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We take a look at crisis comms and how to handle it.

Posted on Fri 11th Aug, 2017 in: Advice, Crisis Communications, Issues Management by Chloe Matthbury

Crisis Comms…your business isn’t having a crisis, so you don’t need to know about crisis comms, right? Wrong. Oxford Metrica has calculated that executives have an 82% likelihood of facing a corporate crisis in any five year period.

Despite what you might think, a crisis isn’t always destructive. If it’s handled well then the company can prosper; it gives the public and stakeholders a glimpse into what the company is really like, and where its leaders will take it. If it’s not handled well, you can damage your corporate reputation and as reputational capital counts for 70 – 80% of a company’s value, it’s really important.


The good

On the 8th January 1989, Michael Bishop, chairman of the airline British Midland at the time, was at home when he received a phone call from his secretary who had heard an aircraft crashing on the M1. Michael was there in half an hour, and gave his first interviews on the way to the scene. He didn’t know exactly what had happened, but he made contact with the media and explained how he understood how the passengers’ relatives must be feeling because he personally knew every member of the crew and the pilot was an old friend.

Once at the scene, he prioritised getting the relatives of the 74 injured passengers and crew to the relevant hospitals and made sure that each family was given a carer who would organise a place for them to stay.  He decided to be very publicly available to the press and broadcast crews throughout and gave the information as fast as he received it, even holding a 4am press conference.

Michael Bishop’s reaction and personal involvement won him plaudits from the press and public alike. He responded to the ‘profoundly distressing’ accident and was open with the media. Ultimately, 47 people died on board the Boeing 737-400 twin-engined jet but he is remembered for his immediate, credible and authoritative response.

The company did not have destructive repercussions from this disaster, instead it found itself with a positive public perception, ticket sales held steady and then grew, and the airline became BMI. BMI was eventually bought by Lufthansa, which sold it on for £172m.


The bad

Some companies don’t cope as well as British Midland when it comes to a crisis. BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig suffered an explosion and subsequent fire on 20th April 2010. The accident resulted in the rig sinking and the deaths of 11 workers with 17 others injured. It also caused a huge offshore oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history. 

Chief Executive of BP, Tony Haywood, did not deal with the situation well, committing a list of public errors. He didn’t address the severity of the issue until several weeks had passed and when testifying before the U.S. Congress in June he responded with “I wasn’t part of the decision-making process in this well”. Continuing to shift the blame he claimed that it wasn’t BP’s accident, and that the rig’s owner, Transocean, were to blame. It was, according to Haywood, “Their systems. Their people. Their equipment.”

When speaking to the media, Haywood said that he couldn’t “wait to get his life back”, not considering the impact that the accident had had on others, the environment and his company but rather focusing on the impact on his own life.

While BP didn’t effectively deal with capping the well, they did succeed in portraying the business as being self-interested, profit driven, out of touch, and ill-prepared. The disaster ended with BP setting aside $7.8bn (£5.2bn) for compensation costs.


The ugly

A crisis can happen in a flash, and we only recently saw United Airlines removing David Dao violently from a plane at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago on 9th April 2017. The incident was captured on video by several passengers and, unsurprisingly, it immediately went viral.

A day later, United Airlines responded and stated that nobody agreed to voluntarily give up their seats so airline representatives chose four passengers to leave the plane at random based on ticket class, frequent flyer status and check-in time. Two days after the statement justifying the behaviour of crew members, United Airlines finally apologised  but the public’s judgement had been made.


Tips for you to takeaway

  • When a crisis happens, use initiative and speak out – companies get credit from the media for this rather than waiting until they are put on the back foot and forced to comment.
  • What do you say? People need to hear something and see that the company is to be trusted and is open and that the spokesperson is human.

o   Recognise that something has happened

o   Regret the consequences of those that have been affected

o   Resolve to sort out the issue or to find out what has happened


Our experience

Our wide-ranging issues management and crisis communications experience ranges from fatal rail crashes, contamination scares and chemicals leaks, to major redundancy programmes, industrial action and corporate fraud.

We have prepared clients for interviews on the likes of Watchdog (BBC 1), Panorama (BBC 1), Rip Off Britain (BBC1), Tonight (ITV), Today (Radio 4) and You and Yours (Radio 4).

We have also handled the communications response by bodies including the Environment Agency, Health & Safety Executive, Public Health England, Which?, Trading Standards Institute, Financial Conduct Authority, Competition Commission, Care Quality Commission and the Office for Rail & Road.

Get in touch with us for more information on how we could work with you on preparing your business with a crisis, whether that’s helping you respond to a potential situation, a situation you’re already dealing with or hosting a workshop to help you prepare.

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