Preparing for a crisis: a day in the life of a National Emergencies Trust Trustee
By David Page, Director of Communications, Tesco
Last week I became an honorary trustee of the National Emergencies Trust for the day to take part in one of their quarterly emergency simulation exercises. One of the key ways they prepare for a possible major emergency.
I’m told that this time, the exercise was more challenging than usual: team members, observers and trustees put their skills to the test responding to a peaceful protest by environmental campaigners, in multiple UK locations, that escalated into a series of violent events.
One of the best things about participating was how real it felt and seeing the amount of work that had gone into making the exercise feel convincing, from staged TV news announcements to mocked-up social media posts; and crisis calls from stakeholders. There was a torrent of new information to contend with which made decisiveness a challenge, and a few times I was compelled to reassess my initial judgement. The added development of a major fire breaking out in a building in Cardiff swayed me and fellow decision-makers to activate an appeal.
Having everyone seated in their home offices with a cleared diary was probably the most unrealistic part of the simulation. But as the Trust team is based around the UK and works virtually, even outside of emergencies, it was interesting to see that the remote working element really didn’t make much of a difference. Though it reinforced that having the right decision makers closely connected and being able to see each other, albeit online, is essential.
The National Emergencies Trust aims to launch its fundraising appeals within just four hours of a sudden onset emergency occurring – a terrible accident or terror incident, for example. This time period would be longer for a slow onset emergency, such as a major flood. The reality is that having an aim of four hours to absorb the data, debate and discuss with other trustees and the team and to make the decision to activate or not for an appeal is not very long at all. So I was pleased to see how all four criteria for launching an appeal were so well-considered during the simulation exercise – and that at the end there was a clear recommendation to launch.
Prior to joining Tesco, I worked at an airline where we were required to do regular crisis exercises. It was vital to continue to make the right decisions while new information and data was constantly coming to light as the emergency unfolded. So I was really impressed in my role as honorary trustee with the clarity of the briefings we received from the Trust’s team, and the input of other trustees during each Activation committee. This was vital to the final decision.
As a founding patron of the National Emergencies Trust,Tesco has a vested interest in understanding how they operate – and how we can support that during real crises. We were keen to become a patron because Tesco’s footprint in almost every town and city across the UK means we often find one or more of our stores near to a scene of major incidents.
Tesco already springs into action to play its part when the worst happens, so we shared a common goal with the Trust already. In the scenario of a riot, like last week’s simulation exercise, Tesco would most likely close its stores to protect colleagues and customers. So being able to aid the fundraising response of the Trust, to get vital financial support to those affected, helps us to extend our existing rapid response work.
Like the Trust, Tesco also carries out huge amounts of scenario planning and risk assessments as we are always looking ahead at potential situations that might impact the business, colleagues and customers, indeed as any organisation should.
From a communications point of view, I’ve learned that a fundamental step to consider when responding to a crisis is keeping an external perspective. It is easy to get caught up in the deluge of information and media updates but thinking about what colleagues, customers and the public are seeing and might be thinking, before deciding when and how to publicly respond is absolutely key. This often means taking two minutes out to discuss with someone you trust, to evaluate the key messages that the business communicates.
I’ve also learned that practice doesn’t make perfect in crisis situations as you’ll prepare for a million eventualities and it will always be the one you haven’t prepared for, that happens – the key thing in emergency response is having the right people together. You’ll never have an exercise that is repeated in real life so you need to have a passionate and strong group of people together. We are very fortunate to have that at Tesco – and I saw the same last week in the Trust’s team.
The criteria for activating an emergency appeal is such that, in reality, the National Emergencies Trust will do so relatively rarely. Nevertheless, listening to the other trustees and having the opportunity to understand the valuable knowledge and expertise that is available to and within the charity was astonishing, and an important step forward in planning how we’ll work alongside one another to support those in great need during future national emergencies.