Between a rock and a hard place: making the difficult decisions in a crisis situation

Get free weekly news by e-mailGordon Reidford highlights the crisis management lessons that can be learnt from the recent release of ‘the Lockerbie Bomber’, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi.

As the dust and initial furore settles after the release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi on compassionate grounds on 20th August, I have watched with great interest the development of the story regarding the decision to release him.

Many questions have been raised over the wisdom and motivation of the Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill and the Scottish Government to release Megrahi from his life sentence. Whatever side of the political discussion you may come down on, I believe that there are lessons and implications that we, as business continuity practitioners, should be aware of.

The following have been highlighted by the affair:


How do we prepare key individuals to make difficult and potentially controversial decisions, either during or immediately after a crisis event?

It will be unlikely that a majority of corporate incident/crisis managers will ever be faced with a life or death scenario, where their decision leads directly to the loss of life. However, it will be more likely that they will face situations and scenarios where the decisions made will have ‘life altering’ consequences for those involved (i.e. plant or factory closures, temporary or permanent redundancies etc) or, sadly in some circumstances, dealing with the immediate aftermath of an employee death.

Bearing in mind, that unlike Mr MacAskill who had several days to consider the information at his disposition before making his decision, a crisis manager may be required to make decisions ‘on the fly’ with minutes instead of hours, information noted down on sheets of paper following hurried telephone calls rather than prepared and formatted briefing papers and medical reports.

With this in mind, what is the best preparation? How can we take ordinary individuals, in their day to day job roles and install in them an ability to switch from dealing with normal run of the mill everyday issues to managing a crisis event? From being a Joe Bloggs to a Chesley B Sullenberger or Rick Rescorla, able to make difficult decisions in a short period of time? How exactly do we achieve this?

Many organizations seek to address this by employing ex or retired members of the armed forces, security and emergency services charged with either leading or developing their respective crisis management team and its response, drawing on the knowledge and experience that has been gained on patrol, walking a beat or responding to emergency calls, to ensure that when the time comes the decisions can be made.

Others engage the services of consultants to design training scenarios for half yearly exercises. Exercises aimed at replicating the pressured environment of a crisis situation but ultimately working off a script rather than real life and always with the ability to be stopped when it all becomes too much or when pressure points are reached.

Crisis ‘immersion training’ is becoming more widely available, aiming to move from a classroom based approach to a more realistic ‘in-scenario’ one, but these events are normally only for the upper echelons of organizations and do not, in normal circumstances, simulate the longevity of the event – particularly when fatigue and self preservation begin to kick in.

So realistically, can these approaches truly prepare a crisis management leader for that singular moment when everyone turns in their direction, silence descends and someone asks “well what do you want us to do…?”

Perhaps at that critical moment, a person’s true nature kicks in, confirming the adage ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’.


That even though decisions can be made with the best of intentions (whether of a personal or organizational nature), they can lead to any number of unintentional and unforeseen consequences and, in some cases, trigger a causal crisis / business continuity event.

Taking the Al Megrahi decision, at its base level, it appears straight forward when considering the following:

Q - Has the prisoner been diagnosed with a terminal illness?
A – Yes
Q - Following a doctor’s assessment does the prisoner have three months or less left to live?
A –Yes
Q – Does the Scottish Prison Service consider the prisoner to be a threat to the public safety?
A – No

Given previous precedents in the Scottish legal system, using the answers to the questions above the decision to release a dying man from prison seems to be quite clear. However, add in the high profile nature of the crime, the number and multiple nationalities of the victims and the political forces involved and suddenly the decision has significant ramifications on any course of action.

Without wanting to appear too cynical, this illustrates to me that we can view no decision in isolation, as much as we may want to. That, as Newton's 3rd law states “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”.

Therefore if we think a decision may cause a stir, for whatever reason then we’d best be prepared for the potential consequences, benign or otherwise. Just as we advise and construct business continuity and disaster recovery plans and have alternate locations on 24hr standby to mitigate the effects of a system or site problem then why shouldn’t we be prepared or have our clients, customers or employers primed to deal with such situations. After all isn’t this why we’re in the business continuity sector?


Decisions made during a crisis / business continuity event for certain organizations and bodies will, no doubt, be subjected to intense media scrutiny with a potentially significant reputational impact.

Therefore, should it be the case that where a potentially contentious decision has been made during a crisis event, a supporting plan of action is necessary to ensure reputation is protected as far as possible?

Would such a plan prevent negative reactions if not already public knowledge?

How would the plan be structured, what would need to be contained, but more importantly when would it be written and by whom?

After all without knowing what the exact situation is it’s extremely difficult to write a supporting plan ahead of time which explains, justifies or defends a controversial decision.

Finally and very simply:

No matter how hard or diligently we may plan, prepare or exercise, we may reach a point where our crisis managers are faced with a no-win scenario, where no matter what decision is made, a negative outcome is inevitable.

Author: Gordon Reidford is the managing director of GSR Risk Controls Ltd, currently contracting with a central government department. With knowledge and experience gained in several different industry sectors, ranging from the Merchant Navy to financial services and central government, GSR Risk Controls aims to bring a logical forthright and flexible approach to undertaking business continuity management.

•Date: 6th October 2009• Region: UK/World •Type: Article •Topic: Crisis management
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