Best laid plans

Flooding in Fermanagh in November.

Businesses can take their emergency plans for granted until trouble hits. agendaNi finds out what makes for better preparation from the Continuity Forum’s Russell Price.

The adage common sense is not so common is surprisingly true when it comes to how businesses plan for crises. In fact, many do not.

A recent agendaNi seminar on managing risk heard from Russell Price, who chairs the Continuity Forum, an NGO helping companies become more resilient. As he explained in an interview before his talk, business continuity is about applying experience not red tape and good planning is necessary to protect the work people have put into their company.

He’s pleased to see that Northern Ireland’s economy has grown after the Troubles but is keen to point out that these emergencies tend to be in the “normal world that we live in” such as flooding, disrupted water or electricity supplies, or road works. The macro events such as pandemics or terrorism are a relatively small risk in comparison.

Some examples include how a retailer’s sales dropped 80 per cent when road works were erected outside their shop for two days, last autum’s flooding in Fermanagh or the 200,000 business fires in the UK each year. Many of these start in waste bins, which businesses keep in or close to their premises, in case of vandalism. However, putting the bin at the far side of the car park, secured with lock and chain, would allow a fire to burn out without causing further damage.

Learned experience such as this is valuable: “It’s trying to apply a little bit of science and a little bit or art to how it all works.”

In his view, continuity of service is a foundation stone for good business. The cost of failure tends to be absorbed by the public sector and communities themselves.

The Buncefield oil depot explosion in December 2005 damaged many nearby businesses, of which “virtually all” went to the local authority for help afterwards. However, these companies had chosen to locate themselves beside one of the UK’s largest oil depots and yet many did not have plans.

As Price points out, there is an argument that asks why should companies be helped when they have not chosen to plan ahead.

“The more professional organisations should be risk-aware,” he states. A good plan will consider the most important ‘core services’ to be protected and also the ‘core expectations’ of stakeholders such as customers, employees and banks.

His presentation focused on reputational risk i.e. the potential that bad publicity about an organisation’s practices will result in litigation, fewer customers or less revenue.

Price noted that the economy had moved from being production-based to knowledge-based. The value of ‘intangible assets’ such as knowledge, reputation, management and image had increased accordingly.

The opportunity to influence a company’s approach naturally lies before a crisis takes place and it is best to identify any emerging problems early on. Communication is vital; a failure to do so leaves a vacuum which can be filled with rumours and misrepresentation.

Among his suggestions were creating a code of good behaviour, treating all stakeholders intelligently and putting people first, never finances or physical assets.

A useful guide is to think how you would like your mother or children treated in a crisis and make sure that planning delivers this. Above all, his advice is “never deceive and keep your promises.”

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