Handling a crisis: how your in-house team can help

Swati Paul
Swati PaulLondon Luton Airport

Swati Paul details the key themes from our webinar on crisis management and how you can demonstrate the value of your in-house team.

This article lists some of the key themes raised in a webinar on crisis management I chaired as part of In-house Week this June. It was an interesting and informative discussion between a panel of in-house lawyers, with representatives from Uber, Action for Children, Twitter and Global, who took questions from an audience.

I have also added my own experiences from being a GC in the aviation industry, which is still significantly impacted by the pandemic.

Background: London Luton Airport

London Luton Airport (LLA) is one of the UK’s largest airports and carried 17.9 million passengers in 2019.

In early March 2020, LLA was one of the fastest growing airports in the UK.

Then, almost overnight, at the start of the pandemic, there were no passengers and therefore little income. During my five years at LLA, the business had grown, year on year, at breakneck speed, from 12 million annual passengers when I started working there, to nearly 18 million in early 2020.

When faced with a crisis, what are the first actions to take?

Understand the issues affecting the business as a whole and then identify what needs to be done. For example, there may be impacts on revenue, financing, employment, health and safety, operations and insurance.

You will then need to understand the next steps the business is going to take and then sup-port the business with this. This may be advising on contracts or on legal issues such as in-solvency. At LLA, we were faced overnight with having virtually no revenue, which had serious implications for the whole business.

What happens when you do not have all the information you need to solve a problem, but the business still wants an answer?

Sometimes, you may not have all the information you need. You can give advice on the information you have, but always allow yourself “wiggle room”. This is the ability to revert when something changes, or new information comes to light.

Deal first with any actions which are time-sensitive, but take the opportunity to focus on making improvements, the need for which may have been unearthed as a result of the crisis.

How do you deal with cuts to teams which have arisen as a result of the pandemic?

In the short term, you will need to work hard to deal with the issues, but it’s key to communicate on any impacts on the ability to deliver the work required by the business. It may be that the business has to prioritise, and some projects will need to be paused. Aviation, like many similar industries, is restructuring and this has resulted in job losses.

What are the biggest difficulties faced in dealing with a crisis (of any nature) internal or external, and how to you overcome them?

There are different types of crisis, both internal and external. Where they result from an internal issue, or an external one such as terrorism or the pandemic, you will need to be able to discern what is required immediately and what is required later. You will need a clear under-standing of the facts and impacts. Specialist legal advice may also be required.

How do you overcome challenges and take the team along the crisis management journey?

This depends on your ability to build relationships and, ideally, should have been done well in advance. A crisis really demonstrates the strength and reliability, or otherwise, of the team in place. Crises also bring out the best and worst in people, which allows you to evaluate them further.

What do you do in circumstances where your legal position is in conflict with that of the organisation?

It is important to act ethically and in accordance with professional standards. If not, in extreme circumstances, you may need to leave the organisation.

Given the array of stakeholders and the speed and pervasiveness of social media, how do you do best manage communication to those different constituencies?

Robust social media policies, so people know who and how to respond. Control the messaging. Carefully evaluate the message that is to go to each of these groups. Understanding the business and knowing how to “read the room” are also useful skills.

At LLA, besides the management and staff, there is a local authority owner depending on airport income to provide services to its constituents, international shareholders, and a plethora of businesses working across the airport.

When a crisis hits, how do you prioritise between short-term and long-term objectives?

The short-term issues will need to be dealt with, but you should keep an eye firmly on the horizon. Plant seeds for any long-term changes required.

Aside from Legal, any recommendations for who, as a default, should be on a crisis strike team?

The senior leadership team, plus key members across all functional departments such as HR, finance, procurement, operations, health and safety, commercial and communication.

What is Legal’s role in making sure the organisation is learning and better prepared for the next crisis?

Use the opportunity to learn and bring the team with you, if confidentiality allows. You can use the opportunity to lead a lessons-learned process.

At LLA, crises have worked well for me, believe it or not, as I was promoted to the board in one crisis and become company secretary during the second. However, crises can be exhausting and stressful and require sheer hard work. I strongly recommend you do what you can to focus on wellness during these times. Yoga, walking, chocolate and Netflix helped me!

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