The Sea Diamond vs. the Bourbon Dolphin–the bad and the great in crisis communication

So far, from what we have seen, the sinking of the cruise ship the Sea Diamond provided a very bad example of crisis communications–made much worse by the comment just received about the incredibly poor compensation offering. While this has been much more the focus of attention, another disaster at sea occurred: the sinking of the tug Bourbon Dolphin. While the Sea Diamond has shown many examples of what not to do, the Bourbon capsizing has shown some excellent examples of how crisis communication ought to be handled.

Here is the Bourbon’s basic news site: (One criticism–their homepage has no reference to the disaster other than the news page. The unintended message is that it is business as usual.)

Of particular note is this message from the CEO of Bourbon:

There are few better examples of demonstrating the pain and hurt that is experienced by an organization and its leaders in a situation such as this. But this only works when their response efforts and the communication of those response efforts is an accurate reflection of the sentiments expressed here. From what I can tell, they certainly were.

The contrast between these two is great.

Thank you Mark Harris, crisis manager with the UK strategic communication firm College Hill for this example.

Sea Diamond–eye witness and on board accounts of the sinking

This is another post about the wonders of blogging. I write about crisis management and communication–commenting on how companies and organizations are doing when stressed by major crisis events. Like the sinking of the Sea Diamond off Santorini. But I never expected, and still am amazed, when this blog becomes the place for people who share an interest in this event to come together and share their experiences.

I hope casual visitors here will read the comments of some of those who were on board the ship, or nearly on board, or who shared other cruise experiences. The comment this morning from someone who saw the ship go aground, then watched it list from shore, is particularly powerful and amazing.

As I commented before, the implications for those in crisis management these days is profound. The mainstream media impact of this dramatic event lasted a day or two. The blog activity will go on for months. And Louis Cruise Lines and for that matter, all cruise lines, had better be engaged because opinions are being influenced significantly every day.

Mark Harris gives some thoughtful comments on Eric Dezenhall's new book

I blogged a couple of days ago about an interview with crisis manager Eric Dezenhall who is promoting his new book. Because of this blog I have been able to meet some incredibly talented and capable people involved in crisis management and communication around the world. One of those is Mark Harris who is a very experienced crisis manager and works for a London-based strategic communication firm College Hill.

Mark and I were carrying on an off-blog email conversation and he sent me these very thoughtful comments on the interview with Dezenhall I referenced earlier. Here they are reprinted in full:

Having read through the Eric Dezenhall piece, and also noted your comments, I have a few comments of my own which may add to the debate.

I do not believe the Tylenol case is a bad model for crisis management.  It is a very dated model; a great deal has changed since Johnson & Johnson had to manage this issue. In addition, no “best practice” crisis management practitioner would hold this case study up as the “template” to all crises: each situation is different and will require a bespoke response.

With regards to Eric’s thoughts on crisis communications, “Traditional crisis communications is rarely up to the task”, I believe there is a great deal of truth in this.  Unless a company or organisation responds to a crisis with a robust crisis management system then crisis communications will not be able to “fix” or “spin” the problem. In the short term you can paper over, or fill and paint cracks in a wall, however, to do the right thing in the long term, you have to find out why the cracks have occurred, fix that and then you can redecorate.

I believe Eric is wrong when he states “the truth is the public isn’t listening.” The public is not only listening and watching, it is commentating either through MSM or through citizen media. What you do and what you say will be noted and commented on.

I agree in part with some elements of Eric’s argument that PR isn’t the best discipline to combat a crisis and his discussions on who should be in the team. Fundamental to any management team responding to a crisis is that it is small, has authority, has stamina, can be objective and can take “knocks”. Lastly, the team must have experience, must be trained and should be supported by external experts where necessary, or where appropriate.

I find the comments on “apologies” quite simplistic and very obvious. No you should not always apologise, but, if you have done something wrong then when you do apologise, make sure you tell people what you are doing to fix things and what you are doing to attempt to ensure the same mistake will not be repeated. In this case Eric remarks favourably on Jet Blue’s apology with which I agree.

I do not agree with the concept that “belief in the plan really is the ultimate PR avoidance strategy; it really should not be like this and if this has been Eric’s experience then he has been dealing with some badly prepared companies. My experience to date has been that unless a company or organisation has a plan, has developed strategies, has a trained team, has rehearsed and tested the plan, then come the moment of the crisis they are paralysed. You need to have prepared for issues and crises to make sure you can perform and respond in a robust and timely manner. Not every company or organisation will have the “personality” who can leap into action and save the day.

Mark Harris

London, Friday 13th April.

The End of Imus

It was quite predictable–for reasons I mentioned in a post a couple of days ago. But now it is official. CBS is ending the Imus show.

What I find interesting from a crisis management perspective is this article from the New York Times called Flying Solo Past the Point of No Return.

It shows the grave danger of continuing to operate in the old paradigms, by the old rules. This story provides an excellent case study for crisis managers why there is so much more risk in these days of YouTube, blogs, social media, and a mainstream media desperate to find ways to attract and hold audiences and stay relevant.

The Sea Diamond passengers speak

I commented as a passive observer on what I considered to be the inadequate communication of the cruise company, Louis Cruises, who owned the ship the Sea Diamond which sank in the Aegean. But my evaluation counts for nothing compared to those who were on board. Thanks to this blog world, we can hear from those people. I encourage you to read the comments on my initial post on the Sea Diamond.

Here’s what the latest passenger had to say: I am becoming very disalusioned with this cruise ship company since my wife and I returned home after being aboard the Sea Diamond when she sank.  I have yet to hear anything further from them than what the cruise director said to us before we left our rescue ship and their web site, well they still have their three news releases they put out the first day but nothing new about anything since.  Do they think that by not responding all of us who were aboard will forget?  I think not …

Frankly, I find this incredible and inexcusable. These passengers did not hear anything from the company?? No new postings on their website after the initial releases?

The question that Mr. Johnson asks ought to be posted on the wall of every communication manager and every CEO of every organization: Do they think that by not responding all of us who were aboard will not forget?

It’s one thing for us armchair experts to comment on what we think passengers, stakeholders, people who care want. It’s another thing to hear it from them directly. I just hope everyone in the cruise industry is listening. For that matter, everyone else who takes the life, comfort, safety and peace of customers in their hands.

Don Imus and Michael Nifong–Two Careers on the rocks

Two interesting situations for crisis managers to think about: Don Imus and the Duke Lacrosse situation.

In the Don Imus situation the news is the advertising boycott. In the Duke situation, it is the dropping of all charges.

Imus is toast, like Michael Richards. The comments are so egregious that it is hard to interpret them as anything other than reflecting some deep-seated animosity and thoroughly unacceptable attitudes–unacceptable to our times and social sensitivities. I find it interesting that when white guys make these kinds of racial slurs that they go to the Jesse Jacksons and the Al Sharptons to make their apologies. One thought–the effectiveness of that is wearing off. While it may have been surprising before, it has suddenly become a habit. That may mean that even more stunning and surprising ways of showing remorse are required. In crisis management terms, apologies and remorse must always be accompanied by actions that demonstrate that you understand the seriousness of the offense and that will give some assurance that it will not be repeated. It is hard to accept any apology in these sorts of situations without the requisite acceptance that the offense is a sign of something quite significantly wrong. And that is both hard to do and potentially damaging. What can Imus say? I recognize that at heart I am an anti-female racist and now I am going to fix it? That’s why these sudden, unexpected, and deeply offensive and very public comments are very difficult to overcome. Michael Jackson is in a similar situation. Forgiveness becomes possible if he would be willing to recognize that he has a sexual problem involving children. But such an admission would be career suicide, but without it, there is little hope for reconciliation with a public that expects better.

As for the Duke situation, what is interesting to me is the white hat/black hat phenomenon. When the story broke, like all similar stories, the media played out the melodrama according to script: the white hat was the prosecutor, the black hats were the lacrosse players (and the university for not monitoring a rogue program better) and the victim was the stripper. As I have counseled in my book, this blog and to clients, some times, in extreme situations, your only recourse is to work to move the hat. Time and the facts apparently have moved the hat here. Now it is squarely on Nifong’s head–and of course the victim is no longer the victim but is now also wearing a pretty black hat. The boys are now the victim and the media may even play themselves as the white hat here.

The lesson for crisis managers is when you have the black hat on you are in a tough spot. In large part because once the media decides the story it wants to sell, it is very difficult to see that they may have it wrong. My answer is you must tell the story yourself. It’s a difficult situation, but if those responsible for communicating on the university’s and the boys’ behalf had been confident of the boys’ innocense (difficult while under the firm conviction of the media in the early days and weeks) they should have told the story as it is now being told. An over aggressive prosecutor who intentionally ignored evidence contrary to what he wanted to believe. A “victim” who was no victim but a malicious liar. And boys, guilty of putting themselves in a stupid and vulnerable position but who ultimately would be viewed as the victims.

Moving the black hat while under the intense pressure of a story that fits the media story telling mold so well, is very difficult. But in some cases, it must be done. And, when you need to do that, you need a crisis manager of the likes of Eric Dezenhall–combative, aggressive, angry, and righteous. (See my previous post).

Revisionist Thinking on Johnson and Johnson's Tylenol model

Finally, some controversy and differences of opinion in crisis management strategy. In his hardhitting and contrarian comments in this article from Daily Dog Eric Dezenhall gores the sacred cow of crisis management–Johnson and Johnson’s handling of the Tylenol poisoning–plus a few other sacred cows. Is he doing this just to get attention and help get his book sold or is he making some valid and powerful points? Both, in my opinion.

I first became aware of Eric when I was writing the first edition of my book Now Is Too Late. I quoted him extensively from his book called “Nail ‘Em.” This work focused on the role of the media in attacking reputations and how activists, politicians and others with agendas link up with the media to create a great danger for companies. Dezenhall’s very aggressive tone and strategies in dealing with these controversies was very clear in this work and seems to be expanded in this new book called “Damage Control: Why Everything You Know About Crisis Management is Wrong.” He also contributed greatly to my understanding of the deep underlying anti-business bias in mainstream media, a topic which I addressed extensively both in my book and in this blog.

Dezenhall suggests that most PR people are ill-equipped to deal with crisis communication because they want to stay positive and just convey warm fuzzy messages. But most crises are battles, confrontations, and require much more aggressive response.

He says Johnson and Johnson’s situation should not provide a model because it took 8 days for them to issue the recall and also they were a victim as the tampering occurred outside of their control.

Here are a few of his new rules:

For starters, don’t always apologize. Bill Clinton and Martha Stewart survived scandals by avoiding apologies. Also: Seek recovery, not popularity. O.J. Simpson is reviled by much of the public, but he succeeded at avoiding jail. Another one is to fight back assertively instead of making nice. For example, Microsoft’s vigorous fight during its anti-trust battle had much more impact on saving its reputation than Gates’ attempt to appear more likable by wearing sweaters.

Don’t try to spin a public that doesn’t want to be spun. For example, BP’s feel-good advertising didn’t win over the public following 2005-6 allegations of leaks and commodity trading fraud. And don’t confuse crises with conflicts, nuisances or marketplace assaults. HP made the mistake of inflating its 2006 boardroom leak nuisance into a crisis.

My take on this?

He makes his strongest point when he suggests that a crisis is not simply a matter of someone doing something wrong, apologize for it and it will go away. The role that an infotainment-oriented media, plus opponents who have much to gain by attacking a reputation means most crises are far more complicated than this.

But, when he suggests that it was right for Clinton and Stewart not to apologize, or that OJ provides a good model of crisis management, or that BP’s communication about Beyond Petroleum was ineffective is just plain nuts, in my mind. I’ll leave the Clinton issue alone, but if Martha had said, “I’m sorry, I screwed up, what I did was wrong, I will take my punishment and learn from this” would she have gone to jail? Would her company have lost $200 million in value? No, she listened to her attorneys who said fight it all the way. And there is general recognition, expressed very well by Richard Loomis, publisher of World Energy, that BP’s investment in communicating a positive image in a changing world did much to help them when their reputation was seriously undermined by a series of crisis events. What is he suggesting here? Don’t try to build reputation equity because you might have a crisis and then it will look bad?

And, as I stated here before, Microsoft’s image was improved not by Bill Gates wearing sweaters but by the emergence of Google, which helped Microsoft look vulnerable rather than the all-powerful monopoly.

Well, it’s great that people in this business have very different takes. It means clients have real choices in who they hire to help them. And I’d love to see some other opinions on Eric’s ideas and contrarian thinking.

Cruise ship sinking–comments about writing

As one commenter on this blog noted, and several others I talked to who actually got to the Louis Cruises website noted, the press release provided is a surprising example of poor communication. The first reference is to the tour group operator–a deflection? “…informed by a French tour leader…?” The reference to the two missing seems unconnected to the fact that the ship sank. There is no sense of shock, horror, remorse–no apology, no sense of compassion or regret for having not only ruined these people’s vacation but put them through the fright of their life–let alone what this horrible event has done to the incredibly popular cruise industry. Every person who has plans to board a ship (as I do in a few months) will ingrained in their mind that image of the bow of the ship slipping slowly beneath the waves.

And there are no details, nor any promise of more information. One person in London to contact by a cell number. Yeah, like if I want more information I will be able to get it from him.

OK, I don’t want to be too hard on people who I know are working hard and doing their best but all this is exactly why companies who have the kind of risks that cruise lines do need to prepare much better. What will be interesting in the days and weeks ahead is how cruise passengers react, what impact there will be on other cruise lines, and how the industry as a whole will deal with a disaster perhaps as significant as the Achille Lauro (spelling?) where a passenger was killed by a terrorist.

I would hope that the industry association makes it a primary mission to first of all make sure ships like this don’t run aground and sink, but when they do, their members meet today’s expectations for quality news and information.

Louis Cruises Sea Diamond ship sinking–clearly not prepared

While I write this rescuers are still searching for two French tourists missing from the cruise ship which sank in the Aegean earlier today. And I am still waiting for the cruise lines website to load. I’ve been waiting about five minutes. They still haven’t loaded. I wanted to see how this cruise line was faring in their communication about this disaster. But, it as if they pulled out the phone lines, boarded up the front door and put up a big sign that says we don’t want to talk to you right now. That’s the unintended message of a website that won’t function when you need it most.

Sure, you say, how could it? They are getting millions of hits right now. And that is precisely the point. Most company websites are not built to withstand the millions of hits that a major disaster like this will cause. Since I am involved in a business that sells web-based technology for dealing with situations like this, we have approached cruise lines with the information that they need their website to be prepared for this sort of incident. I’m sorry to report that not a single one has seen the importance of keeping their most important line of communication open during an event of this magnitude.

Frankly, it is inexcusable. Perhaps a few years ago an excuse might be that organization leaders were simply not aware of what will happen to their web traffic during a major news event. But by now it should be obvious to all but those with their heads in their sand, that when a major news story hits, the next thing that will happen is a flood of those most interested will hit the organization’s website.

How much? Millions. It is very possible than in any incident like this more than ten or twenty million hits in one day. The cost of such infrastructure is substantial. But the option to have an incident website hosted on outside servers that are built to handle this traffic is both smart and an increasingly common method of insuring continuity of communication.

By the way, I waiting about five to ten minutes before starting this to see if the cruise line website would load. And now I’ve written this for about fifteen minutes. It still hasn’t loaded. Why won’t you talk to us Louis Cruise Line?

Speed, directness and transparency–translated

Today I got a link to a Polish public relations website that published in Polish one of the articles I wrote on this blog some time ago:

The article was titled “How to Tell if Your Crisis Manager Gets It.”

Yesterday, I had an interesting discussion (interview) with a reporter from a Canadian national business magazine about the pet food crisis. I certainly admitted that I hadn’t been following it particularly closely and couldn’t comment with any substance on how Menu Foods was dealing with their very serious crisis, but I did make the key points that I think are critical in dealing with any crisis situation these days: speed, directness and transparency.

And that’s what the message of your crisis manager getting it is all about. The reporter asked how I thought Menu Foods did. As a casual observer, it seemed they were slow. But I commented it did seem more and more businesses and organizations were understanding the importance of speed these days. The recent post about P&G, Starbucks, etc., is one example.

Regarding directness, or as I have called it “the stakeholder first” strategy, it is hard to tell. Menu Foods’ future depends on its relationship with its customers–including those 95 brands involved in the recall. I hope their communication was better with them than with the public. Because if the message went out for weeks that we really don’t know what went wrong and so little information available about what is being done to solve the mystery, then I think they are in trouble. But such direct communication is not visible to the casual observer. So they may be doing very well. But, they must for those 95 brands to be willing to trust them. Because from their standpoint, the crisis is about them, not menu foods. It is their brand that has lost the confidence of pet owners. To reveal that it all comes from one pet food plant–the same as all the others–is a huge underlying crisis as I pointed out here before.