|Concordia disaster: Lessons in crisis management|
By their media performance over the past few days it would appear that the Carnival Corporation’s crisis management plan went down with the ill fated Costa Concordia.
The owners of the stricken cruise ship have been unresponsive, vague and less than reassuring about the facts behind the tragedy. It took three days for their internal PR machine to realise that perhaps they were out of their depth and brought in crisis specialists Burson-Marsteller to take over, but even since then basic situation management errors have continued.
At the forefront of these is the role, or lack of it, of Chief Executive Micky Arison. He seems to have learned nothing from BP's Tony Hayward in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Apart from six Twitter messages he has been invisible. Rather than getting to the incident, getting on camera and taking control he has not even bothered moving from his Miami base. His failure to take the lead from the start now makes any efforts to manage the crisis effectively extremely problematic. No regular, managed information flow leads to to a vacuum that's filled with speculation and opinion.
With no answers to the who, why, what, where and how to feed the 24 hour media machine, that's exactly what has happened. Every crisis evolves differently so responses need to flexible and adaptable, but there are basic rules to follow.
Short term pain
During every crisis organisations should be prepared to take some initial pain. Handled properly though, there is no reason why a crisis should impact negatively in the long run. It may seem counter intuitive but a well managed crisis can actually enhance reputation by building trust and stakeholder loyalty. There was always going to be a down side for the company following this incident, but if it had been handled properly, they could have reassured potential future passengers that they were still a company to be trusted. Latest booking figures for cruises suggest this won't be the outcome for Carnival.
Immediacy is everything
Communicate immediately, if only to acknowledge that something happened. There's been an incident and you’re looking into it and will share more information as soon as you know it. Organisations that communicate immediately have a much greater chance of becoming the media’s main source for information as the crisis unfolds.
Lead from the front
A company's CEO is in many cases its identity. He or she is the big talking head that people turn to in times of the greatest successes and failures. They need to be visible, hands on and accessible during a crisis. Something Carnival's Micky Arison has not been.
Saying nothing is not an option
If the organisation experiencing the crisis doesn't talk, other people will. Journalists need to feed on information, it is what they do. If they don’t get it from you, they’ll get it from someone else. Someone else you don't have any control over. Your grip on the story can then be fatally loosened. Once this grip is lost it's very hard to get back in control. Think of Tiger Woods' silence over his extra marital affairs. The vacuum was soon filled by former liaisons lining up to kiss and tell. Even if you don't know the answer you need to say something.
'No comment' is even worse
If you say“No Comment” you would be as well saying 'we're guilty'. The natural thing for management to do during a crisis is to hold back until they think they have all the information to make a balanced comment. Understandable but wrong. Even a holding statement gives the impression of an organisation on the ball and in charge. No comment simply comes across as an organisation that doesn't really care. Think of the reputational dip the Royal Family took after their initial refusal to comment after the death of Princess Diana.
You are unlikely to be the victim
Remember the victims must come first. First and foremost messages must be about human need and safety. A failure to observe this pretty much cost BP's CEO Tony Hayward his job with his “I’d like my life back.” comment on the back of the Deepwater explosion that killed 11 oil workers.
Don't bury anything - it will come back to bite
Get the whole story out as soon as possible, even the bad news. Trying to bury it is a mistake, you are only prolonging the crisis because it will come out sooner or later. Get it all on the front page - take the media hit – move on. Better bad news released on your terms rather than scooped by the media. That puts you on the back foot.
Don't try and cloud the situation with corporate flannel. If you made a mistake fess up. One of the easiest ways of destroying a reputation is to plead innocence one minute guilty and the next. Consistency is everything, get your story right and stick to it
Action not excuses
People generally wanted to see action and results not hear excuses. If you need to apologise, apologise, then explain what you're going to do to fix the situation and what action you're taking to prevent it happening again. Again so far the silence from Carnival about future safeguards has been deafening.