know can be picked over at a trial, inquest or public inquiry years or even decades later. Communicating effectively in a crisis can often be the only way an organisation can exert any control of a situation which can hugely impact on their reputation and revenue.
And the stakes have never been higher. When I led the media and comms response for London’s blue light services following the 7/7 bombings there was no social media. We, the police, broke the news and had the luxury of minutes and in some cases hours to sort ourselves out. Smartphones and Twitter means there is now no period of grace for any organisation caught up in a major emergency. Brands that have taken years to build up could find themselves in the thick of the most tragic events, permanently linked to them by graphic images taken at their event or their premises. And people will take to social media in seconds, sharing information and opinions, venting their frustration and demanding answers.
A few years ago the threat posed by terrorism was severe but specific – to aircraft, mass transit systems, buildings and locations of political significance. Now it’s you and me who are the targets as we go about everyday activity, going on holidays, attending football matches, festival and concerts or even shopping in the West End. But it is precisely those organisations that are there to provide entertainment and enjoyment who are also charged with providing a duty of care to their paying customers and to keep them and the wider public informed of what’s going on when disaster strikes.
Never before has the risk profile been so broad and it now includes sectors that have never had to plan for a crisis before. Do stores on a famous shopping street realise they are as much at risk as the London Underground? Do music festival promoters recognise that the Bataclan was not targeted at random? And if so, have they taken steps to ensure they are well rehearsed if the worst happens? Do sporting stadia know how they would manage a situation when the sports media who are there to cover the match suddenly become news journalists, providing a second by second commentary when a crisis takes hold?
Whilst we are reliant on others to prevent and disrupt terrorism, we can help ourselves and our own organisations by ensuring that we have the means and capability for effectively dealing with a disaster should one occur.
In my experience, the public know when organisations have done their best.
They also know when they should have done better. Not even the softest of targets will be able to say in the future that they weren’t warned or were not prepared for what might happen. The consequences from lack of preparation – for your organisation and for you personally – could be grave. The clock is ticking, but you still have time to do something about it.
Crest can help you prepare for crisis
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.
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