Blackout Britain

While planning for blackouts is usually a fringe hobby, major UK banks – some of our most serious institutions – are dusting off their lockdown contingency plans in preparation for power cuts this winter. This begs the question: what preparations should corporate affairs directors be making?

Considerations seem to fall into four clear areas: employee care and safety; the integrity of operational systems and processes; supply chain management; and consumer communication.

For employees, designing and establishing protocols ahead of time will be important. If normal internal channels such as intranets and email are down, HR and internal communicators will need workarounds, such as text or WhatsApp. Employees may be more inclined to work in the office this winter given the cost of heating their home – fire safety and evacuation procedures may need to be amended and tested to exit people from dark buildings into darker open spaces, and employers will need to weigh up the risks of sending people home versus sitting in a dark office if public transport is down and roads are jammed because traffic lights are out.

For remote workers or those working from home, mobile battery-powered lamps and power packs have become standard issue in countries like South Africa, which has suffered years of so-called ‘load-shedding’. For critical workers, companies should be thinking now about the procurement of generators and the necessary home installation required. When power is restored, the surge can knock-out or even damage appliances, so checking insurance policies might be a wise investment at both the corporate and individual levels.

Internal systems will need to factor in the distribution of data centres and their resilience. It’s probable that regions will be affected differently, potentially taking critical infrastructure offline, even if offices elsewhere in the country are functioning normally, leaving orders unfulfilled and customers frustrated.

For some companies and their employees, security will be an issue. Supermarkets will be especially vulnerable to theft, putting staff and customers at risk. But companies will also need to consider the risk to installations and to employees travelling to and from them, and how ride-sharing or bespoke transport solutions might be implemented.

Suppliers of perishable products must be able to contact consumers and suppliers, especially in the event that your or their systems are down. Power outages could cause products to expire, so systems for mitigating wasted product and correctly disposing of that which is wasted need to be in place. There may be a role for trade associations here to coordinate or provide counsel, or for social media as a way of notifying consumers.

In organisations with systemic responsibilities for the provision of essential services, continuity plans are likely tested regularly. The majority of UK companies are unlikely to have access to such resources, however, which means planning now is important.  

While coming up with a plan may feel like doomsday prepping, such extremes are starting to seem more logical by the day. Communications functions play a crucial role in helping the business coordinate its response to unexpected events. It’s a good time to consider how you might communicate new processes to employees, partners, and consumers, and possibly getting a working group together now. After all, it’s far better to cover all bases than to be left fumbling around in the darkness.