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Communication strategies can be costly if CEOs don’t get it right

On the flip side, another big company which also suffered a tragedy more recently is of course Alton Towers. The incident itself was a disaster The Smiler rollercoaster is now at the centre of a major investigation after 16 people were trapped when two carriages were crashed, leaving four seriously injured, two of whom had to have a leg amputated.

The amusement park was closed for five days as an investigation into the crash took place. Another delicate situation, and one which could’ve severely damaged the park’s prospects had the senior team got the tone wrong, it was already reportedly losing 500,000 a day for each 24 hours the park remained closed and had seen almost 100m wiped from its value with predictions forecasting it to lose millions in lost bookings.

In these situations the first thing to get right is having the correct senior person out immediately, and Nick Varney, CEO of Merlin Entertainments, the company which owns Alton Towers, was out to deal with the fall out as soon as word broke both sincerely apologetic and compassionate. The company hand-delivered letters telling all victims to instruct a lawyer to submit a claim for compensation which would be dealt with swiftly . Again, the humanisation of a business is crucial here being seen as more than the brand and actually having representatives providing caring responses can make all the difference.

In a now infamous interview with the formidable Kay Burley on Sky, Varney was a PR’s ideal spokesperson. He held his own and provided the correct responses to her grilling, even when talked over and pressed about the, at the time, unconfirmed reports about one of the victim’s amputation.

“With all due respect, to be telling you stuff like thatthat is absolutely personal information to those individuals and their families,” he replied, managing to convey the sensitivity of the situation and prioritise the right people.

Varney has provided apologies where appropriate, a recommitment to addressing safety where it is not up to standard, while also drawing attention to misreported aspects of the story to reassure customers where possible. While CEOs will be heavily briefed ahead of taking the spotlight in a comms crisis, how lasting the damage is to the company brand can be entirely in that individual’s hands particularly when it comes to media appearances.

Being dictated by media pressures is a sure route to disaster to get to that point, the business has already stirred up ill-feeling and resentment among the public. Making hasty amends once the media latches onto its failings stirs up the matter again and essentially serves as a roundabout non-apology while showing itself to be at fault in some way. This then leads to further coverage crowing that it’s all too little too late. Which it is.

Varney put it well when he said the company could not undo the events of last week, but everyone in the company and at Alton Towers is determined to do all we can to provide appropriate support to those who were injured and their families . The believability is the swing factor that could see a brand restored or irrevocably damaged, and Varney conveyed his commitment effectively.

It may take a while to build back loyalty from customers a recent break down of the Air ride at Alton Towers may be viewed with more concern in light of these recent events but the quick, entirely appropriate communications strategy throughout, has meant the public still believe in the Alton Towers brand, and more importantly, the people in charge of it.

The two examples are big companies and the incidents involved at the extreme scale of things going wrong, but the principles all businesses can learn from them remain the same.

Ensuring your main spokesperson is a good communicator is not something that should be downplayed and if the time requires it, you can’t be slow to make sure the senior figures are fielding the big questions. Fobbing the responsibility off to a less senior person will have a knock-on effect in how people perceive you to be feeling about the situation. You’ve already effectively downgraded its importance as a matter to be dealt with.

Balancing legal matters and public perception can also be difficult if this is an incident which may be seen by the average person and discussed on social media. While ensuring you’re playing everything by the book is important, brand reputation can be severely hurt by how the typical person views your communication strategy.

When in doubt, taking a step back and viewing the situation as if you were a member of the public looking in, may help humanise you to the matter. If you’re in the wrong in some way, you don’t want to be the last person to say so.

Image: Shutterstock

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