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Handling communications in a crisis

31 Aug 2018

Rapidly changing communications infrastructure makes speed of response crucial. Co-ordination within organisations is crucial to avoid conflicting messages

When engine failure forced Qantas flight QF32 into an emergency landing at Singapore’s Changi Airport in November 2010, the usual rush of confusion and speculation ensued on social media. Pictures of plane debris being paraded by officials on neighbouring Batam island led to “breaking news” flashes on Reuters and other reputable news agencies that the aircraft had crashed.

While Qantas was criticised for its inability to respond to the online firestorm, Rolls Royce, the maker of the failed engine that sparked the incident, was slammed for near complete silence. Commenting on Rolls Royce, The Economist wrote:

“In the past, when tightly-controlled airline markets left passengers with few choices, airlines and aircraft manufacturers could say little while investigators did their painstaking work. In liberalised markets, however, where passengers can just as easily look up the sorts of engines their scheduled flight uses as they can change their tickets online, better communication over risks and their mitigation is necessary.

“Rolls Royce were heavily criticised for their apparent lack of responsiveness,” explains John Bailey, Partner and Managing Director at Ketchum Singapore. The makers of the Trent engine have since revamped their online communication but Bailey laments the general indifference to online audiences within business-to-business (B2B) companies.

“First of all, I think many organisations, especially in the B2B sector, don’t think that social media matters. If you’re selling heavy manufacturing equipment for example, the purchase decision is unlikely to be swayed by what anybody read on social media.

“That is a valid point of view but it ignores the fact that, first of all, who’s on social media? They could be your employees, your customers’ employees, your customers’ customers, investors etc. In other words, it’s a wide array of stakeholders. Damage to reputation, wherever it occurs, ultimately can become cumulative and build up over time.”

Bailey, who helped to develop “Best Practice” in crisis communications for the aviation industry at the International Air Transport Association (IATA), highlights the importance of being part of a developing narrative as soon as possible despite the competing requirement for accuracy. He recommends airlines to respond within 15 minutes upon being aware of incidents involving their aircraft.

“There’s nothing magical about that 15 minutes, it’s pretty arbitrary,” he explains. “The point is: do it as quickly as possible. If you don’t set a deadline, you could still be talking about it two hours later, and two hours later is way too late.”

He adds: “It’s becoming more and more difficult because of social media and the speed at which it can escalate. If something shocking or amusing or surprising happens, the first thing that people do these days is to film it and then share it.

“Underpinning all of that is the steady development of communications infrastructure. It seems like half a lifetime ago when we were at 2G (second generation telecom networks) when it was voice only and text. We’re now on the brink of going into 5G. People are more willing to take video and share video because it’s easy to do so.”

What to do in a crisis

United Airlines’ handling of the David Dao incident exemplifies Bailey’s point of the need for a speedy response and the viral reach of a shocking video. Notwithstanding the other mistakes United made after the fact, such as the “re-accommodate” statement, companies caught in a social media bushfire must deliver the right message when they do respond.

“If you’re an airline or any consumer-facing brand,” Bailey advises, “and you become aware of a social media conversation involving your company or brand or product, and it’s escalating quickly, what can you say in those first few minutes? First, you haven’t had time to verify that information. All you can really say at that point is, ‘Yes, we are aware of the reports’ and share any factual information you do in fact have.

“Then you have to verify the information and work out what you’re going to do about it. That’s what you can talk about.”

Once that is done, Bailey advises, companies should then take care to avoid a ‘say-do gap’.

“If you say you’re very sorry about the situation and you’re absolutely committed to doing the right thing, and then you don’t, you’re actually making a bad situation worse. Before you start talking about all the things you are going to do to make a situation right, you must make sure you are able to do it and you’re in a position to do that.

“Alignment between words and actions is very important, which is why the communications response and the operations response need to come together.”

While alignment between communications and operations is clearly important, the size and complexity of big corporations sometimes make this extremely challenging.

“The more complex your infrastructure and your organisation, the more important it becomes to ensure you’ve thought this through and have a holistic solution,” Bailey warns. “You’ve got to think this through, and the time to do that is peacetime because it’s too late when you’re facing a raging bushfire.

“From the point of view of crisis response it doesn’t matter who owns a communication channel. What matters is the response is joined up, that all the owners of different channels of communication agree to a strategy. There’s got to be consistency at every touchpoint, internal and external, online and offline.

“That only happens if you have proper co-ordination internally.”


John Bailey was a featured speaker at Digital:works 2018 organised by the Centre for Marketing Excellence at Singapore Management University held from August 23 to 25.

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Last updated on 30 Aug 2018 .


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