Vodafone’s Crisis Specialist Dave Cope talks to Ben Cooper

Ben Cooper & Dave Cope   •   Sept, 2018

As he moves from Crisis Advisor at the British Council to be the Crisis Manager at Vodafone Group, Dave Cope tells us what he learned at one, and what he’s most looking forward to at the other!

Dave for those that don’t know the British Council, sum it up for us? 

The official line is ‘the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. Operating in over 110 countries across six continents, in the fields of arts and culture, English language, education and civil society.’

All of that means an international workforce operating across the globe in a very wide-range of programmes and interactions. The organisation is made up of permanent staff; contractors and consultants; as well as involvement in the facilitation of thousands of international mobility placements.

So there is a huge scope for incidents overseas involving staff and young students and volunteers? What was the biggest crisis you had to deal with?

Yes, the range of incidents (and potential crisis) was huge. I’m always careful in describing any incident as a crisis; which should be reserved for those high level incidents that risk critical disruption or restriction of an organisation’s delivery. That said, any incident can be a personal crisis for an individual and there is a responsibility for organisations to manage that impact and prevent it becoming a wider crisis.

A short-lived but trying situation was the evacuation of international staff from South Sudan in July 2016. Managing communications between staff, security teams, UK government and assistance providers takes a lot of concentration. There was also a very personal element in dealing with the staff in place who were subject to the evacuation plan and the very difficult task of managing expectations of local staff being left behind …and the crisis management doesn’t end at the point of evacuation!

Quite often it can be the more regular incidents that can escalate, if not controlled, to threaten the organisation. Incidents or accidents involving loss of life will always be significant and have the potential to be revisited under inquest or inquiry often many months after the initial incident was handled.

Similarly, cyber threats and data loss / compromise incidents, while not maybe considered in the travel risk sense, can occur across the globe and have varying levels of interest across the regions. Of course, the risk, no matter where it occurs, will come back to the organisation and a data loss in another part of the world could be investigated by regulators at home.

So what are some of the issues to be aware of for crisis management teams?

Organisations need to have the right people involved in crisis management teams; a crisis by its very nature can be very trying so personal resilience is key for individuals in the team. Never forget that the crisis team themselves may need a plan to ensure their welfare is managed or you may risk the team becoming a problem themselves, this can certainly be the case on protracted or highly emotive incidents. Another issue to consider is resource and availability; could you cover a sustained crisis management team 24/7 for several days.

As a crisis adviser, perhaps the most difficult issue to deal with was a long term crisis involving a small number of individuals, where political and local circumstance created a very real and sustained risk to life. The crisis adviser role is to coordinate the response; in the circumstance a very limited to zero capability due to the country location. It is also to remain strategic and encourage management controls on the wider business impacts and potential reputational issues. Managing and sustaining the expectations of an incident management team involved intensely for over a year on one issue highlighted the risks involved in the process of resourcing, and individuals being taken away from usual responsibilities, as well as emotional attachment and welfare of a frustrated incident management team.

In large and dispersed organisations there is often a requirement to allow regional / country based teams or business units to manage incidents, this was very much my role in preparing local teams to plan and respond. This model does, however, create the potential for less obvious incidents to become problematic later on depending on how well an incident was handled. Differences in culture, experience and capability had the potential to both over-play some incidents and respond indifferently to more serious disruption (the potential for ‘boiling frog’ syndrome was evident at times).

When a crisis involves people is it always right to travel to the crisis Dave, to manage it locally, or does it depend on the situation?

It very much depends on the situation. The simple questions to ask are “Would I be adding to the problem?” and “What would I be adding to the team if I were there?”.

As I described, the reason for training local management teams is to encourage a professional response to any incident that can then be supported from afar. A significant localised or national issue (such as an earthquake) may render the local management response as less effective due to being personally directly impacted by such an event.

In the case of an incident posing significant risks (natural disasters, civil unrest, security threats) or requiring emergency response then it’s probably a categorical no; there are a multitude of emergency assistance providers who will conduct a professional response and be far more adequately resourced to assist your staff and business!

Obviously Travel Risk is our key focus, the numbers of people travelling internationally at Vodafone must be huge? Is that the biggest exposure for a potential crisis situation? 

As with the British Council, the scale of operations globally at Vodafone means incidents can occur across many areas (with over ten times the staff numbers). Both organisations operate in local markets with local staff as well as internationally mobile staff.

International business travel has been regularised, for some time, and with effective travel management plans improving all the time the risk can be both reduced and managed.

Beyond travel risk incidents, that may be out of our control, the potential for crisis situations are much broader around incidents that threaten the brand, reputation and revenue of the organisation. This was always a way of thinking that I tried to encourage at the British Council; to broaden the understanding of risk from the traditional security sense and consider the wider impacts to the organisation once an incident had occurred. At Vodafone, as you might expect, the primary focus to protect the brand, reputation and revenue (protecting customers) is well and truly embedded.

That’s not to say that there won’t be opportunity at Vodafone to enhance good practice in crisis management and business resilience but the crisis potential is much more focussed in the digital world, whichever part of the world we are in …I look forward to the challenge!