On the morning of the Paddington train crash in 1999, I took a call from a PR. He was advising the railway operator.
Two trains had collided only a few hours previously. It looks like human error, said the PR. It looks like the driver of the local train ignored the red signal and went head first into the express service. Surely, I said, it’s too early to know that? He replied that they were “fairly certain” human error was the cause.
I was a journalist back then. I ignored his information. The later official inquiry found that because of the bad siting of the signal the driver’s vision was obscured by bright, low sunlight. He had no chance, and perished.
How To Manage A Crisis
Today, I advise clients in crisis and reputational PR across all sectors, involving all sorts of situations. Lessons learned from my former life stand me in good stead.
On one occasion I was working with an aviation manufacturing boss. There’d been an accident involving one of his products. It was “pilot error”, he said, in an uncanny repetition of what I’d heard regarding Paddington. Don’t say that, I said. Not unless you absolutely know – and you can’t possibly – not yet. “But all the indicators suggest the pilot made a mistake,” he spluttered. No, I said, express condolence, say the company will help fully with the investigation, but do not even so much as hint at a possible cause.
In the end, it turned out that poor maintenance leading to a rusting part that snapped was to blame. Not the pilot, in other words.
Another time I was brought in to assist a travel company over a tragedy at a hotel on one of their package holidays. It had happened years before, but the fallout rumbled on. The firm believed it wasn’t liable, and accused the hotel management of negligence.
This blame game, I concluded, was for the lawyers. In the meantime, had the operator ever met the families of the bereaved? No, they had not. Meet them, I said, show you understand, share their grief and anger. The lawyers were appalled, worried in case there was an acceptance of fault. You don’t need to say ‘sorry’, I insisted, but state how upset everyone is at the company, how you will help in any way, and how you’re determined to get to the bottom of what went wrong.
The travel CEO did see them, and immediately, a cloud was lifted. And from then on, the press could never claim, and the families could not complain, that the company had not contacted them.
What Should Managers Do In A Crisis Situation?
So, what should management do in a crisis situation? Be human is always the answer. Leaders should reach out to those impacted. Not in a way that admits liability – don’t ignore the legal advice – but that’s not what this is about. Go there, contact those affected, shake their hand, and even give them a hug. Show that you care.
It’s natural for a company faced with a crisis to fall back on the line that thousands of its products are sold every week without incident, or millions of people use a machine every year and there are no problems, or insist something like this has never happened before. But it’s a mistake. However popular and brilliant a product or service is, something went wrong on this occasion – and it’s this occasion we’re dealing with. Anything else smacks of an attempt to divert, to absolve culpability.
If it’s your error, then say so. Be up front about it, and apologise – remember, the cover up is always worse than the incident itself. Say clearly what’s occurred, the steps you’re taking to prevent recurrence, and to provide compensation – and be seen to do them.
Contrary to what you might think, humans are forgiving. They know mistakes can be made – they make them, too. The media, too. Certainly, they can allow one lapse, two might be pushing it. But show your organisation is led by humans, not robots. And own up.
Put yourself in the shoes of those affected. Ask what is the best we can do? That’s your target as a manager.
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