Communication in a crisis
The tragic demise of the Costa Concordia has dominated headlines in Italy and further afield for the past ten days. If it wasn’t such a catastrophe, the multiple strands that have emerged on a daily basis would make a compelling plot for a daytime soap opera – a cowardly captain, a mystery blonde, a last ill-fated act of bravado, a heroic coast guard, a chaotic evacuation effort, all culminating in unnecessary loss of life.
Unfortunately it’s not a work of fiction, but an example of a crisis. A crisis is characterised by instability, by danger and by its untimely nature. It occurs when it is least expected and can have devastating effects, particularly if the company in question does not have a robust crisis plan in place.
Reports from the cruise ship state that the captain only sounded the “abandon ship” instruction at 10.10 pm on Friday 13th January, a full 40 minutes after it had hit a rocky outcrop whilst sailing past the island of Giglio. At 10.12pm the coastguard, upon hearing reports that passengers on the ship were calling local police, called the crew and was told that there was a blackout on board, and conditions were being checked. He asked a number of questions about the situation on board, but the crew member repeatedly insisted they were investigating a “blackout”. Amateur video footage has been shown on Italian TV of a female crew member instructing passengers to return to their rooms – reportedly stating “”I’m kindly asking you to go back to your rooms, where you’ll be seated and tranquil. Everything is under control.”
Considering the chaos of the evacuation attempt and the fact that passengers were being actively directed into the depths of a sinking ship, it is simply astonishing that more lives were not lost.
It is clear that the captain, the crew and the company failed abysmally on the two key aspects that are fundamental to effective crisis management – the planning and the communication of information. Truly effective crisis communication is built on establishing the facts, understanding their import, and acting on them if necessary. A crisis tests the credibility of an organisation but it’s the response of the organisation that will either strengthen or further diminish its credibility in the eyes of the public.
In addition to the captain and crew failing on board, the company operating the cruise liner, Costa Cruises, were slow to communicate the event initially and issued an ambivalent statement about the event and the nationality of some of the passengers at approximately 1am – four hours after the collision. It issued a second statement four hours later, stating “The emergency procedures started promptly to evacuate the ship” [sic] an assertion we now know to be untrue. A third statement at 12 pm only then gave the details of an emergency number, fifteen hours after the collision.
And then, the extraordinary statement at 8.15pm on Sunday night, which laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of the captain. This is exceptional because it is premature. It reads like a company who is willing to isolate an employee and use them as a scapegoat to minimise damage to its reputation. Typically, an organisation would be advised to establish all facts and conduct a thorough investigation before jumping to conclusions, communicating blame, and possibly compromising any legal process that might ensue.
Crisis communications should contain a situation, mitigate damage to a company’s reputation, and not exacerbate it. What will happen if it transpires that the captain was not solely to blame? On Thursday last the Guardian reported that attention is now shifting to Costa Cruises – apparently investigators have established that the much maligned captain spoke, via his emergency unit, to Costa Cruises on three separate occasions before the evacuation began. This raises serious questions about who was directing the crew on board – the captain or his employers.
And in a further twist, the Irish Times reported on Friday that the Costa Cruise company removed a company blog celebrating other “sail-bys” by the captain, including one similar to the ill-fated manoeuvre that caused last week’s tragedy.
This suggests the practise was not only known, but endorsed by the company who have sought to distance themselves unequivocally from both the practise and the captain in the past week. Only time will tell who is ultimately responsible for the confirmed loss of 13 lives and the presumed loss of a further 19 still missing. As the vitriol directed against the captain grows, how the company will eventually be judged remains to be seen.