Beyond security: the role of communication in crisis management

We often talk about security but hardly ever about how to manage a crisis and, above all, about the key role that communication plays in a situation of crisis.

If we have a look at the recent events that have received a great deal of media attention, we can see how important it is to give the authorities, economic and financial operators and the public quick, accurate, continuous and consistent response. If you succeed in this, you will be credible and trustworthy. In contrast, any failure to respond quickly will let others describe the crisis, determine its causes and suggest possible solutions, thus influencing the attitude of shareholders and the public.

By way of example, we can refer to two events, which are very different in terms of causes and consequences, but which drawn international media attention for a long time and whose repercussions are still being faced: the environmental disaster of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig and the attack on the Twin Towers in New York.

Both events have marked our recent history despite being quite different, especially in terms of human losses.

The disaster of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, owned by Transocean – a service company for the oil sector and a contractor of the British company British Petroleum (BP) – caused a massive oil spill in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico during the final stages in the construction of a well at over 1,500 m depth. The spill began on 20 April 2010 and ended on 4 August, 106 days later, with millions of barrels of crude oil dispersed in the waters in front of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, and with the heaviest oil fraction forming large clusters on the seabed. This has been the most serious environmental disaster in American history, more than ten times worse than the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster in 1989. 11 people died.

BP made at least five mistakes while managing the crisis:

    1. No emergency planning. The Company never drawn up an emergency plan, was not prepared for an event of this kind and did not do what was necessary to avoid it. In particular, the company overlooked some warning signs that had appeared days before the accident. For these reasons, BP had not set up an anti-crisis communication strategy and was not prepared to deal with the media.
    1. Failure to communicate empathy and concern about the disaster to the public and shareholders. The first statements were untimely, inaccurate and inconsistent. BP took four days to realise that there was an oil spill from a well and took too long to express concern and solidarity with the victims, putting the blame on other actors.
    1. BP cared more about its own reputation than about the victims and shareholders. Immediately after the accident, BP launched a media campaign to apologise for the disaster and to inform the public that it would reclaim the area affected by the spill. However, many complained about the money spent on this campaign, arguing that it should have been used for cleanup operations and victim compensation.
    1. Wrong company spokesperson and wrong messages. CEO Tony Hayward severely damaged the image of BP with a number of gross mistakes. At first, he minimised the accident, underestimating its environmental impact, then he was not able to manage relations with the media, giving the impression of being rude and sometimes a liar and exposing himself to derisive criticism. Some of his statements are probably still remembered, such as the one where he said that “the Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water”. And this right when the US authorities announced that about 5,000 barrels of oil had ended up daily at sea. And even the reports from the two journalists sent by BP to the Gulf to describe the efforts made by the company often bordered on the ridiculous.
  1. Ineffective cooperation with the media. To control media attention to the disaster, BP tried to censor, limit and/or disrupt the flow of information to the public. However, these attempts attracted more media attention and encouraged media outlets to be more determined in uncovering the truth about the disaster and its consequences.

In contrast, the work of former Mayor of New York Rudolf Giuliani after the Al Qaeda attack on the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001 was much appreciated for being professional and practical and for Giuliani being able to sympathise with the victims’ families and New Yorkers.

Giuliani’s communication was timely and effective. A few hours after the two towers collapsed, he said that  “The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear ultimately, and I don’t think we want to speculate on the number of casualties. The effort now has to be to save as many people as possible”. These are words of great honesty: Giuliani did not want to underestimate the seriousness of the disaster and secure consensus or raise any false hopes, but make everyone aware of the real extent of the tragedy, so that each of them could make the best contribution to pull through and start over.

Other strengths of Giuliani’s communication were:

    1. Media channels carefully selected. To involve the entire population, reinforce the sense of belonging to a grieved community and provide information on the initiatives taken and official directives, Giuliani and his collaborators used all the tools that a technologically advanced city like New York could offer, from the more traditional ones to those that are more suitable for the new generations.
    1. Strong cooperation with associations and organisations. The New York administration succeeded in mobilising all public and private entities (including various associations and interest groups) for them to engage in disaster recovery operations and assist the victims’ families and those who were traumatised in every possible way, helping the city return to normal.
  1. Accurate emergency plan. In view of the remarkable organisational and execution skills usually shown by US public and private entities, the emergency plan was promptly adjusted to the city’s needs and allowed the authorities to deal with a tragedy that has very few precedents in history, due to its limited time frame.

Security is not just “sinecure” (without care/anxiety), it is not only “being aware that a certain action will not cause future damage”, but it is also the ability to communicate what we have done and what we are doing for our resilience. Honest and ethical communication is the moral habit that conveys our company’s reliability.

So, we should always make sense of our communication, try to be clear and show we are convinced of what we want to say. The future of our company also depends on how we communicate in times of crisis.

Umberto Saccone, President of IFI Advisory