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Strategic Crisis Management: Do Emergency Managers Have a Role?

Crisis management is a strategic function that is usually the province of senior leaders. But the skill set emergency managers offer can add value to an organization's crisis response.

Although we sometimes use the terms interchangeably, there is a distinct difference between emergency management and crisis management. Emergency management is primarily operational in nature, focusing on support to first responders and transition to immediate recovery. Crisis management is more strategically oriented, with the principal actors being high-level officials and the focus on long-term impacts. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that there is little to no overlap between the two. If emergency managers are to truly be trusted advisors to senior officials, it is essential that we understand how we can support crisis management.

In The Politics of Crisis Management: Public Leadership under Pressure, Arjen Boin and colleagues identify five strategic leadership task that public officials must perform in a crisis:

  1. Sense making: collecting and processing information that allows the detection of an emerging crisis and an understanding of its significance.
  2. Decision making: determining a response strategy and coordinating the implementation of that strategy.
  3. Meaning making: developing a narrative that resonates with the public and responders.
  4. Accounting: Explaining to the public what was done to prevent and manage the crisis.
  5. Learning: Analyzing the causes of and response to the crisis and implementing corrective action.
If we examine these five tasks, we find that they are identical to tasks being performed by emergency managers. While the scope and audience may vary, we have the skill set to support strategic crisis management. An essential part of emergency response is the collection of information and the facilitation of decision making and strategy development. We already have in place protocols for assessing our response and identifying corrective action.

The two areas that may give us pause are developing a narrative and accounting to the public. Both involve crisis communication and symbolism where any action on the part of senior officials can have a negative or positive impact. Consider, for example, the statements and actions of the CEO of British Petroleum during the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill or the Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs attending a theater performance following the 2004 Asian tsunami in which hundreds of Swedish tourists were killed. Both had extremely negative consequences for both the organizations and the individuals involved. However, reputation management is one of the areas for which we have some responsibility under NFPA 1600, and we certainly can provide a data to support accountability.

Strategic crisis management may seem a bit removed from the normal responsibilities of the emergency manager, but it a logical extension of what we do, and we certainly have the skill set to support it. We frequently find ourselves supporting or borrowing from other disciplines, such as security or risk management; it’s what generalists do. Strategic crisis management is no different and it is an area in which we can demonstrate value as trusted advisers to senior executives.

Lucien Canton is a management consultant specializing in helping managers lead better in crisis. He has been in turn a professional soldier, a private security manager, and an emergency manager before becoming a consultant.