The capsizing of the cruise ship Costa Concordia on Friday night off the coast of Italy is a human tragedy and a public relations crisis writ large. So far, we have seen the death toll rise to eleven passengers, with many more injured and the threat of an ecological disaster. The reaction by the cruise liner in its communications has caused a stir due to its (very quick) decision to release unsubstantiated information.
Crises, by their nature, are very unpredictable. There’s no knowing when they will strike, and no amount of preparation is a guarantee against further surprises. Based on our own experiences of helping clients through crises, they can be a daunting challenge for even the coolest head and the steadiest hand.
Having read through the reports of what happened, the most surprising part of the communications is how quick Costa was to point the finger. In a statement issued on its website, the company said, “While the investigation is on-going, preliminary indications are that there may have been significant human error on the part of the ship’s Master, Captain Francesco Schettino, which resulted in these grave consequences.” Not giving a statement is a disaster in itself, but jumping the gun could prove to be much worse.
The public spat between the captain and the cruise line operator will be seen as insensitive and ill-timed, having occurred before any official investigation was carried out to determine what actually happened. This does nothing for the survivors, the families of those still missing, not to mention Costa’s overall reputation.
Hindsight is 20/20 and it’s easy, from a comfortable distance, to critique how a company handled a PR crisis. But some things on the Costa Corcondia update page, reading in chronological order, may have resulted in more questions than answers. For example, there was a four-hour gap between their first official statement and the acknowledgment of a tragedy. That said, “victims” are referred to in the second statement without any prior mention of fatalities. In addition, the emergency contact details for families were not issued until (an agonising) eleven hours after the accident. There was also no human face stepping forward early on, to express the compassion and grief that was only referenced in their press statements.
Our best advice for companies in this situation is to be in possession of the full facts. For any company who unfortunately finds itself in the midst of a crisis, it’s about knowing exactly what has happened. Ensure the chief executive is available (a spokesperson of this level of seniority is the most appropriate in such cases) and provides regular updates. Make sure that only information that is factual and accurate is relayed. The company should do all it can to help the people affected, putting lives first over commercial interests.
The blame game is a dangerous route to take. It creates the impression that a company will jump to conclusions before all the facts are known. In Costa’s case, the cruise ship’s black box has still not been released and investigators haven’t reached a definitive conclusion. In addition, what if investigations conclude that the captain was not to blame and lack of training or an engine failure was the reason?
Crisis comms is often judged on the quality of the information, timeliness of response, the channels of communications used, and the (promised) actions taken. Only time will tell whether Costa got the first part right.