Two new editions of books which look at preventing disasters, and managing the issues which lead to them, make good reading for risk managers, says Andrew Leslie

Learning from Disasters - a management approach.
By Brian Toft & Simon Reynolds
Perpetuity Press
There is both an elegiac and frustrated tone to the preface of this third and final edition of Learning from Disasters. The fundamental proposition of the book, say the authors, is that organisations can learn, not only from their own disasters, but also from those that occur to others. Yet, in the 10 years since the first edition appeared, disasters are still occurring. Hence the inclusion of a new introductory chapter which examines some of the reasons why people misperceive the nature of risk, and fail, in consequence to take relevant lessons on board.
Despite its subtitle, this is less a practical work than an academic study of the methods by which the events which have led to a disaster can be analysed and the degree to which subsequent recommendations are likely to prevent similar future occurrences. The research which lies at the heart of the book is data collected from organisations represented at 19 public enquiries.
There is much of interest to the risk manager, in particular the authors' thesis that disasters are inevitably the direct result of failures in socio-technical systems, and have nothing to do with 'acts of God'. The implication is that close analysis of the reasons for failure can allow organisations (including those not directly affected) to learn more about prevention. Part of the sense of frustration arises from the authors' recognition that humans do not willingly learn from negative events, and questions are asked about whether the UK-style public enquiry, with its adversarial setting, is conducive to constructive reflection.
Equally of interest are the authors' meditations on what they term 'safety by compulsion' ... the instinctive reaction on the part of legislators, and indeed management, to lay down rules and then assume they will be obeyed. Given the fallibility of human beings, the authors conclude that this tendency is often futile, and that an organisation which depends on creating safety by laying down the law from on high, rather than by inculcating a proper safety culture, is asking for trouble.
In some respects, Learning from Disasters is showing its age. Most of the case study catastrophes happened when many of the book's potential readership were probably still in nappies. And in some respects, notably in our increased consciousness of the dangers posed by smoke and toxic fumes, and consequent tightening of technical standards, lessons do seem to have been learned. But what the authors say about the fallibility of systems is timeless, and well worth repeating.
A pity, then, that the book is not an easier read for the generalist. The publishers have been somewhat mean in not allowing for a larger typeface (nor for having the introductory chapter properly proof-read), and this, combined with the somewhat convoluted style, makes it heavy going at times. But there is good stuff at the heart of it, and much to ponder on.
Risk Issues and Crisis Management - a casebook of best practice.
By Michael Regester and Judy Larkin
Chartered Institute of Public Relations

Should your organisation still consider that resources allocated to protecting its reputation are mis-spent, this is the book to leave in the boardroom. Its pages are littered with terrible warnings of what happens to those who are less than eagle-eyed in spotting potentially controversial issues, and who then stumble into a mismanaged crisis. For those who enjoy a spot of schadenfreude, it is a wonderful read, for here are the obdurate chairmen who refuse to speak to the press, the companies seen on the television hosing down protesters, and the organisations insisting their products are safe long after the public has ceased to believe them. From Exxon to Ratner via Monsanto, the list of misjudgements is a long one.

But this is far from being a book about what happens to others. The authors make it quite plain that no one is immune. And the meat of the book lies in their sage, clear advice on what to do to guard against a reputational crisis, and what to do if one nevertheless occurs.

Risk Issues and Crisis Management is split into two parts. The first deals with Issues Management. This handles everything from the necessary 'outside-in-thinking' - in other words, putting yourself in the other fellow's shoes - to creating a programme to ensure that a controversy does not escalate into a crisis. Along the way, the authors take a good, hard look at stakeholder relations and the impact of the media, and trace, through a series of useful graphics, the stages by which an issue can grow from an annoying irritant into something uncontrollable.

The second part, whose first chapter is aptly titled 'So it hits the fan - now what?' is a down-to-earth guide on what to do, and, more importantly, what not to do, when the media pack is braying on the doorstep and the tabloids are composing banner headlines. The authors' long experience in guiding companies through just this kind of nightmare comes to the fore here. Everything is laid down in neatly summarised and absolutely clear terms. You could imagine a besieged chief executive making a grab for the book in the minute before going out to face the press - and the answers would be there.

So, a wonderful book, but hidden in its pages is a pertinent question: Who should handle issues management? Since the book is a product of the Chartered Institute of Public relations, you can guess the answer it gives, but many risk managers may feel themselves better placed (or more worldly-wise) than their PR departments. In which case, they need to be first into the bookshop.

Andrew Leslie is assistant editor, StrategicRISK.