On 15–16 December 2014, a lone gunman held hostage ten customers and eight employees of the Lindt chocolate café located at Martin Place in Sydney. After a 16-hour standoff, the siege ended with three people (including the gunmen) dead and three other hostages and a police officer injured.

This event was a shock to the nation’s psyche. Coming to terms with any disaster can be challenging, but human initiated events can cause further distress as they shatter our fundamental beliefs about society.

Large scale spontaneous tributes are not uncommon after such crises. After the Oklahoma City Bombing, the Columbine High School massacre and the death of Princess Diana, the tributes appeared in their thousands.

Dynamiq’s own Lex Drennan, in her role as Senior Manager Response and Recovery in the NSW Government’s Ministry for Police and Emergency Services, played a key role in coordinating the recovery from the Martin Place Siege.

The central issue in managing these spontaneous memorials is how to handle the mass of objects that accumulate, all of which carry strong emotions. After the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the curator for the New England Museum Association put it perfectly: “That sneaker was a sneaker a minute ago, but when a person places that sneaker on that pole, it’s infused with meaning and emotion.”

Laying flowers and tributes at Martin Place served an essential part of the grieving process, but the tributes also caused concern. Small business owners in the Martin Place area expressed frustration that the tributes and queues of people were interfering with foot traffic to their doors. Meanwhile, any disrespectful handling of the tributes would cause further distress. This was a leading consideration in the management of the tributes at Martin Place.

Ultimately, the NSW Government and City of Sydney coordinated one hundred volunteers from Red Cross, Rural Fire Service and State Emergency Services to remove the tributes. They spent three hours picking up flowers and carefully placing them into boxes to be taken away. This was closely watched by the public and filmed live by numerous TV stations.

Over 8 tonnes of flowers were clean mulched by the City of Sydney. The collected cards and messages were held in storage, and consultation was undertaken with the State Library regarding preservation, digitisation and curation for display of the tributes.

The management was well received by the public and in the media: "I was worried the floral tribute removal process would look like a council clean up. But it was so gentle and respectful with SES and other volunteers in full uniform slowly picking up each bunch and removing cards. There was no ripping, no chucking, no throwing. Each bunch was placed in a box, cards in separate bags. It was actually very moving to watch.” – Larry Emdur (The Morning Show, Seven Network)

Dealing with the aftermath of a critical incident presents many challenges. In the modern era of brand loyalty, incidents that affect a business will also have a widespread emotional impact on their stakeholders.

In the midst of intense emotional upheaval, it can be challenging for a business not to turn inwards and focus the issue at hand. However, the Sydney Siege reinforced that transparent communication and respect for stakeholders only becomes more important following a critical incident.

Perhaps the most telling lesson from this experience is that even when a business manages the immediate response to an incident effectively, the challenges to its staff are only just beginning.

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