10 March 2014
As I write this the world is waiting for news of Malaysian Airways flight 370 and my thoughts are with the families and friends of those missing for there can be little hope now of finding survivors.
I'll not waste time speculating on the cause of this loss, but instead look at the issue of communication in crisis management.
One of upcoming my Quick Guides is on managing crises so it was very much on my mind when news of MH370 going missing began to emerge and the unfolding situation is a good example of how difficult communication can be in emergencies, but also how important it is.
In the current situation the only firm news is that the aircraft is missing and that a search is under way. The 'plane was six miles up when contact was lost and whilst a 777 is a fairly large aeroplane it isn't going to be easy to find the crash location at sea; there is a method to these searches and they will find it when they find it. Once they have found her, a picture of why she went down will begin to emerge and in due course we will know, but these things take as long as they take, so news will emerge when there is something to tell.
For the friends and families the situation is that they don't want to wait; they want to know and they want to know now. Whilst trying to explain that you don't have any news is stating the obvious, when people are stressed and emotional they are not rational, and trying to counter irrational behaviour with cold logic is a waste of time; any parent should know that only too well.
For most of us managing a crisis, while we are not under the extreme pressures that the teams out in China, Malaysia and Vietnam are at the moment, we will have to deal with colleagues or customers demanding news: "When will that boiler be fixed?", or "When will the power be back on?", or "When can we get back into the building?" These typical cries that we might encounter.
In all probability, we will not have a clue. In the case of a technical fault it may well be quickly determined which component has failed and a time for replacing it ascertained, but why did it fail? Was there some fault elsewhere that will cause the replacement to immediately fail? From experience we know that these situations occur and in the same way that MH370 will be found when she is found, our equipment fault will be fixed when it is fixed.
What we have to do is to manage expectations as best as we can and that does mean taking the time to talk to the people who need to know as a priority, with those who merely want to know also being given attention. Yes they will be hard to placate and yes you are likely to face strong words and unfair criticism, but that is how it goes; you have to learn to deal with it as I found out the hard way many years ago.
I had not long been promoted into a job on the top team when another department plunged us into a bit of a crisis. As my team and I tried frantically to keep things running as best as we could while we also solved the problem we just did not know when things would be sorted out or when we would be fully recovered from the backlog that was building.
There were just too many variables at that moment to be able to say for sure. On the second day a senior colleague burst into my office demanding answers: "I need facts!" he frothed, so I plucked the pocket encyclopaedia from the row of books on my window sill and slid it across my desk suggesting that it was full of facts and he should take, go forth and let me get on with solving the problem (in possibly stronger terms).
We never did rebuild a working relationship and he made my life as difficult as he could do for the rest of the two years that we were on the same team, but there was my lesson about managing those situations, for I knew that I should not have let things get to that stage.
Taking a little time out to have held twice-daily briefings would have helped get people off my back and allow me to focus better on sorting things out. It is an approach that I have taken ever since.
Even when I haven't got answers, I can still communicate.
John Bowen is an FM consultant