APCO Worldwide executive director Simon McGee, formerly press secretary to two British foreign secretaries and Foreign Office head of news, offers five tips for overseas missions dealing with crises
Crises and the unexpected are part and parcel of a diplomat’s life. One moment you’re organising the national day reception, the next you’re repatriating your nationals due to a pandemic or an earthquake. Here are five tips for anyone finding themselves in the hot seat during a crisis thousands of miles away from home.
“Well, it’s lovely to have you all here,” said Her Majesty’s High Commissioner to Nigeria, arms extended in welcome. “Now we just need to decide what you’re going to do.” Gathered around Sir Andrew Pocock’s mirror-like mahogany dining table in Abuja were an assortment of officials from Whitehall and the British military. It was 2014 and Prime Minister David Cameron had ordered the deployment of a cross-departmental task group to try to assist the Nigerian government in the wake of the shocking kidnapping of 300 Chibok schoolgirls by Boko Haram. Most of the men and women seated around the table would provide technical assistance on the near impossible search for the girls in the dense Sambisa Forest while others would provide wider support to the central government; I happened to be visiting Lagos at the time and was immediately press-ganged into providing strategic communications advice on the crisis to the presidency and relevant ministries.
The conversation that followed Sir Andrew’s no-nonsense welcome illustrates my first tip: don’t wait for orders. Everyone had flown into Abuja in a hurry and gathered in the High Commissioner’s residence (a pretty run-down modern block, not the typical British mansion in your mind’s eye) on a Friday evening with vague instructions to help the Nigerians and advance notice that a non-ministerial meeting of COBRA (Britain’s version of the US Situation Room) would be held on Monday morning. Nothing else. Some present thought that we might have the weekend free to acclimatise and connect with the Nigerians before receiving orders from London but those of us who were put through the COBRA wringer on a regular basis knew we were about to have a busy weekend putting together ‘a package.’
The contents of a package can vary wildly depending on the severity of the crisis, public or covert, consular or political or military, and so on. But regardless of the problem, the package must contain creative yet sensible actions that smother it urgently while reflecting well on your superiors and ministerial masters. So we spent the weekend beavering away on our different strands of proposed work, tied a strategy and action plan up in a bow, and emailed it to London on Sunday. Our package meant we weren’t roasted alive when a clearly under-pressure senior official opened Monday’s COBRA, which we had joined by secure video link, by snapping “What has everyone in Abuja been up to all weekend?” So get creative, get busy, and don’t wait for someone else to find answers to questions because there’s a good chance that someone is you.
A second tip, relevant for consular incidents where your nationals have been injured or are at risk, is to get boots on the ground yesterday. Incidents such as natural disasters or terror attacks often take place a long way away from capital cities where overseas missions are based and, unless you would be putting your staff at serious and unacceptable risk, they need to get on the road as quickly as possible. Your nationals need their help, or at least reassurance if practical support isn’t yet available, and you need eyes on the ground. Many foreign ministries have emergency response teams (the Foreign Office has RDTs, Rapid Deployment Teams, drawn from specialist consular officials and trained volunteers from the wider office) but these can rarely beat a timely in-country dash.
Perhaps just as importantly, not least to ministers back home, is being seen to be tackling the problem quickly as well as actually doing so. Emergencies are difficult enough to handle without international journalists arriving at the sceneof a tragedy ahead of your local officials, then interviewing your surviving nationals about how there’s not one of your staff anywhere to be seen and how their government has abandoned them. Throw social media into the mix and a sluggish consular response can turn even minor incidents into a public relations disaster.
My third piece of advice is to communicate relentlessly. Few can become Euripides Evriviades, the former Cyprus High Commissioner to London and digital diplomacy wizard, overnight but communicating by all appropriate channels when information and reassurance are sorely needed is absolutely essential. Social media is clearly now critical in emergencies: you can gather intelligence, find nationals in need and reach out to them before they direct message journalists, you can post videos or hotline information, and you can demonstrate to relatives back home what’s being done to help their loved ones. Embracing and assisting arriving journalists and television crews is also a key part of the role, even if it can seem a luxury when time is precious.
Fourth, an obvious thought perhaps, but one worth repeating because it is so often forgotten in the heat of the moment: be empathetic in solution-finding and display empathy in communication. Empathy may sometimes come easier to politicians, who are used to kissing babies and seeking the approval of strangers, but it’s essential for ambassadors and officials too. I’ve watched one former British ambassador provide a textbook response to an emergency, ticking all the above boxes in devising a proactive response plan, getting himself quickly to where upset Brits were gathered, and communicating clearly and plentifully. Yet as he engaged with a group of upset Brits, sadly for him on camera, he failed to speak with them as people and ended up reciting key messages rather than listening and demonstrating concern for their plight. A well-intentioned attempt to provide reassurance ended up stirring up resentment and criticism. Similarly, one ambassador dealing with the aftermath of a destructive earthquake, not only worked 20 hours a day to help shelterless nationals, he instinctively opened his residence and garden to as many as could be accommodated; it was an empathetic response that won him plaudits back home.
My fifth and final tip is to remember that a crisis can expose, quickly and starkly, the depth and breadth of a mission’s relationships and leverage with a host government. Ministers back home may suddenly ask you to get things fixed; airport landing slots for repatriation flights, helicopters to rescue stranded nationals, food and shelter where these have been destroyed or are no longer available. Do you know who to call and do you have the clout to make things happen quickly? Factor in the likelihood that your fellow overseas missions may need to ask for the same things at the same time and an ordinarily simple request suddenly becomes almost insurmountable. Perhaps the head of the host country’s aviation authority does deserve an invitation to national day drinks after all?
These are just a handful of tips, and certainly not exhaustive, but they cover what I believe to be the biggest risks to envoys handling a crisis overseas, particularly one involving at-risk nationals. Getting all these right should help to ensure your superiors think of you as everyone in the British Foreign Office wants to be known in a crisis: as having ‘grip’ on a situation. Lacking grip means you’re ineffective when the chips are down and unable to wrestle with the big challenges. Having grip means bending the storm to your will, impressing bosses and ministers, and perhaps getting that coveted posting earlier than planned.