GOVERNANCE DURING CRISIS
A Case Study from Egypt
Introduction and Background
Baseline in dealing with Crisis
1- The right decision at the right time with the right communication
2- Take Control of the Crisis through Communication (Frequency, Style, and Tone)
a. First Move
b. Response Strategy
c. Ongoing situation maintenance
3- Clear leadership Structure with clear areas of responsibility and lines of communication
4- Adaptation Strategy and Plans B to Z
Sharing from previous experience key learnings and some tactical advice on how to handle crisis and ensure the sustainability of Institutions during uprisings, curfews, terrorist attacks and other forms of danger that affect the stability of the society and its social and financial ecosystems.
Governance examples from difference crisis situations in Egypt, and how to take control of the situation to keep the society at ease. Illustrating specific cases of spontaneity in decision making, with measured risk taking and adaptability of processes and procedures to limit societal and financial drawbacks.
The correlations with our current situation in dealing with the spread of Covid-19 globally and how the Cultural Sectors world-wide are being impacted, and some suggestions to avoid the increase of this impact.
I would like to take the opportunity of writing this case study to thank the leadership at the Library of Alexandria at the different levels who were very open to listen to suggestions from the young employees and managed to successfully sail with the Cultural Sector during a very difficult and dangerous period and set an example for other institutions to follow.
Having said this, I would like to express my gratitude for the security department, national security and the Library Police who always backed us up and made us feel very safe at all times, especially during very dangerous moments. Their support was the reason for us to feel empowered to take risky decisions, take control of the situation and keep the Library open and the activities running.
For Agora, the acknowledgement goes to the Agora volunteers who generously gave their time and efforts and risked their safety at many times. With all the projects we’ve done in disadvantaged communities, and with citizens at risk, they have contributed in setting the example for other young people in Egypt to look up to. Each of them is a leader in his / her own sphere now, for which I am very proud.
Introduction and Background
Unlike any other sector, when a crisis hits the cultural sector, its impact is multiplied. There is the direct impact, represented in the value generated and jobs supported directly by the arts and cultural organizations. There is also the indirect impact, represented in the value generated and jobs supported in domestic industries that supply goods and services to arts and cultural organizations. And there is the induced impact,represented in the value generated and jobs supported in the wider economy when employees associated to direct and indirect impact spend their earnings in the wider economy.
But that’s not only it! There is also the wider spillover impacts on the economy and the society. Those spillovers include developing the skills of children and young people, encouraging innovation, contributing to the regeneration of areas and destinations, promoting tourism, as well as impact on health, well-being, and education. And not to forget the intrinsic value that we all cherish, which is how arts and culture illuminate our inner lives and enrich our emotional world. The intangible non-measurable and the often-debatable impact that affects our daily flow, but we can’t express it in clear words.
Now, how do we cope when a crisis hits the cultural sector and results in cancelation or postponement of events that served as an outlet for the society? Do we usually have Plan B, C, D and more? Are we mostly proactive or tend to be only respondent to a situation? Are we able to see the bigger picture, analyse the surrounding factors and anticipate what’s next to create our alternative plans? Thanks to turbulent times during my long career at the Library of Alexandria and AGORA (Egypt), I had to develop tactics to handle certain kinds of crisis to ensure the sustainability of the organization during revolutions, curfews, terrorist attacks and other forms of danger that affected the strategic decision making and the stability of the society.
At a time when Egypt was seen as a dangerous destination and some countries issued travel warnings, we were on the front line in making sure the cultural sector experiences minimum disruption, and the outlet for self-expression remains accessible to all layers of the society, to avoid the spread of violence in the society.
The picture above is from the first street festival, titled “Start with Yourself”, that I organized during very turbulent times, on 24 February 2011. The main objective of this festival was to offer an alternative space for self-expression to reduce violence and destruction of government buildings. It was a spontaneous decision that I took on 18 February 2011 when the former Egyptian President Mubarak decided to step down, after having spent 18 days of observation to the general behaviour of the society. At that time, I only had an assumption about societal behaviours and the correlation between violence and arts and cultural activities. I explained my assumption in a letter to the Military Council requesting support for securing the Festival. After several discussions, the Military Council decided to endorse the initiative by sending tanks to surround the festival’s venue to secure the attendees from any possible attacks or violence. The festival was attended by approximately 8 thousand people, and evidence was made very clear that during times of crises, cultural activities have to find a path to thrive because only through them balance in the society can be achieved. Having had this thought as one of the strategic visions in my mind at that time, I launched AGORA the organization on this day, towards a sustainable initiative of engaging disadvantaged communities and making cultural activities more accessible.
See video here. That was the day when Agora was born.
Following the festival’s first edition in 2011, and with the rapidly changing political and security scenes, we were confronted with an acceleration of risk taking decisions to organize 8 editions over a period of 6 years in difficult locations during dangerous times; not only in Egypt but also in Tunisia under a new title “Bab Elbahr”.
Baseline in dealing with crisis
Back then I didn’t have a formula or a model to follow, it was my intuition and common sense that dragged me towards taking certain decisions and behaving in a certain manner. However now, looking back and clustering certain steps that we have followed, combined with some business and management tools of our days, I will share some of the key learnings and some advice on how in my point of view crisis that impacts the cultural sectors should be handled.
Whatever the crisis is, whatever the institution is, and whatever the society is, they all always have several common features. They are always multi-layered and are often affected by the public and political media pressure, which tends to drive the agenda in speed and tends to be the thing that everyone focuses on. It is also the thing that in most cases affects the stability of the society and stimulates the spread of rumours and wrong information.
No society can immune itself against crisis, but it can take steps to mitigate the impact of one. The first thing that I did when people went out to the streets in Egypt in 2011 was talking to my Director at the Library of Alexandria Arts Centre and requested revisiting our objectives and communication strategy. My director immediately asked us to organize intensive brainstorming sessions to come up with a streamline of actions. I also made sure to use the moment of organizing the first independent street festival to launch “Agora” and start a new methodology of communication with a new target group that wasn’t heavily engaged with the Library’s activities, but who also was on the front lines on the streets during the uprising.
1- The right decision at the right time with the right communication:
Timing is key, the method of communication at the right time is key, and consistency and frequency of communication is also very key. Every crisis that has worsened, have many aspects that could have been avoided if the right decisions were taken when the problem has first arose.
While most public buildings, and especially those who played a leading role in the society, were target by extremists, the Library of Alexandria survived several attacks because the people risked their lives to protected it. This came as a result of a quickly adapted communication strategy combined with awareness about the importance of the building and what it offers to the society. Senior Management were proactive and aligned; all having one goal which was that “this place must continue to operate”. The spirit at that time was very helpful; we were ready to take risks.
2- Take Control of the Crisis through Communication (Frequency, Style, and Tone):
Silence during time of crises allows room for rumours and wrong information to spread. And the spread of rumours and wrong information increases the complexity of the situation and helps the crisis to grow. Saying the right thing immediately is just as important as doing the right thing. That’s why Crisis Communication is an important skill to develop.
25 January 2010 was the day when protests started. On 27 January 2011, Massar Egbari were scheduled to perform at the Great Hall in a sold out 1600 seats concert. On 27 January afternoon, the curfew was announced to start daily at 7 pm. After less than 48 hours from the start of the protests, we had to react, take action, and communicate with the audiences, noting that the library is located across the street from the University Complex and very close to Ibrahim Mosque where all protests took place.
Again, at that time, while reacting spontaneously, we did not follow a formula or even had a checklist to refer to. However, looking back now, the following are the most important steps we followed in an instinctive manner and that I see now some of the leading Cultural Institutions are following:
a- The First Move
With the immediacy of social media and the ability of our audiences, visitors and employees to upload and distribute information at the tap of a screen, we have no option but to respond right away. When the protests started, social media was a very powerful tool, and everyone who didn’t join the protests was just observing the situation on their mobile screens. Therefore, the only right decision at that time was to increase the social media presence and make sure we are the ones who first communicate the situation to our audiences.
In that specific case, our first move was in less than 48 hours from the start of the protests on 27 January to “postpone” Massar Egbari concert. It was a sold-out concert of 1600 seats, and at that time, we didn’t have an online ticketing system in place. Hence, the process of refunding had to happen by going physically to the ticketing office. Therefore, our message was that the concert is postponed to a date we will announce soon. Ticket holders can use the same ticket to attend on the new date, and if they wish to refund they can do that during the announced timings – and we gave them timings during which we are able to handle large gatherings (in the event that a lot of people decided to refund at the same time).
Once the announcement was made, I personally was responding to the audience’s comments and inquiries as I was managing the Arts Center’s page on facebook, which was the only official channel of communication with the Arts Center’s audiences at that time. None of the audience concerns were left unanswered, and as a result less than 10% proceeded with the refund and the rest kept their tickets for the new concert date. The concert was then rescheduled when the situation settled[i].
Bottomline, being proactive is very important at such situations to avoid chaos. As soon as a situation arises that is also accessible to public, it is much better for an institution to break the news to its audiences and visitors, rather than someone else letting it slip via social media, which is then picked up by the larger media, or leaving them wondering what’s going on.
Everything that precedes and follows a situation is available for public consumption. Every channel the institution is on is a channel that audiences and visitors can use to reach it to judge and complain or applaud the actions or inactions. Every tweet the institution has been mentioned in before, during, and after a crisis unfolds will be analysed, along with every snap that gets chatted and every gram that gets posted.
This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, every mistake an institution makes is magnified. On the other, everything it does well has the potential to make it into the public sphere and positively impact the society during tough times.
b- Response strategy
If the crisis is a result of a force majeure, natural disaster, state of emergency or other unforeseen catastrophic events, an institution’s initial response statement should include a clear explanation of what it is doing to manage operations, keep audiences and visitors safe (both physically and digitally in terms of data) and the expected path to recovery. In these situations, likely the institution has no control over the event itself, but that doesn’t dissipate the frustrations of audiences in the moment, and them publicly airing these frustrations.
Here, I have to say that the library was in a situation of being on a very sharp edge due to the fact that the legal status of the Institution was “A body governed by its own law” under the president office. It wasn’t private and not public but governed by its own law, reporting directly to the president. At the same time, the head of its board of trustees was the wife of the former president Hosny Mubarak. People were on the street asking Mubarak to leave and this is the institution that in some way represents him.
Given the context above, the response strategy had to be carefully crafted. There are some guidelines that in point of view worked best:
- Address the needs: alleviating any immediate questions or what’s on the top of people’s minds.
- Sympathize and Empathize: share genuine empathy and connection to demonstrate that you know what’s exactly going on.
- Report the solution or your planned actions: State what you’re doing as an ongoing effort to right the wrong or handle the situation.
This can be used as a starting point to craft the crisis communication and message response strategy. This needs to be communicated also internally, where during times of crisis it’s not just the public that is affected; the employees are too. The response needs to demonstrate that the institution has humanized the experience as much as possible and cares about how the situation is impacting the society.
c- Ongoing situation maintenance
As a crisis unfolds, and even as it draws to an end, continual updating and monitoring all communication channels is key. Even if there’s nothing new to report, the institution should be on the side of caution and post frequent updates. The last thing you want is to have information buried when audiences and employees are looking for immediate answers.
It should make it easy for people to find relevant information. For example, to “Pin” a post at the top of its social media feeds so users don’t have to scroll for information. To create a pop-up that loads immediately on its website highlighting the important details and paths of action. To put a temporary header on its website alerting people to the situation and what can be done to meet their needs and to communicate response times and expectations as clearly as possible.
It has to update on facts. What it knows and what it is doing. It is very important to remember that communication is more than words. Delivery of those words is important too. When it comes to a crisis, it’s not just what we say or how we say it; it’s the combination of what we say, how we say it and the actions that follow that will determine how the image of the Institution is remembered and restored.
Consistency in communication is another very important aspect, where in large institutions with a large number of employees (the library as an example – approx. 3000 employees), the society refers to them as a source of information. Therefore, it is a crucial task to keep all employees informed and aligned at all times. In some cases, when the crisis has a heavy impact on the society and any diffusion of wrong information may affect the ecosystem, the employees should be briefed on what to and what not to communicate.
3- Clear leadership Structure with clear areas of responsibility and lines of communication
Once the institution has made its first communication with its audiences and stakeholders and started its dialogue and awareness to guide the society throughout the difficult period, it also has to be ready with its crisis management chain of command who has to lead throughout the crisis not just at the beginning.
In my point of view, the most effective model is the Gold-Silver-Bronze command structure. This model breaks up to clearly distinct groups, the roles of different people in response to any crisis. The exact make-up varies from organization to organization depending on the size.
The Gold Group focuses on strategic matters, that includes the Board and the Chief Executive, and deliberately taking themselves away from the day to day management except when that impacts on the strategy. The Silver Group leads on the tactical response and has overall responsibility for the day to day management but with full appreciation of the strategic aims, and not usually doing the work themselves. That would be the senior management team.
The work itself is done by the Bronze Group. It includes the operational matters. This group represents the core delivers of the organization, they are the ones having the real time conversation with supporters, audiences and other community groups, and replying to concerns about the crisis. Based on their daily interaction with the situation on the ground, they are the ones who feed up the changes, and the stories as they arise to the silver group, which then informs the strategy back up into the pyramid.
Adaptation Strategy and Plans B to Z
Despite all the above tactics and strategies, and much more that is not mentioned here, the societies in different countries who witnessed various kinds of crisis in the last decade are still not recovered. Yet researchers are still studying the multiplier effect of the lack / disruption of cultural events in some parts of the world on the financial and social ecosystems, and to a certain extend on the national security as well.
At the time when we are looking at how arts and culture can help societies become more resilient to cope with the challenges of those times, to counter violent extremism, we are confronted with an additional mega challenge that disrupts the bigger wheel and may take us leaps backwards if we do not react in a timely manner. Artists at the moment live on the edge, and so do many of the workers who support them and this whole sector such as the army of ushers, publicists, administrators, stage crew, librarians, catering companies, hotels, travel agencies, and the countless professions who have no fallback option.
In countries where the dynamics of Cultural Policies[ii] heavily depend on civil society and small to medium size NGOs, there is a huge threat that some will likely disappear by time. Arts organizations are anyway fragile in the best of times, as they already operate on the thinnest of margins. If they were lucky enough to have a 6 months contingency plan in place, they have to develop a strategy for their audiences[iii] who will be kept away for an extended period, so that they do not lose the habit and not come back.
All this pain is necessary right now, but at least an adaptation strategy has to start taking the lead. The following are a few examples of what cultural organizations could do, and what some organizations already started implementing:
- Organizations moving to virtual platforms such as the list of Museums who are offering virtual tours and have a strong online presence; see here.
- Encouraging ticket buyers, who come asking for refunds, if they can, turn them into donations instead — not just to organizations, but directly to artists. Organizations can help their audiences help out. When Opera San José canceled its production of Mozart’s THE MAGIC FLUTE on 11 March 2020, the company simultaneously announced the creation of the Opera San José Artists and Musicians Relief Fund, an acknowledgment that the public might be generous with the suddenly unemployed, even if it’s slow to pay for an organization’s overhead.
- Arts groups, presenters, and producers don’t necessarily need to stop all activities, even if they can’t let audiences in the door. In the past couple of decades, performing companies have refined livestreaming; from the Met, the Royal Opera, Milan’s La Scala, and London’s National Theater all regularly broadcast to movie theaters all over the world.
- The Berlin Philharmonic, which runs a subscription-based digital concert hall, lifted the corona-induced gloom for a couple of hours by performing to an empty house and a worldwide audience for free. This would be a good time for organizations large and small to extend their reach and come to where their public is, which is at home.
Organizations that charge a nominal fee for a livestream may find a grateful worldwide audience, large enough to make up for a lot of box-office bleeding. And when it’s time to reopen, they may find themselves with a newly vibrant revenue stream. Needless to mention how this will also impact the intrinsic value and positively alleviate some of the distresses the spread of this virus has caused.
I will end this document with this final note: Unless governments step in with a sense of urgency and practicality, the cultural life all over the world will be weakened and will remain in a recovery state for a very long time – and this may mean, for some areas, that we will have to start from scratch.
[i] Add the date of the rescheduled concert. [ii] Add a section about the impact of the current situation on Cultural Policies [iii] Add a section about the impact of on audience building