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Friday, February 22, 2013



By Dr.William Mallinson


This piercing piece considers the term ‘crisis management’, suggesting that imprecision of meaning can be, and indeed is, dangerously exploited. The piece goes on to suggest nitty-gritty methods of dealing with crises, or at least of trying to stave off their worst effects. It concludes that even a perfect plan can be rendered useless by inappropriate methods and people.

Key words: crisis, management, imprecision, wishful thinking, plan.


Failing to prepare is preparing to fail

The trendy term ‘crisis management’, that grew out of the post-war Marshall Plan-inspired business and war propaganda that saw the borrowing by big business of military terminology, does not really mean very much, although it can look sexy in an international relations (IR) strategy paper, business plan (often the hidden part of an IR strategy) or  CV. In fact, like the terms ‘business ethics’ and ‘conflict management’, it can even be an oxymoron. After all, a crisis, by very definition, cannot be managed, because if it can, then it cannot be a true crisis, in other words, a ‘time of great danger or difficulty’ and/or a ‘decisive moment’. The word ‘management’ can be equally vague and devoid of intrinsic meaning, particularly since it has invaded the description of almost every human activity connected to work. Hordes of young people obtain over-the-counter   business degrees from private colleges, thinking, or rather believing, that they can manage a crisis, and that they are managers. Even the word ‘manager’ has connotations of respectability, not to mention the association with power that insecure people, such as most politicians, need so much. All in all, the whole field of ‘crisis management’ is laden with linguistic bulimia and pomposity, and can mean different things to different people. To the PR specialist, or, better put, communications specialist, it means achieving clarity and emphasising tact, by converting hostility to understanding. To the business manager, it can mean firing half the staff. To a Wall Street dealer in the late twenties, it can mean committing suicide.
Before we try to inject some common sense into this whole area, let us remember Confucius:

If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what ought to be done remains undone[1].  

In our so-called globalised post-Berlin Wall world of business bliss and peace-promotion, there is an increasing lack of precision, particularly in international law, which has in itself been a prime factor in creating crises. For example, just before the illegal 78-day NATO bombing of a sovereign state, Yugoslavia (well, virtually), the British Foreign Office-and Ministry of Defence-friendly Royal Institute of International Affairs  published an article by a consultant/lawyer, which ended with the imprecise, obfuscatory and weasel sentence:

The connection of the legal justification of humanitarian action with the aim of achieving FRY/Serb acceptance of the Rambouillet package in its entirety, if it is maintained, would represent an innovative but justifiable extension of international law.[2]

It should come as no surprise that the author was an adviser to the Kosovo delegation. Apart from the fact that NATO had almost certainly already decided to ensure that it would mark its fiftieth birthday, not with its dissolution, as provided for in the NATO Treaty, but with new members and illegal bombing, by insisting on a priori infringement of the FRY’s sovereignty, it actually inflamed the crisis. From then on, in the words of Vasilis Fouscas, NATO became a consumer of security, in other words, a force for anarchy and lack of security, promoted by fanatic neo-cons, who turned out to be the very antithesis of true conservatives, by throwing away the compass of stability:  the neo-cons conned the world. The whole mentality behind Weller’s sloppy yet weasel-like language must have George Orwell turning in his grave. The kind of language used in the article seems designed to dress up simple but unacceptable statements, so as to lend them an air of academic balance.[3] As Orwell writes, such language is used to dignify the sordid processes of international politics. And let’s make no bones about it: international politics (or international relations)[4] is both a sordid business and a rough trade. The quote above, apart from being dangerously imprecise and semantically slimy, leads to our next idea, namely that of ‘wishful thinking’, in other words the realistic contention that most crises, whether political, territorial or ethnic (but not natural, obviously), are actually artificial, since they are consciously created by the express behaviour of human beings. Importantly, those irresponsible leaders who create, either by default or expressly, wars, stress the importance of ‘managing the crisis’, since not to do so would give the game away. The most obvious recent example is the invasion of Iraq, not only in contravention of international law, but an international crime perpetrated on the back of a blatant lie. At any rate, the wishful thinking solidifies, is presented as a humanitarian crisis (like the Kosovo ‘crisis’), and then continues by becoming in itself a humanitarian crisis, in other words, the manslaughter of hundreds and thousands of Iraqis. Most importantly, we see here that ‘crisis management’ can actually entail crisis creation, in order to ‘manage’ it, or , more accurately, to  achieve a set of hidden objectives under the label ‘crisis’. Having now attempted to inject some reality into the whole business, let us nevertheless try and adopt a positive approach, by getting down to the nitty-gritty. Let us put down a marker now, and say that what we are really talking about is ‘crisis avoidance’.


First, in terms of international crises, a plan is inevitably necessary to help to avoid the worst scenarios, which can equate to a crisis. The moment a problem is identified, indeed, well before, the following basic process should be prepared. Remember that failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

First: observe, consider, consult, analyse and evaluate.

Second:  clarify the purpose, and define the objective(s), remembering that you do not necessarily have to have an objective.

Third:  pin-point the audiences, segment, analyse and evaluate them.

Fourth:  consider and then sculpt the message(s).

Fifth: select your media and techniques for using them.

Sixth: remember costs, in other words, be realistic, even if working for the state, since politicians are conscious of costs.

Seventh: actually begin to do something, provided that you need to (but bear in mind that inaction can also be most therapeutic in certain types of crisis).

Eighth: evaluate what you are doing from the very beginning, and keep comparing your evaluations at different stages.

Post-mortem: if you are still alive, it is crucial that you look at the whole thing, to see how useful it might be in the future, and what kind of alterations might need to be made in respect of different crises.[5]

The above is merely a brief set of simple guidelines to help the whole process of avoiding a crisis, or at least of coming to terms with it, since avoidance can be almost impossible. It does not necessarily have to be treated pedantically and chronologically. For example, you can pin-point your audiences while you are observing, and even start to execute as you clarify your purpose. The above plan is also useful in coping with unavoidable crises, such as earthquakes.

Issues Management

There is one rather obvious way of trying to avoid crises, and that is to follow issues, in other words, to keep your finger on the pulse of what is going on around you, so that you can nip trouble in the bud. This requires a sophisticated research capability and capacity. It also requires the right sort of communication channels being ready when needed. In other words, they need constant oiling. Does your ministry/department/section have a single spokesman? Is he acquainted with all topics? Is he in full communication with his overseas counterparts? Is he in permanent contact with the decision-makers in his own organisation? Above all, is there a hotline at the highest level? The whole high-sounding business is in fact extremely complex for the average person. Let us look at a typical checklist from a typical book:

·      Identify and list 100 or more issues.
·      Seek out the concerns of other managers about other issues.
·      Categorise those issues.
·      Start a central issue file. Let people know where it is.
·      Determine issues relevant to the corporation and investigate them in depth.
·      Assign priorities to these issues.
·      Circulate the issues for management input.
·      Learn what other institutions are doing.
·      List plans to cause action on the issues.
·      Begin a speakers’ bureau.
·      Determine whether a formal public affairs programme is needed to get things rolling.
·      Present selected issues at appropriate meetings, e.g. sales meetings, management meetings, and financial meetings.
·      Encourage issue-oriented speeches and articles; merchandise them.
·      Send letters on the issues to employees, retirees, and shareholders.
·      Contact elected officials on the issues.[6]

All the above is of course easier said than done, and it is perhaps somewhat naively formulated. It might work fairly well in the US, but would need considerable modification in Europe. If such a series of instructions were to get into the hands of an inexperienced graduate, or even an average manager, he would almost certainly come unstuck pretty fast, and either create a crisis, or, if one had already appeared, make it worse. The fact is that training people to handle crises is extremely difficult. The only sure way is to actually learn during a crisis, cynical though this may sound. The one golden rule in any crisis is clear and uninterrupted communication with the decision-makers. This is why a good military intelligence or diplomatic training can be useful.


A planned approach, as long as it avoids dangerous pedantry, is the most sensible way of approaching this whole semantically loose IR topic of ‘crisis management’, which has been borrowed, like so much American-oriented IR, from business management terminology. Planners can become involved in their plans to the extent of forgetting people. If you forget people, and concomitantly, human factors such as greed and insecurity, your initial thinking, having developed into an idea and, possibly, a theory, can become a fixation, then an obsession, leading finally to madness, which can actually be rather dangerous when creating/ avoiding crises. Consider the Bush/Blair syndrome, and the amount of rationalisation/cognitive self-dissonance to which they  subjected themselves, to avoid the fact that they became obsessed and were responsible for an amount of manslaughter and planned killing that makes a typical terrorist act (horrible and unacceptable though it may be) look like a girl-guides’ tea-party. Far from preventing anarchy and terrorist acts, these alleged leaders actually managed to destabilise the Middle East even more than before, and introduce totalitarian measures in their own countries unheard of since the Fourth World War.[7] As a result of abysmal crisis management, we are now going through a creeping crisis that only the calmest, toughest and most honest Bismarckians can hope to cope with. When the Berlin Wall collapsed, the first big mistake was to fuel the potential crisis by expanding NATO, which was already beyond its shelf-life. In the words of one expert (a former naval officer and NATO war planner), the 1999 bombing orgy was an example of image taking precedence over substance.[8] It lit the slow fuse of Russian anger, which began as mere perplexity, and has now reached the stage of irritation. The second big mistake was to overreact following the twin tower atrocities, and get bogged down in Afghanistan, and then Iraq. Countless innocent people died in the name of freedom and democracy, and West became a far dirtier word than it had ever been before. In the first case, when the Warsaw Pact collapsed, NATO should have consolidated and changed its statutes to become an essentially politico-cultural, rather than military organisation, while EC supra-national defence should have been consolidated, to compensate. At the same time, firmer sanctions should have been applied on Iraq, following its invasion of Kuwait, rather than resorting to war only a few months later. But let us not forget that the US ambassador to Baghdad, April Glaspie, actually told Saddam Hussein a few days before the invasion that the USA had no interest in Iraq’s dispute with Kuwait.[9] Here, of course, an interesting parallel can be drawn with the US’ Balkan envoy, Gelbard’s, description in February 1998 of the Albanian KLA as ‘without question a terrorist organisation’,[10] thus fuelling the more fanatic of the Serb para-militaries. Then along came banker Holbrooke, who suddenly befriended the terrorists, which was then followed by the build-up to the bombing.

The rather obvious message from all this shenanigans is that the Bush Senior crisis plan, and the Bush Junior and Bliar very junior crisis plans were not proper plans at all, but simply anarchistic macho- greed dressed up as a plan to look respectable to an increasingly auto-lobotomised and artificially globalised globe. The only result of the fake plans was to bequeath trouble in the Balkans and the Middle East for years to come, which is part of the reason why the world economy is currently collapsing.

Finally, it is worth remembering that it may not be so much a plan that is wrong, than the way in which it is implemented, and the people involved. A plan can in fact destroy itself through its own inflexibility and subsequent coagulation. To be able to handle a crisis means to understand timing and necessity when looking at issues. Without a sense of when and if, the best laid plans can actually exacerbate a crisis. Perhaps the Samurai ethic might help: if one is constantly resigned to the perpetual threat of death, one is likely to be calm and brave enough to handle both sudden and creeping crises. [11]

[1] Mallinson, William, ‘The English Communicative Approach: The Death of Grammar and of Effective Foreign Language Learning’, Twenty Years DFLTI Festschrift, Ionian University, Diavlos Books, Athens 2007, p. 293.
[2] Weller, Marc, ‘The Rambouillet Conference in Kosovo’, International Affairs, Chatham House, London, Vol.75, No.2, April 1999.
[3] Orwell, George, Politics and the English Language, Horizon, London, April 1946.
[4] Berridge, G. R., International Politics, Pearson Education, Harlow, 2002. The book actually begins with the words: ‘International politics (or international relations) […].
[5] Mallinson, William, Public Lies and Private Truths: An Anatomy of Pubic Relations, Leader Books, Athens, 2000, pp. 103-113. First published by Cassell, London and New York, 1996.
[6] Seitel, Fraser P., The Practice of Public Relations, Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company, Columbus, Ohio,1984, p. 488.
[7] The first serious world war was the Seven Years’ War, the second the Napoleonic War(s), and the third, the Great War.
[8] Mccgwire, Michael, ‘Why did we bomb Belgrade?’, International Affairs, vol. 76, no.1, January 2000.
[9] Parenti, Michael, Inventing Reality, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1993, p. 164.
[10] Pettifer, James,’ We have been here before’, The World Today,vol. 54, no. 4, Chatham House, London, April 1998. and Lutovac, Zoran, ‘European and American Diplomacy in Kosovo’, Eurobalkans, no. 32, Aegina, Greece, Autumn 1998.
[11] Mishima, Yukio, Yukio Mishima on Hagakure: The Samurai Ethic and Modern Japan, Souvenir Press, London, 1977.

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