Operation Waiheke—Case Studies Part 2

Continuing our look at Risk Communication case studies, in the run up to our Risk Communication workshop with NZBIO and CFRCANZ we take a look at an unusual incident in New Zealand in 2005 that threatened an entire industry, yet turned into a triumph of effective (risk) communication by MAF (now MPI).

Hoaxes can cause as much damage as real incidents, evoking considerable alarm and concern, which will need effective management as per a ‘real’ incident. An organization threatened by a hoax or terrorist threat needs to respond as if the threat was real, and mange risk accordingly through its crisis and risk management & communication preparations.

The Incident

In May 2005, New Zealand’s prime minister, Helen Clark, received a letter claiming the deliberate release of foot and mouth disease on Waiheke Island. As an agriculturally based economy, and never having a case of foot and mouth, this was considered a serious threat. MAF mobilized quickly, eventually declaring the threat a hoax and scaling back its response. The organization did however amply demonstrate the understanding of how to manage the risk,uncertainty and anxiety of the situation and how to communicate an appropriate response to its stakeholders.

Determination of the actual scale of the threat, whether the letter was a hoax, was an immediate priority. Effective alliance building prior to the crisis incident enabled MAP to quickly share the dilemma with partners such as the police and Federated Farmers. The police worked quickly with other agencies to determine the likelihood of the letter being a hoax. This was important in addressing the uncertainty of the situation. MAF quickly mounted Operation Waiheke, and established communication channels to the media and other stakeholders. Its open and honest communication, being particularly accessible to the media and their demands, was one sign of an effective response plan. Though MAF had never planned for a terrorist hoax, they were able to test the effectiveness of their preparations as if a real threat was present. Whilst being open and honest seems rather straightforward, it is not the norm for government agencies faced with high risk, high stakes situations. We have many examples of similar organizations effectively retreating into ‘crisis committee’ mode and taking so much time to respond on any matter as to effectively render their reposes void. Their untimely responses fell outside of the time constraints of the media and instead others were offered the chance to speculate in place of ‘official’ solid facts.

The speed of the MAF response was impressive, receiving the letter on May 10 they contacted 18 or 39 farmers on that day in addition to making a press release. On the next day a media conference was held, a further 12 farmers were contacted and a hotline for the remaining 9 was established. Daily briefings followed and a website was set up to give full results of disease testing. On May 16, when a local newspaper received a second letter, MAF officially declared the situation a hoax. By May 25, Operation Waiheke was stood down.

Keeping everyone up to date on the disease outbreak in real-time was a significant step towards managing uncertainty, and through its transparency, MAF was able to build perceptions of fairness (procedural justice through provision of information) and trust (openness and honesty). All too many organizations choose to withhold information during this phase of inherent uncertainty in the hope of managing risk. Over-reassurance is also a common theme, authorities commonly believing that citizens are not resilient enough to deal with the threat.

It was not accident that MAF was able to respond to the hoax in a credible fashion. MAF did not draw up their response plans on the fly in the heat of the incident, they had developed crisis responses well in advance. Along with other agencies, MAF took part in a crisis simulation exercise, Exercise Taurus, just one month prior to the hoax. As noted in the first part of this series, most organizations do not invest any time in building resilience plans in advance of a crisis or controversy. We believe this policy is not tenable in today’s e-social society where information is shared instantly and news cycles are measured in hours, not days.

Alliance building with credible partners is another step towards a risk management strategy to anticipate, prepare and practice for controversy and crisis. In the MAF case, working partnerships with the police, other government agencies and the media helped disseminate messages consistently and quickly. Reliability and consistency and essentials during risk situations, no one wants to play ‘chinese whispers’ when the economic stakes of a region are on the line.

Through these partnerships MAF was able to share the dilemmas facing them with credible intermediaries. These intermediaries functioned as message conduits with various audiences, ensuring the ‘viral’ spread of trustworthy information. The partnerships with the local community were perhaps the most important to support the on the ground response. The media cooperated with the government not to publish certain details of the hoax letter for fear of compromising the investigations (yet were shown the entire letter in briefings). This kind of governement–press relationship is unusual, but speaks of the excellent rapport between representatives.

Stakeholder consultation and effective 2-way dialogue are hallmarks of good risk management. Through local partnerships on the island, MAF were able to conduct public meetings to listen to local concerns. Through this process MAF was able to fine tune its response, and show a good deal of empathy. Benevolent action, the perception of acting in the interests of those affected, is vital during high stress incidents to build trust as a credible messenger.

All in all, MAF was able to deal with the hoax successfully by implementing many best practices in risk and crisis management and communication. They had prepared in advance, tested preparedness through a multi-stakeholder exercise, forged useful alliances and communicated as part of a on-going risk dialogue. The communication process allowed feedback and revision of the risk management plan. We think that the publishing of full disease testing results on a public website was a significant step towards managing risk and uncertainty, whilst building perceptions of trust. Rather than trying to over-reassure and play down the threat for fear of reputation collateral damage, MAF chose to take the open, accessible and honest route. Long term this was the best way of quickly dealing with the situation. Within 14 days the operation was stood down, and further lessons were assimilated into future risk and crisis plans.