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When crisis management becomes business continuity

7th April 2020 Posted by

Posted by Naomi Jones, Communications Director at SUEZ recycling and recovery UK.

Mid-March marked the eleventh anniversary of the start of my career in the waste and resource industry, when I accepted a Head of Communications role at SUEZ recycling and recovery UK, back then known as SITA UK. Amid the intensity brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic on our and other businesses, there hasn’t been much time to reflect on years that have gone by, but the work that I have been doing day-in-day-out for the past few weeks made me think about the very beginning of my career.

When I was 24, I co-wrote a book on crisis management titled,
Crisis Management – A Practical Guide .

Do you like the Jerry Springer the opera-style flames on the cover? This was my choice out of the artwork options – it was the early noughties and everything was a tad dramatic.

It had been my dream since childhood to become a published author and though I had initially hoped to write a dystopian fable with a Lisbeth Salander style heroine – this was the next best thing! It was published by Palgrave Macmillan, got a solid review in The Times and although much has moved on in the last 15 years since its publication,
I am proud to see that a number of its core principles still stand.

I wrote the book alongside my line manager at the time and also the MD of the first public affairs agency I ever worked for – Tom Curtin, a former Communications Director from the nuclear industry who has led on many a crisis and serious incident in his career.

My first job out of university was to assist him as a visiting lecturer at the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne, Switzerland. We went four times a year and led crisis simulations for executives undertaking MBAs. Back home, I managed the crisis management arm of our agency and the rest of the time, I worked as a consultant assisting my clients with reputational and issues management. I worked incredibly hard, but let’s be honest – I had an absolute ball. It was a fantastic start to any career.

As Tom would often tell the MBA students, no simulation exercise, research for a book or assisting clients on the periphery, can ever fully prepare you for the experience of being at the very centre of managing a serious incident. When it is your company, your brand, your colleagues and when you are constantly working to the next deadline minutes away, dealing with hundreds of calls or trying to keep up with a situation that is changing by the second – you know that this is not a drill.

Even now, as the critical incident management lead for SUEZ recycling and recovery UK, and having been at the centre of many serious incidents – keeping calm under pressure remains a skill! Of course, the thing that steps it all up a gear is when the incident is a pro-longed affair over several months, or longer, as opposed to a few days or weeks. Here, of course, we move away from blazing flames and managing a ‘crisis’ to the even more important topic of business continuity and an altogether different skillset.

Globally, in issues management terms, COVID-19 is the biggest challenge many businesses have faced since the last global recession. Even for seasoned crisis management experts, we are in new waters here.

Certainly, in my career, it will be the longest time I will ever have served on an active business continuity team.
It involves 15-hour working days, every day for weeks on end, while, like many parents up and down the country, being expected to do so from home, working remotely to the rest of the business continuity management team. Not to forget moonlighting as a primary school teacher and whipping up three nutritious meals every day for the family.

Yet amongst the intensity, there is also a tremendous pride. I feel incredibly proud to work for a company delivering such an important service for the country at such a critical time. Our employees on the front line, designated key workers by our government, are absolute heroes and the comradery and team spirit I have seen have been truly incredible.

In the recycling and waste management sector, we see our teams working tirelessly to ensure the core waste collection and treatment services that local communities rely on to protect public health and ensure sanitation are maintained. There are those that collect waste and recycling from homes and businesses around the UK and those colleagues behind the scenes working to process and sort the materials collected. All are helping to keep the country running during this unprecedented time.

 

So if I could go back to that eager 25 year old, what would I tell her?

I would tell her to stick with her chosen front cover (she wouldn’t have listened to any other idea anyway) and that after the initial flames, real issues management and business continuity will be an altogether different skillset. An ability to deal at the same levels of intensity yes, but also the ability to look to the longer term and be sustained and measured in your thinking. That is what business continuity is all about after all.

Having been with SUEZ for 11 years, I would tell her the latter part of her career would be grittier, even harder work and certainly more real. But it would also become even more rewarding.

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