The very public and emotive row between the European Commission and AstraZeneca has really caught the headlines – and my attention. It takes me back to my days when I spent a year working for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, seconded to the EU Council – specifically the European Union Special Representative (EUSR) office in Skopje, (now) Northern Macedonia.
Last Friday night (29 January) the escalation of the EU Commission and AstraZeneca row, and the announcement and subsequent withdrawal of the EU Commission invoking Article 16 of the Brexit, reminded me of one specific incident in Skopje. An extension to our office and my Ambassador’s duties was oversight on the EU Commission-funded police mission PROXIMA, of which I was also the Chief Public Information Officer. The mission was established during my tenure, and that involved the arrival of a fleet of vehicles for mission staff who were based all over the country. This included the Head of Mission for Proxima.
A few weeks into the mission, our office received a call from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs querying the status of the Head of Mission Proxima, as he had been seen with an EU flag flying on the wing of his car. Whilst it may be just a small flag, it is a big deal and had the potential to cause diplomatic embarrassment and difficulties. The situation was quickly resolved, and the offending flag removed. However, just like many senior politicians blindsided by the news on Friday night, we knew nothing about this flag – someone didn’t check with the boss, nor realise the implications of their actions.
This incident, and last Friday, illustrates three key principles in crisis management that can quickly impact outcomes and reputation:
- Stakeholder engagement
- Posture and tone
- Actions and consequences
Stakeholder engagement is a fundamental and critical process, so the obvious question is: why had the Commission not consulted those impacted before announcing export controls and triggering Article 16 of the Brexit agreement? The reaction on Friday evening was swift from Ireland, the UK, and all parties across Northern Ireland. Just like the flag incident in Skopje, the decision was quickly reversed.
This incident perfectly illustrates how in times of crisis, those managing it can fall into tunnel-vision thinking. Those in the centre of the crisis purely focus on a determined outcome, setting aside appropriate and relevant stakeholder engagement and good governance, all under the banner of it being an emergency. When lives are at risk, the stakes are higher, but so too is stakeholder interest. It is the most basic cornerstone of any good management practice, but particularly during a crisis: engage with the most impacted stakeholder groups before you go ahead with a major decision or announcement.
Posture and Tone
Emotional triggers tend to dominate behaviour when anyone is impacted by a threat to life or public safety. This can amplify tunnel vision or silo thinking. Emotionally driven decision-making invariably helps shape the posture and tone of the response. The more urgent and critical the situation, the harder the posture tends to become, as the focus is on achieving a specific, defined outcome. I saw this a lot in post-conflict settings. A hard posture is accompanied by corresponding language and tone. Of the three key principles highlighted in this blog, this is the most public-facing element and what organisations will be remembered for. Posture and tone in a crisis must be very carefully considered.
In the case of the current situation between the EU Commission and AstraZeneca, the EU posture and tone leading up to the crisis on Friday was firm and uncompromising. This has been covered in the media over the weekend across Europe, featuring “bully-boy tactics” of the EU, and with Arlene Foster, First Minister of Northern Ireland, describing the EU as conducting “an incredibly hostile and aggressive act”. Other countries across the globe also weighed in. Ireland and the UK, including Northern Ireland, moved fast to reach a more conciliatory posture going forward in resolving this contractual dispute.
As we have seen in this latest chapter, adopting the right posture, tone, and language can make the difference between success and failure in dealing with an issue or a crisis.
Actions and consequences
Any decision requires careful consideration – critical analysis of the facts, operational elements, impact on others, etc. In a steady-state, these are all usually considered in a strategic framework or business plan. In a crisis, the focus tends to be more on tactics and getting a specific outcome. The immediacy of finding a solution, rescue plan, or actions to manage the crisis takes priority. What can sometimes be ignored or laid aside are the wider, long-term consequences. Strategic thinking must be applied once a crisis plan is in place – however scant it might be. There were many consequences of the announcement the EU Commission made on 29 January, and these were swiftly pointed out by those impacted. In the world of diplomacy, there is always tit for tat. There are also longer-term consequences, for example the reputation of the EU Commission.
There are, of course, well-reported pressures, challenges, and background into this ill-timed and messy contractual dispute between the EU Commission and AstraZeneca. Notwithstanding all the other factors, the technical and legal-led position taken, and the firm posture and tone taken by the EU, perfectly illustrates how crisis management practice must be a balance between moral responsibility to all impacted and reputation. The purely legal or technical solution isn’t always the best, and to follow this alone will invariably have consequences that impact reputation.
Aside from the world continuing to be plunged into this dreadful pandemic, the salient part of this particular story is how overlooked the fact we can only fight the disease by working together to get everyone protected. Fortunately, a more conciliatory approach has now been adopted by all sides as they now work together to diffuse the situation and come to an agreeable way forward.
Events on Friday 29th January around this story has also shone a spotlight on how the importance of these three principles of crisis management are critical to success: stakeholder engagement, posture and tone, actions and consequences. Following these, with a good dose of pragmatism, and a healthy amount of calm, those leading in various areas of crisis management will have the basis of a prescription for success.
EU Police Mission PROXIMA factsheet
Illustrative coverage of this story from Friday 29 January and Sunday 31 January