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Costa Concordia: Risky Crisis Communications Strategies

February 6th, 2012

Costa Concordia

We continue to watch the Costa Concordia crisis unfold in Italy.  Last month’s cruise ship tragedy cost 17 people their lives and at least 17 more people are still missing.  Also, there continue to be concerns about fuel leaking into the ocean because bad weather and rough water have delayed the salvage work.  The company’s reputation has taken a direct hit and now Costa faces the daunting challenge of trying to re-build its public image. From a crisis communications perspective, let’s look at three rules for damage control to analyze Costa’s response.

1. Communicate Early – Don’t Delay:

In a crisis, your initial response is critical. You want to think things through, but, ideally, you shouldn’t delay too long. Your crisis communications plan should kick in immediately so that you can be pro-active and not just reactive. You want to start communicating your messages as quickly as possible…before people start to judge, blame or say “you’re hiding something”.

Think about the initial timetable in Costa’s response. The Concordia ran aground during the evening of Friday, January 13.  The first press release from the parent company, Carnival Corporation, came out in the late afternoon on January 14.  The first news conference with the CEO of the Costa line wasn’t scheduled until January 16.  By then, we had been flooded with photos, videos, news stories and opinions. The ship could be seen from the island and the passengers were going ashore.  And, unlike those on the Titanic, these passengers had all kinds of equipment to help spread the news.

With advances in technology, the speed of the digital age and the social media revolution, everyone can be a broadcaster. We are living in a time when the term “journalist” is being redefined. CNN has just passed the one million mark of registered ijournalists. These are citizen journalists ready to help cover the news if there are no reporters nearby or when more perspectives can improve coverage for an event. In today’s world of communications, you don’t have the luxury of time. Social media, in particular, has been a game changer. You can’t hesitate in your response.

2. Take Responsibility – Don’t look for a scapegoat:

Generally speaking, in a crisis, placing blame squarely on one or more individuals before there has been a full and proper investigation can be a very risky strategy. We saw how quickly Costa put the blame on Captain Francesco Schettino, now nicknamed “Captain Coward”.  Schettino admitted fault, but as more details come out, we see it may not be completely clear cut.  Apparently, there were precedents for going too close to shore to offer “a salute”.  And, leaked transcripts of bugged conversations suggest the captain was told to go close to shore by a company manager. The criminal investigation and the class action lawsuit are also raising questions about company procedure, employee screening, the equipment on the ship and the training provided for the crew.

In a crisis, looking for someone to blame might be a clever tactic, but it could also be a PR gaffe.  The company continues on its path to prosecute the captain who is still under house arrest. Today, prosecutors asked he be returned to jail and that he face a sentence of 2,697 years for charges ranging from manslaughter and causing a shipwreck to abandoning his post.

3. Show concern – Be sincere:

The rules of damage control stress how important it is to express concern and to appear sincere. Certainly, Costa has offered condolences and the passengers of the Costa Concordia have been offered a full refund and reimbursement for all expenses. But when the ship’s parent company, Carnival Corporation, offered them a 30 per cent discount off future cruises, the mainstream media coverage and the tone on social media took a decidedly negative turn.  The offer was called “ridiculous” and an “insult”.  Not only was the gesture completely inappropriate, it had strings attached. The offer was only available for 18 months from the original cruise date. Is it a wonder that many passengers said no thank you and have opted for the class action lawsuit? This bungled attempt at compensation has done little to help re-build a very tarnished reputation.

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In a Crisis: You Can’t Ignore Social Media

December 19th, 2011

Media communications has become an interactive hybrid.  The integration of traditional media, the Internet and social media has created a new playing field that requires a layered approach to media relations.  This is especially important to remember during a crisis when social media can fuel the fire. In a crisis, you can’t ignore social media.

Studies have shown that social media crises are on the rise. These can be crises that ignite and exist primarily on social media or those that are amplified by social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs, YouTube and now Google+. In spite of the trend, social media is still often a neglected area of risk management.  Most organizations have some form of social media marketing strategy. But many do not have a crisis communications plan that includes a specific, detailed approach for social media. And, that can be their downfall.

In a crisis, your initial response is critical. In the digital age, acknowledging a crisis quickly has become even more important. Everyone is discussing your organization and your problem so you need to be prepared on the social media front.  As we head into 2012, we will see even more changes to the media landscape as vehicles like Twitter become re-defined as news platforms and no longer just social platforms. Today, a Saudi Prince invested $300 million dollars into Twitter because he believes social media will change the media industry.

While it can be challenging, social media is a useful communications tool during a crisis. If managed effectively, it provides an opportunity to get your messages out directly…without filters, without editing…. to a far-reaching audience. To stay ahead of the curve, you need to monitor mainstream media coverage and the social media conversation. If your crisis is a trending topic on Twitter, you need to be engaged and responsive. When Jerry Sandusky was arrested, Penn State’s usually busy Twitter and Facebook feeds were unusually quiet.  In a crisis, you need to state your position and convey your messages quickly. Be frank, empathetic and factual if you want to sway sentiment and contain the negative tide.

Johnsons & Johnson’s handling of its Tylenol crisis in the 1980s became a blueprint for the general rules for damage control.  While the rules still apply, the context has changed. And, even Johnson & Johnson has been criticized for its slow response during a series of recalls and concerns about the safety of its products.  Its lack of preparedness on the social media front was especially evident last month when angry parents expressed their worries about cancer-causing agents in the company’s baby shampoo.  The company has missed several opportunities to re-affirm its brand as a champion of consumer safety.

Many other companies including Toyota have also shown they were not up to the task of managing social media in a crisis. Effective crisis management requires strategic communications.   These days, your crisis plan must include social media if you want to limit damage to your brand and avoid an emotional storm that could ruin your reputation.

Irene Bakaric is the Principal of MediaPrep.  She specializes in media relations, media training and crisis communications.

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Obama and Sarkozy Need Media Training Refresher

November 9th, 2011

It’s amazing to me that this sort of thing keeps happening.

French President Sarkozy and U.S. President Obama assumed they were having a private conversation at the G20 summit in Cannes. It turns out the conversation was not so private.  It was accidentally broadcast to journalists who were at another location, but hooked in to hear translations of the proceedings.  Unfortunately, the conversation was blunt and the two leaders commented on their mutual dislike of Israeli Prime Minister Netanjahu. Sarkozy went so far as to call him a “liar”.  In the world of foreign affairs and diplomacy, this sort of thing does not go over well. And, it instantly turns into a PR crisis which requires damage control and a good crisis communications strategy.

Obama and Sarkozy are not the first heads of state to be caught making an open mic faux pas. Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Jean Chretien, Gordon Brown and others have all been caught on tape saying something they wish they had kept to themselves. Some have done it more than once. Not long ago, President Obama was overheard calling rapper Kanye West a jackass for his behaviour at a music awards show.

So many people in public office, in business and in the entertainment industry have made this mistake. You would think they would know better. This is an avoidable blunder…something you learn in media training 101. Whether it’s inappropriate language, a slur on a third party or a piece of top secret information…you don’t want to broadcast it. I won’t bother to mention the instances of people who forget to turn off their walk around microphones when they go to the lavatory.  That’s become a running joke.

Protect yourself from embarrassment. Avoid negative media coverage. Maintain your reputation.  Just remember this simple rule: Always assume your microphone is on.

For details, here’s an example of the coverage.

http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/11/08/us-mideast-netanyahu-sarkozy-idUSTRE7A720120111108

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