In the last column, we reviewed a few fundamental skills and practices required for the effective management of crisis communications; in this column, we’ll move on to a few basic guidelines for actually managing the crisis. Obviously, the vast number of details and intricacies particular to a specific crisis cannot be addressed in the space of a newspaper column, but these general principles—which have obviously not yet entered the current student government’s repertoire—will help to set the responsible authorities on the straight path to developing timely and effective crisis response plans.
1. First of all, actually have a plan.
This refers not so much to having an established plan before a crisis strikes—although that is of course an ironclad requirement—as it does to being able to reformulate a plan or create a new one “on the fly” when Plan A inevitably goes sideways.
We can use an example from history to illustrate this: Prior to World War I the French Army, knowing full well that Germany had a detailed plan for the invasion of France, drew up its own plan (called Plan XVII) to defend against it. Midway through the German onslaught in August 1914, the French high command realized its plan had been anticipated by the Germans and was not working, and so within a few days a completely new plan was developed (the rapid reaction is better appreciated if one remembers that it involved hundreds of thousands of troops in active combat over several hundred square miles, at a time when the most reliable means of communication was still a guy on a horse) that eventually allowed the French and their British allies to halt the German advance and save Paris from capture.
Apologists for the Aquino administration’s response to the disaster point out preparations were in place before the storm hit, and they are correct; even I thought that the pre-disaster response was significantly better than it was in other recent calamities. But the plan for Super Typhoon Yolanda relied too heavily on at-risk assets—local government resources and personnel who were victims of the storm—and there was no “Plan B” until six days after the typhoon had passed, which had tragic consequences.
2. If significant progress is not made within 48 hours, you’ve failed.
The 48-hour deadline has both practical and public relations importance. From a practical standpoint, 48 hours is about how long most survivors without serious injuries can be expected to survive without the most basic resources of water, food, and shelter; and, morbid as it sounds, that is about the length of time a dead body can go unattended before its decomposition becomes seriously offensive and begins to make identification difficult.
From a public relations perspective, 48 hours generally seems to be the “grace period” media and the public at large will allow before the description of recovery efforts changes from something like, “hampered by the large amount of destruction that is making access difficult” to “slow and poorly organized.” Even if there are enormous challenges, before 48 hours has passed the victims and the unaffected rest of the public need to see that all the affected areas have been reached in some fashion, and that help and material resources are flowing steadily, and the reason for that is not merely a matter of perceptions; after the 48-hour deadline, the conditions for the survivors begin to decline spectacularly from the already bad conditions caused by the storm (or flood, earthquake, volcanic eruption, etc.).
3. This is not the time for democracy.
An effective crisis response plan requires the input and cooperation of a large number of agencies and other stakeholders, but the time to make decisions and set objectives by consensus is before a crisis strikes, not once the response is underway. One of the worst ideas the Philippines ever had was to choose a “council” as the lead entity in disaster mitigation and response, rather than a dedicated agency with a hierarchical management structure. And as a result, every disaster relief effort is characterized by slow decision-making, multiple and often conflicting objectives, and in the case of Typhoon Yolanda, confusion over who is actually in charge. On Saturday, eight full days after the storm made landfall, different agencies and spokespeople were still publicly contradicting each other as to whether it was the President, Executive Director Eduardo del Rosario of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, Executive Secretary Ochoa, or Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas who was in overall command of the relief effort. Thus, even though an enormous amount of help was being directed toward the affected areas from both inside and outside the Philippines, the lack of clear direction dramatically slowed its efficient deployment—which, we should constantly remind ourselves, only added to the general misery of those needing help.
* * *
Some more from the ever-growing list of local businesses that deserve a heartfelt “thank you” for their generous contributions toward the Yolanda relief efforts: Coal Resto Bar, with branches in Greenfield, Ortigas, Harbor Square, Pasay, and Greenhills, San Juan; Residential Condominium Corp., which manages Chateau Elysée near SM Bicutan and made the property’s clubhouse available as a staging area for relief goods (that’s a good idea for other property owners and managers, by the way); Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. of Mandaue City; Gran Trail Cycles in the El Molito Commercial Complex, Alabang; and Triple-S Medical and Dental Distributor, located at 1629 Bambang Street, Santa Cruz, Manila. Thank you all.