Gearing up for protests

Author: Jamie Hepburn

Popular protests against cuts and austerity are gathering momentum across Europe. These are a foretaste of what may lie ahead. If there are exits or the currency collapses, the impact on jobs and social welfare and ensuing unrest may be difficult to contain. Incident management and business continuity planning are generally associated with issues related to natural disaster. But they may need to be broadened to incorporate the repercussions from economic meltdown.

Protesters were once again on the streets of Spain and Greece in September. These flashpoints form part of a wider anger among much of the ‘99%’ against the financial and political elite (the ‘1%’) in the wake of the Eurozone crisis.

Sit-ins by the Occupy movements worldwide bring together people who would never normally dream of throwing flares or bottles at police. Frustration at what they see as a crisis created by the 1%, disproportionately burdening the 99%, is no less intense than that of the more extreme elements. Such people are coming out onto the streets in ways not seen for a generation.

Demonstrations may become more disruptive and even violent if one of the meltdown scenarios in the Eurozone were to occur. Groups on the political fringes might be emboldened to physically attack institutions blamed for the crisis in the belief that they have tacit support, or at least ambivalence, from the majority. As the riots in the UK in 2011 also highlight, initial protests can descend into widespread lawlessness and looting.

Every year, the World Economic Forum (WEF) surveys people from industry, government, academia and civil society about what they see as the most serious risks facing the world. The results of the latest survey reveal that ‘severe income disparity’ is the biggest risk in terms of likelihood.1 This is certainly not a problem that is confined to Europe. In Global Risks 2012, the WEF warns that the world is sewing the ‘seeds of dystopia’, in which we can ‘expect greater social unrest and instability in the years to come’.

The disruption to business has so far been limited. But the possibility that operations may be closed down during protests or certain companies may even come into the firing line directly is one that the business world must now address alongside the financial and economic fallout. In addition to physical damage and threats to staff, there is the risk of cyberattacks, which ranks fourth in the WEF’s list of likely risks.

Building contingencies

It is vital for businesses, wherever they operate, to ensure the existence (and regular exercise) of clear incident management and business continuity plans to ensure the resilience of their organisations. These need to be integrated into overall business management—from the C-suite down—to ensure problems are identified and dealt with quickly and effectively, thus limiting the potential damage.

The definition of an incident can be broad—anything from an office closure resulting from public disorder to insider threats posed by employees unhappy with cost-cutting, transportation disruption, economic paralysis and stock market freefall. These should be considered in the same light as the impact of severe weather conditions, major natural disasters or pandemics. It could also include any event which attracts high-profile media attention resulting in damage to the reputation of the business.

A notable example is the spate of attacks on US and Western embassies in the Islamic world in mid-September—particularly the death of the US Ambassador to Libya—following the release online of a US-made film denigrating the Prophet Muhammad. Most hostility was directed at government representative offices, but an outlet of US chain KFC was targeted in Lebanon. The episode was a vivid example of how quickly such events can unfold and the speed of response that might be necessary.

In the case of any protests emanating from the Eurozone crisis, the early convening of an incident management team would provide a focal point for considering the scenarios and the risks, and the specific impact on your organisation, which will vary markedly from one sector to another. In particular, it would provide a forum for discussion of more extreme or less immediately apparent risks. Whatever scenario ultimately emerges, a relatively small investment in time early on could pay dividends later. And if done well, it could even result in opportunities from better operational control.