Evelin Uibokand: "The task of crisis managers is to give people a sense of security"

Evelin Uibokand is the crisis management coordinator of the Tartu City Government. Her tasks are to organize the work of the city's crisis team, coordinate the activities of the inter-agency crisis committee of the city, and prepare crisis management plans and documents for the city of Tartu. She also prepares and organizes exercises and training.
This interview was conducted by Anette Tiitus, a member of the sTARTUp Day Marketing & PR team.
The picture of Evelin was taken by Kiur Kaasik during the crisis in spring.


Even though this year has been full of crises, there aren’t usually crises on a daily basis. How does the day-to-day work of the crisis management coordinator look like?

My job is to ensure that the city is as well prepared as possible for crises. It involves many different activities. Starting with the fact that we need people, a team, to solve and manage the crisis. This means that one of my tasks is to train the crisis team of the city government and find training opportunities for them.

Secondly, a crisis cannot be managed successfully if we have not agreed on crisis management principles and activities, which are written down and agreed upon in various crisis documents. Thirdly, for the team to work well together, to know their actions in a crisis, there must be practice. This is a crucial part of crisis preparedness.

Also, each municipality has an inter-agency crisis committee, which is primarily a platform for the exchange of information and is a place where agencies harmonize their knowledge and activities to resolve a crisis. The Crisis Committee normally meets twice a year, but this year we have already met four times. Good inter-agency cooperation is very important and requires partners to know in advance.

How would you define “crisis”? In what way is crisis management an important function of an organization?

To put it simply, if the situation is unusual, people are feeling insecure, their lives are out of balance, and their security is declining, then it is a crisis situation.

The city can define a crisis based on risk. What are the most likely risks in this situation?

Based on Tartu, some of the possible examples are spring flooding of the river Emajõgi, drinking water pollution, traffic obstruction due to a snowstorm in winter, or a large-scale power or communication interruption. Today, cyber-attacks, which are a threat to information systems, are certainly important. In most cases, there is no “by the book” crisis situation. Usually, it is a combination of several bad circumstances, which results in an emergency and you have to be prepared for that. Based on the problems, the city of Tartu has mapped out a plan for resolving the situation.

If you ask how important the crisis management function is, then it is extremely important. We have mapped out the potential risks to crises and have practiced the solutions in exercises and tested how we could potentially cope in these situations. The current situation has shown that crisis management needs to have a pervasive role in city governance. There's no way around it.

How is the city of Tartu preparing for the crises? How ready can one be for the crisis? To what extent does it require prediction, and is it possible to learn from other cities as well?

There is always something to learn. We can be as ready as our own preparation allows. It is important to map out the risks and the probabilities of their occurrence. Inevitably, we can best be prepared for crises we have already experienced. In these cases, you have past experience and wisdom.
For future threats, we can only create scenarios and guess what could happen and how they will happen. However, one can never be fully prepared, because no crisis will repeat itself. The new crisis may have a unique aspect that hasn't been taken into account.
The arrival of the pandemic in spring was predicted to some extent at the state and local level. There is a plan for the health crisis with different solutions, but in what form it will come into effect is unpredictable. Also, it is hard to predict the whole the impact of the crisis on the economy, people's mental health, jobs, consumption of services, and so on. We can be as prepared as we make predictions from past cases.

Has the COVID-19 crisis been the biggest challenge of your career? What lessons did this challenge teach?

In terms of scale, it has indeed been the most widespread and long-term crisis of my career. At the same time, minor crises have occurred quite a lot in my previous work and affected me much more. My most extensive experience in crisis management and communication comes from working at the Estonian Rescue Board. The Rescue Board is, by its very nature, an emergency response agency, and that is where I got my first real experience. The crisis doesn't need to be large-scale to disrupt the lives of local people and have a very severe impact on the individual.

At the same time as working at the Rescue Board, I started giving lectures at the Estonian Academy of Security Science in the field of crisis communication. This year's crisis has only reassured me – what I have taught to students about the crisis over the years has had its purpose.

How much is it possible to prepare city dwellers for crises? How cooperative are the residents of Tartu?

In a sense, it is certainly possible to prepare people. They need to have an interest in it. That way, they are better prepared and less vulnerable. For a person to be interested at all, they must have personal contact with the danger. Whether the crisis has affected themselves, they know someone who has dealt with it, or whether they've heard of the danger through a reliable media outlet.
The closer a crisis is to a person, the more attentive and ready they are to react if necessary. Unfortunately, most people still expect a signal from the state. 
But a simple example, a person can keep track of whether they have a weekly supply of food, a sufficient number of batteries at home, or a working flashlight or headlamp. These are small things that can play a big role in a crisis.

To prepare people for crises, we cooperate with the Estonian Rescue Board. They are the driving force behind crisis prevention. The city of Tartu has been involved in the prevention activities of the Rescue Board. They are a very important and valued partner. For example, in the autumn, in the outdoor area of ​​the AHHAA Center was held a Safety Day, where people received useful tips on how to be prepared for an emergency. Events aimed at residents are quite effective, because they educate people and, to some extent, create the necessary exposure or experience. It is important to note that a city dweller is always more vulnerable than a person living in the countryside. The urbanites depend much more on the services around them.

What are the most common mistakes made in a crisis? Is the lack of experience or rather human nature the problem?

The most common mistake in crisis management is that the crisis is not recognized in time. If people feel threatened because they have not been in this situation before, they become insecure because of it, they need more information and guidance. Crisis management officials must have the same sense of danger here as the public - if people feel the situation is a crisis, it must also be taken as a crisis. This has been experienced in my own practice and is being discussed by renowned crisis management and communication practitioners and authors. The task of crisis managers is to give people a sense of security.

People's expectations in resolving the crisis must also be taken into account. I think that in the spring when there was a great deal of confusion as to whether or not to wear a mask, people had high expectations that clear messages would come from the state. Because the situation was new, far from normal, and the feeling of security was disturbed. Unfortunately, it did not come at that moment, but today we have reached a stage where people understand that it is wise to wear a mask in crowded places, and the state has now made it mandatory in public indoor spaces.

However, there are still those who do not consider wearing a mask reasonable.

Yes, there are always people who question the situation. There is a need for critics as well, to ask questions about the government’s decisions. However, the concern is that if people don't follow guidelines and requirements, the government may use intimidating measures. It is important to find a balance between persuading people to change their habits or behavior patterns.

There is a lot of message creation and it is crucial to find the right approach. As a result, the feeling of fear may rise too high, and it will not have a good influence on the citizens. In the spring, both Tartu city government and central government came out with their own very bold, conservative, and somewhat fear-raising messages to keep people at home. At that point, the tone was probably justified because people were ready to stay home. Today, such messages wouldn't work. You always have to think if the message you send to people is relevant and acceptable. This is one of the greatest challenges, which, unfortunately, is mistaken, too.

How can cooperation between social media and crisis communication work best? How to deal with the spread of misinformation?

Social media is a fast information sharing platform. The messages of the state, city government, and media must be responsive and always verifiable. For example, today the role of the media is very important and they too need to be more critical in sharing their information than ever before. Public authorities can share information on social media very quickly, but it takes time to check the accuracy of facts and information.

I think that local governments know well how to monitor the official information channels. However, no one can be judged for their chosen information channels. It is everyone's free choice. Chasing down false information is a very resource-intensive job. Again, misinformation must be strongly rebutted. Especially those false claims that concern people's lives and health.

What recommendations would you give to the company's communications department to prepare for crises?

  1. Know your team. This is extremely important because resolving a crisis is a team effort. Knowing the strengths of your team members allows you to put them in the right positions in times of crisis.
  2. Figure out the first 3–5 actions in the event of a crisis. Whether the crisis is already happening or the first signs of danger are emerging. Such preparation makes the response capacity significantly faster.
  3. Practice, practice, practice. You can do even a little crisis exercise for yourself and conclude from it. Do not wait for the threat to arrive. Find mistakes in the preparations and new solutions accordingly. A hard drill makes an easy battle.
  4. Grab the reins when the crisis starts. Lead this situation and dare to take responsibility. If no one does anything, this situation will inevitably go in the wrong direction.

We started the preparation of the current crisis management structure and activities of the city of Tartu in 2018. Preparations also included creating a strong team and mapping problems on an activity-by-activity basis. In November 2019, the crisis team and partner agencies of the city of Tartu had a large crisis exercise, where we played through an extensive snowstorm, an extensive power outage caused by it, as well as an extensive cyberattack on the city's information systems. This preparation gave us great feedback that we had chosen the right people for the crisis team. Also, we realized that not all of our planned solutions and crisis management structures were working.
On paper, everything seemed very logical, but in reality, we had a structure that was too complex, and the information did not move efficiently. We also learned that our first steps to address the threat were not working. 
Existing documents must have value to be used in a real situation. Thanks to the exercise, we were also better prepared for the spring corona crisis because we had thought through our steps and practiced them. When the situation arrived, it only took us an hour to gather the team and hand out the first tasks. We were quick and well prepared.
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