It was noticeable during 2011 how many risks were exposed as incidents, many of them tree-related, and the resulting negative press and reputational damage that occurred. What was also obvious, and of concern, was the tardy and sometimes total mismanagement of the incident and the resulting media coverage by the local councils involved. Why don't organisations have a plan to deal with such events? And why don't they have staff trained to help manage the risks, potential reputational damage and inevitable media interest?
The whole process of council risk management and damage limitation response seems to me to be entirely haphazard. As a consequence, reputations suffer and the courts disregard our defence against claims of negligence and fault.
I am not thinking here about "spin", but the considered approach to communication and the management of risk. In an increasingly litigious world, it is vital that organisations have a well-thought-through and comprehensive risk management and media strategy that can be quickly implemented in an emergency. It also has to be a plan with which all staff comply.
I am not suggesting that you attempt to eliminate all risks. To be as safe as necessary should be your objective. In most circumstances, you are required to protect people as far as is "reasonably practicable". It also requires your staff to take reasonable precautions to avoid risks or create dangerous situations. In this respect, it is a requirement to "share" the need to be safe. This guide tells you how to achieve that aim with a minimum of fuss and bureaucracy.
There are five stages to developing a risk and media strategy:
1. Identify potential hazards.
2. Evaluate the risks and decide on the necessary precautions. Ensure that you review these plans regularly.
3. Develop a strategy, implement and provide training for all staff.
4. Choose who will co-ordinate the strategy and send them for "working with the media" training.
5. Don't overcomplicate the process.
It is important that all your staff are familiar with your incident response procedure and that they have been properly trained in applying it.
In the event of an incident, several things have to be done quickly and efficiently.
- Record and write up a report, collect and store evidence, and immediately make photographic records of the incident site.
- File all records - electronic and paper versions - and ensure that the records are backed up.
- Review procedures that surround the incident and change practice if this is considered advisable by your legal team and/or your insurer.
- Consider the appointment of a third party to produce an independent report.
- Ensure that all press and other enquiries are dealt with by trained staff and that no interviews are given to the press or other persons except by trained and nominated staff.
- Notify your insurer, seek its advice.
Risk assessment is an important step in protecting your staff, the people who use your service and your contractors, as well as complying with the law. Its purpose is to focus on the risks that really matter in your workplace - the ones with the potential to cause real harm.
This can most effectively be accomplished by a survey of all your sites and workplaces and reference to sector data about where most risk is encountered. Sector data is particularly valuable because your colleagues have already risk assessed similar situations to yours and evaluated the potential for incidents. Joining a risk-management group and/or your local green-space network is one way to access this body of information.
Remember that safety is not an add-on, it is an essential part of working practice. Your reputation is, in part, based on your risk profile. This, in turn, influences potential employers and employees.
At some time though, and despite your risk-management strategy and practices, an incident will occur. It is at this time that your plan should swing effortlessly into action. Your immediate aim should be to manage your reputation and provide factual and accurate information. This is how you will be judged once the incident is resolved. Therefore, a media strategy is a vital component of your strategic response. There are three golden rules for media communication:
1. Define what has happened.
2. Describe the circumstances surrounding the incident, in so far as you have reliable information.
3. Defend your organisation's approach and response.
The order is important, and all press briefings and other communications should follow that order. Only issue factual statements about what happened, as far as you can establish the facts. Do not offer opinion and do not be tempted to launch a "charm offensive". If you cannot provide factual information, then say nothing and issue a written statement to explain that you are still investigating the incident and that more information will be made available as soon as possible.
Do not allow untrained staff to deal with this matter. Many a reputation has been damaged because of mistakes made by untrained employees. Whatever you say or are quoted as saying can appear later in court and may prejudice your case.
In essence what is required of your risk and media strategy is to plan, define, describe and defend your organisation against unfair and inaccurate accusations, to apologise when mistakes are made and to change practice to prevent those mistakes reoccurring. In an increasingly competitive and litigious world, your organisation's risk profile and reputation is only as good as your strategic plan and planning. So, make yours the best that it possibly can be. Sid Sullivan is a parks consultant.