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Communication crises of 2010

What can business learn?

This past year has not been easy for some organisations. Just ask Eurostar, Toyota and BP.

Almost a year ago Eurostar was struggling to rescue passengers stuck on trains in the channel Tunnel, Toyota was forced into perhaps the biggest product recall in history and BP now has its name linked to the worst environmental catastrophe on record following the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

And as if to prove that ‘crisis’ doesn’t take time off just because it’s Christmas, we have WikiLeaks.

These crises make for uncomfortable reading, but what can we draw from them – particularly from a communication’s perspective?

Eurostar – communication breakdown

Late on Friday 18th and early Saturday 19th December 2009, five northbound Eurostar trains broke down within a few hours of each other – all inside the channel tunnel. Over 2000 passengers were trapped, some for up to 15 hours and many without food or water.

As a consequence all Eurostar services were cancelled and did not resume until Tuesday 22nd December. Estimates vary but at least 100,000 passengers were affected.

During the crisis, communications between Eurostar and their passengers were terrible.

Here is one example from an exasperated passenger: ‘I’m stuck here in Brussels and the information flow is appalling. The front line staff are not being told anything at all and are just telling people to contact customer services. The Belgian one is closed and the British one at Ashford is overwhelmed. People are getting information phoned through from the UK by people watching the BBC!’

Crisis Lesson 1 – Are you social media savvy?

People on the stranded trains were using Twitter the moment they left the tunnel as were other passengers trapped at stations. The anger and hatred poured on to the Twittersphere and Facebook, which soon featured a ‘We hate Eurostar’ group.

Prior to the crisis the only Twitter handles in use by Eurostar were: @little_break and @creamoflondon.

Any alarm bells going off? Yes that’s right, these were not normal communication tools – let alone crisis communication tools – this was marketing. @little_break referred to Eurostar’s marketing campaign – Little Break – Big Difference and was run by social networking agency ‘We are social’ that had been working with Eurostar sales.

Suddenly ‘We are social’ was catapulted into a full-blown catastrophe, as Eurostar had no other means of getting their messages out to the new media. They made valiant efforts to communicate, but were way behind the curve.

Social Media is an unrivalled conduit for getting information out fast to huge numbers of people, but organisations need to have plans and protocols in place to enable them to do this before crisis hits.

You can be sure that social media in all its forms will take charge of a crisis – as it did with Eurostar – if the company doesn’t.

BP and the Deepwater Horizon disaster

Unlike Eurostar, BP made good use of its communication toolkit. Their website was excellent. It was well designed, full of well produced content, and stocked with helpful resources. At the time, anyone accessing www.BP.com was automatically redirected to the Oil Spill response page. There were also links to their offerings on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube – including a whole YouTube page showing their videos.

Crisis Lesson 2 – Do you have the right person in charge?

Of course, all the social media in the world wasn’t going to do much good when millions of gallons of oil were washing ashore, crippling the fishing industry in Louisiana and Mississippi and destroying the white-sand beaches of Alabama and Florida.

The enormity of this crisis meant it couldn’t be spun, even by an army of PR professionals slick in the art of both old and new media. What this crisis called for was a tough and straight talking CEO who tackled the emergency head-on. Unfortunately, the former geologist and keen sailor, Tony Hayward was not up to the task.

He did untold damage to BP’s reputation with his celebrated gaffes about how he ‘wanted his life back’ not thinking how this would play with the relatives of those who had actually lost their lives on the rig and those who had lost their livelihoods in the fishing and tourism industries.

It is one thing to be a CEO in normal times, quite another during a crisis. Hayward appeared weak and defensive without the gravitas to handle the situation and was ultimately brushed aside.

Choosing the right person to become the public face of an organisation is no easy task. It must be somebody who is not only comfortable speaking to stockholders at the AGM, but also able to face the media in full cry along with angry members of the public and an openly hostile government.

Toyota and the biggest recalls in history

One of the more troubling aspects of Toyota’s recalls were the company’s differing accounts of the sources of the problem. One recall, covering over 4 million cars, involved sticky accelerator pedals. Later on Toyota also recalled 5.4 million cars whose pedals could get stuck on floor mats. Then Toyota said these were software problems.

Crisis Lesson 3 – Get the facts quickly and mange the risks effectively

From a PR perspective this meant that Toyota was constantly playing catch-up. Members of the press and often the wider public seemed to set the news agenda.

Toyota never took control of the story – they seemed unable to set out the facts and be straight with their customers. The crisis always seemed to control Toyota rather than Toyota controlling the crisis.

They needed to be seen to be going the extra mile and not doing the bare minimum. In situations like this the public must never be allowed to think that a company is putting profits ahead of customer safety.

WikiLeaks – now governments feel the heat

Earlier in 2010, Hillary Clinton made a landmark speech about internet freedom, which many interpreted as a rebuke to China for its alleged cyber attack on Google. ‘Information has never been so free,’ she said. ‘Even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable.’

Now she calls WikiLeaks disclosures ‘not just an attack on America’s foreign policy interests, but an attack on the international community: the alliances and partnerships, the conversations and negotiations that safeguard global security and advance economic prosperity.’

It seems that in the ‘Land of the Free’ freedom of information is not always welcome.

A few years ago when we typically wrote on paper, the amount of information contained in the recent WikiLeaks disclosures would have been physically huge and almost impossible to smuggle. Now that information can be digitized and an email containing millions of words can be transmitted in the blink of an eye. So what can business learn from these events?

Crisis Lesson 4 – Digital communication is not secure

It may seem screamingly obvious but email and indeed most other modern forms of modern communication are often far from secure. Remember how easy it was for The News Of the World newspaper to hack into celebrity voicemails.

If your colleagues or clients request confidential information, be security conscious. Are your cleared to provide this information to others and are they cleared to receive it?

If they are, make sure they are happy to receive the information by email. If there are concerns, and with sensitive information there should be, encrypt the documents on a thumbdrive or a CD and have it delivered personally by a courier or deliver it yourself.

Speed is not always of the essence

WikiLeaks has shown us that the great and the good behave in remarkably similar ways to us lesser mortals. They fire off irritated and irritating emails just like us – it is so easy to do.

When you had to write a letter it took time and was a more considered form of communication. Now an angry or indeed libellous response to an email can be shot back at your adversary at warp speed – not always to their or subsequently your delight. What was said in haste becomes a document of record so pause, count to ten, have a cup of tea and then communicate. Speed is not always of the essence.

The new media

There are many other lessons to be learnt from these four incidents and indeed from other crises that happened during 2010, but if I had to choose only one going forward into the New Year it is the importance of being conversant with the new social media platforms.

Companies must scoop up all the Twitter handles that pertain to them and have Facebook and YouTube pages. These are some of the most effective and far-reaching forms of communication the world has ever seen, but an emergency is not the time to become familiar with them. Use them in normal times and they could just save you in a crisis.

by Jim Preen, Crisis Solutions